As Putnam and DeSantis both seek grassroots image, DeSantis finds support out of state

A Times/Herald analysis found more than 6,600 small, personal donations to Ron DeSantis from people out-of-state, who had heard of him from Fox News and direct mail.
U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis speaks on Fox News about impeaching Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Robert Mueller for the special counsel investigation into Russian collusion. | Facebook screen grab
U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis speaks on Fox News about impeaching Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Robert Mueller for the special counsel investigation into Russian collusion. | Facebook screen grab
Published June 14, 2018|Updated June 14, 2018

As Florida voters slowly begin to pay more attention to the race to be Florida's next governor, they have found the two Republican candidates in many different places.

On their Facebook feeds pushing ads. In their neighborhoods holding events.

But voters nationwide have also found Ron DeSantis in their living rooms, via Fox News. They also found a fundraising letter from DeSantis in their mailboxes, from Virginia to California.

That has proven fruitful.

According to a Times/Herald analysis of campaign finances, 42 percent of the total number of contributions to DeSantis's campaign have been small checks ($500 or less) from out of state. That same type of donation for Adam Putnam? Just 2 percent of his total.

In other words, people from outside Florida donated a small amount to DeSantis more than 6,600 times, while Putnam only has about 400 of those types of donations, even though he has so raised far more than his opponent with a dizzying $30 million in total contributions.

Republican strategists attribute this to the national appeal of DeSantis, a pitbull Congressman who has the favor (and perhaps endorsement) of the president and is using it as his No. 1 campaign talking point.  Donald Trump has praised DeSantis several times on Twitter, calling him and his Freedom Caucus colleagues "warriors" for their ceaseless, loud opposition to the special counsel's investigation into Russian collusion.

"Conservatives everywhere know that the Florida's Governor's race is an opportunity to support one of President Trump's 'warriors' who's an Iraq veteran and top conservative vs. an establishment career politician who doesn't support our President," DeSantis campaign spokesman David Vasquez said in a statement. "We're proud to have over 23,000 individual contributions to our campaign from every part of Florida and even across the country."

But DeSantis has taken heat from Putnam for his out-of-state support. The Commissioner of Agriculture has accused his opponent of trying to "dial it in from an out-of-state TV studio." Asked about DeSantis's support from outside the Sunshine State, Putnam campaign spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said in a statement that they "show that Adam Putnam is clearly Florida's candidate."

"The numbers also reinforce that the Congressman is running a Washington-based campaign fueled largely by out-of-state donations and special interests," she added. Beatrice declined to confirm if the Putnam campaign has also sent out-of-state mailers.

It's true that some of DeSantis's top donors are not Floridians, including Illinois-based Republican mega-donor Dick Uihlein. Meanwhile, Putnam's top donors are all Florida-based special interests, like Disney and U.S. Sugar.

But the Times/Herald analysis shows that DeSantis's out-of-state donors are not all CEOs. Small donations add up, of $500 and less, totaled more than $270,000.

"He's a Trump supporter and that's all I needed to know," said Albert Simmons, a retired Army service member who talked to the Times/Herald over the phone while he drove his car through his hometown of Gambrills, Maryland — population 3,000. Simmons sent DeSantis $25 even though he's never lived in the state of Florida, only visited.

"The good press he got from Fox, that's how I knew his name," Simmons said. When he received a mail piece from the guy on Fox he decided to give.

Many described a personal letter from DeSantis describing his Navy service and platform, sometimes with a picture of him with the president. It also included the standard envelope for donors to conveniently send a check back.

"It's an indicator of the styles of campaigns these two guys are running right now," said GOP strategist Brett Doster. "Ron DeSantis has primarily been a national figure for four to six years with his Congressional work. He has primarily been building relationships with what I would call the 'Fox News audience.'"

J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, another longtime GOP consultant, said in his experience DeSantis's high number of out-of-state grassroots is "unusual."

On the other hand, he said it's not fair "to say a nice young woman who feels strongly about right-wing populism in Nebraska is doing something odd when a Hollywood producer in California is not doing something odd," referring to Hollywood's typical support for Democratic candidates around the country.

Then there's the obvious question: what about the fact that these donors can't vote for DeSantis?

"Money is money and you have to have money to get your message out," Doster said.

It doesn't bother retired schoolteacher Marjorie Craven that she can't vote for DeSantis, even though she wrote him a $10 check after receiving his mailer. Craven, 89, lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania, a small town just south of the spot where Washington crossed the Delaware river.

"I remember America when the standards were family and for marriage and the abhorrence of abortion … and that is why I felt that I wanted to touch base with him and give him a bit of encouragement," she said. "After all, I don't just live in Pennsylvania, I live in the United States of America so what happens in every state affects me."

Edna Sinclair, 86, of Virginia Beach, said she lives on Social Security but also felt compelled to send DeSantis $5 after receiving the mail piece.

"I'm not able to give much … but I like to encourage these young people," she said, adding that because she gets so much political mail she suspects she's "pretty high on the president's list of friends."

Doster, the political strategist, said it's not only a strategy from DeSantis to go national — it's also a survival tactic.

"If he (DeSantis) were counting on major Florida donors he'd pretty much be DOA," Doster said. "Putnam has been building relationships with Republican donors in the state and he's their guy, period. For someone else to enter the arena, they've got to find a fundraising mechanism elsewhere."

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.