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With Putnam-DeSantis race ‘closing,’ danger lurks for GOP, Chamber’s political guru says

Marian Johnson says if DeSantis is the GOP's nominee, it could be curtains for party in November.
Republican gubernatorial candidates Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis [Broward Republican Party Facebook page]
Republican gubernatorial candidates Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis [Broward Republican Party Facebook page]
Published Jul. 17, 2018|Updated Jul. 17, 2018

Marian Johnson has tracked political trends in Florida for a long time.

The senior vice president for political strategy at the Florida Chamber of Commerce says the Republican race for governor between Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis is so volatile it could go either way, and could wreck the GOP come November.

"The tide is going right now in Mr. DeSantis' way," Johnson told leaders of Floridians for Better Transportation in St. Petersburg Monday. She said the latest polling data she has seen shows Putnam ahead "but it's closing."

A new Tony Fabrizio poll showed DeSantis with a double-digit lead of 42-30 percent among likely GOP voters, Politico reported, with a margin of error of 5.2 percent.

The Chamber has bet heavily on Putnam, the agriculture commissioner and ex-congressman from Bartow. He has his hands full with DeSantis, a Palm Coast congressman who packs the 1-2 punch of a pipeline to Fox News and an endorsement from President Donald Trump in a primary dominated by Trump loyalists.

Johnson mused aloud that she hoped Putnam realizes the seriousness of the DeSantis threat "and not be like the McCollum team, and do nothing until it's too late" — a reference to the early favorite Bill McCollum's loss to an outsider named Rick Scott in 2010.

"Ask Bill McCollum," Johnson said. "No one was taking Rick Scott that seriously."

But she also predicted that if DeSantis wins the Republican nomination, it could doom the GOP in November and put the governor's mansion back in Democratic hands for the first time in two decades. The last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, was re-elected in 1994 and died in 1998.

"He (DeSantis) is going to tie himself so closely to Trump that it's a very, very strong possibility in the general (election) you will have a Democratic governor," she said.

Other Republicans aren't so pessimistic. They see talk of a "blue wave" as overblown, and think that for the first time, Scott could have a positive coattail effect as the party's standard-bearer against Sen. Bill Nelson.

Johnson said 4.7 million of the 12 million voters in Florida today joined the roll since Scott was elected, and nearly half, 44 percent, are registered as NPAs or no party affiliation and are shut out of party primary races.

READ MORE: A profile of the Chamber's 'political guru' in Florida Trend

Johnson has been around long enough to remember the days when candidates would come around and ask for $1,000 — when that was considered a lot of money.

"Now," she said, "it's 'I'm looking for money. Can you give me $10,000 in hard checks — that's 10 $1,000 checks — and $50,000 for my PC (political committee)?' No one can do that."

Johnson has worked in the political trenches for more than four decades in Florida. In her 70s, she still travels the state, sizing up scores of legislative candidates in 30-minute screenings who covet the Chamber's support.

"Buddy, if you think some of the people up there in Tallahassee are crazy, you need to meet some you've never met," Johnson said.