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Fueled by Trump, Ron DeSantis easily beats Adam Putnam in GOP race for Florida governor

Putnam, long the presumed favorite, spent an eye-popping $37 million in the primary, more than twice what DeSantis did.
Ron DeSantis gives his victory speech during the Ron DeSantis for Governor Election Night Party in the Sebastian Ballroom at the Rosen Shingle Creek on Aug. 28 in Orlando. (TAILYR IRVINE   |   Times)
Ron DeSantis gives his victory speech during the Ron DeSantis for Governor Election Night Party in the Sebastian Ballroom at the Rosen Shingle Creek on Aug. 28 in Orlando. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)
Published Aug. 29, 2018
Updated Aug. 29, 2018

ORLANDO — More than 1.5 million Republicans turned out for Tuesday's Florida primary, but just one person clinched the GOP gubernatorial nomination for U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis over Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

The moment President Donald Trump tweeted in late June that DeSantis "will be a Great Governor & has my full Endorsement!" the northeast Florida congressman overtook Putnam, long viewed as among the brightest lights in the Florida GOP.


"Thank you, Mr. President," DeSantis, 39, said Tuesday night in Orlando, with unofficial results showing him with 56 percent of the vote to Putnam's nearly 37 percent.

The result was remarkable, both as a testament to the influence and popularity of Trump among Florida Republicans and for the deflation of a longtime Republican star widely presumed headed for the Governor's Mansion since his days in Bartow High School.

Gubernatorial Republican candidate Adam Putnam gives his concession speech after losing to opponent Rep. Ron DeSantis during his election watch party held at the Terrace Hotel in downtown Lakeland, Florida on Tuesday. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times )
Debbi Stolte, 60, of Altamonte Springs, cheers after Ron DeSantis victory was announced during the Ron DeSantis for Governor Election Night Party in the Sebastian Ballroom at the Rosen Shingle Creek on Aug. 28 in Orlando. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)

Live coverage: The Florida primary results for governor

Both parties nominated the ideal candidates for their respective bases, a tea party Republican and die-hard Trump fan versus an unabashed liberal from the Bernie Sanders wing of his party.

DeSantis eschewed traditional grass roots campaigning and even talking much about Florida issues and overwhelmingly won the nomination with a simple message: I am a veteran, a conservative, and Donald Trump's candidate. And unlike Putnam, I am not a career politician or someone who ever veered from the hardest line on illegal immigration.

He spent half as much money as Putnam, and still won by a crushing margin.

"I don't believe any other candidate in the country had to run against a tougher opponent in the primary to Adam Putnam," said DeSantis, who also welcomed the news of Andrew Gillum's nomination.

"He is way, way too liberal for the state of Florida," DeSantis said.

Putnam, 44, was the perfect candidate for Florida governor — if it were 1998.

Decades of courting Republican activists across the state and serving as a Florida legislator, congressman and member of the state Cabinet did not prepare him for the populist wave that elected Trump and took over his life-long party.

The wealthy son of a prominent agriculture family, Putnam raised nearly $39 million and had the support of most of the political establishment in Florida. It wasn't enough, not nearly. He wound up mirroring 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush — just another past-his-expiration politician — at a time when voters are fed up with politics as usual.

"We ran an honest to goodness, genuine, grassroots campaign, and I'm really proud of that," Putnam told supporters at the Terrace Hotel in downtown Lakeland.

Putnam made no mention of Trump, but as he finished, a man shouted "Trump! Trump! Trump!" near the exit. Angered, Putnam supporters tried to force him to leave.

After his remarks, his closest aides and large, extended family hugged and cried in the crowded hotel foyer. Putnam has been in politics since he was elected to the Florida House at age 22. Now, his career in politics could be finished.

Keith Rupp, a former aide to Putnam in Congress, said he is leaving the party.

"I've been a lifelong Republican and I've worked for three different members of Congress," he said. "I can't believe the party has turned into a cult of personalities."

Ron DeSantis gives his victory speech during the Ron DeSantis for Governor Election Night Party in the Sebastian Ballroom at the Rosen Shingle Creek on Aug. 28 in Orlando. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)

Florida Republicans now are counting on a relatively untested candidate steadfastly aligned with Trump to continue the GOP's two-decade hold on the Florida Governor's Mansion.

Unlike Gov. Rick Scott, who is keeping his distance from the polarizing president while running for U.S. Senate, DeSantis is among the country's most vocal and high-profile Trump cheerleaders. DeSantis even aired a light-hearted TV ad showing him teaching his toddler daughter to build a wall and to say, "Make America Great Again."

DeSantis brings an impressive personal story to the race for governor. A Florida native who grew up in Dunedin in a blue-collar family, he graduated from Yale University and Harvard Law School. He became a Navy JAG lawyer, serving in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.

Elected to the U.S. House in 2012 as a tea party Republican, DeSantis was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, the uncompromisingly conservative and libertarian group derided by critics as the Government Shut Down Caucus.

After two terms in the House, he ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, but dropped out when Marco Rubio decided to seek a second term after his unsuccessful presidential run. DeSantis instead ran for a third term in Congress and then promptly turned his focus to the open governor's race long thought to be Putnam's to lose.

Moments after the western Panhandle polls closed at 8 p.m. Eastern, chants of "Ron! Ron! Ron!" filled the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel ballroom housing the DeSantis victory party. Fox News had just declared DeSantis the winner.

Leather-clad "Bikers for Trump" and women in formal dresses and MAGA caps mingled in the room. Everyone said the same thing: From day one, they never doubted DeSantis would win, despite being outspent 2 to 1.

"If you're not with the current belief system in this country, you're going to get left behind," St. Cloud city council member Donny Shroyer said, referring to Putnam.

As late as June, polls showed Putnam leading DeSantis by about 20 percentage points. Then two things happened.

Trump gave his full-throated endorsement to DeSantis. And the GOP held a nationally televised Fox News debate where DeSantis pointed out Putnam had supported the "Gang of Eight" immigration proposal and other measures opposed by immigration hard-liners.

"When he was ag commissioner he endorsed the Obama-Schumer Gang of Immigration amnesty. The biggest amnesty in history, it would have lowered wages for American workers and it would have created an incentive to come illegally," DeSantis said then.

Within days DeSantis pulled nearly 20 percentage points ahead. The race was effectively over.

"Most people who get elected to public office are not leaders, most of them area politicians," DeSantis told supporters Tuesday. "Leaders are willing to do what's right even when it's not easy. … I will work my butt off to accomplish great things for this state. Let's keep Florida great and make it even greater."

Turnout statewide averaged nearly 27 percent. Florida officials said they heard relatively few complaints from voters, save for a minor voting machine malfunction in Jacksonville. Mike Hogan, the Duval County Supervisor of Elections, said the glitch was quickly noted and fixed and votes were counted on time.

Times staff writers Steve Contorno, Emily Mahoney, and Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.