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In Florida's GOP Primary for Governor, It’s Establishment vs. Trump

President Trump will stump for Ron DeSantis in the state on Tuesday. Regardless of who wins the primary, Democrats are hoping a blue wave will help them recapture the governor’s seat in November.
by | August 2018

The 2018 Swamp Cabbage Festival in Hendry County, Fla., featured a rodeo, a car show, a parade, a variety of clogging troupes and the 51st annual crowning of the Swamp Cabbage Queen. It also featured Adam Putnam, the state agriculture commissioner. But the Republican wasn’t there to inspect the cabbage. He was doing what he spends most of his time doing these days: showing up at popular events, shaking hands and asking people to support him for governor. It’s Politics 101, and Putnam is a tenured practitioner of Florida politics. But this year, it might not be enough.

The 44-year-old Putnam has been laying plans to run for governor for a long time. He won a seat in the state House at age 22, becoming the youngest person ever elected to the Florida Legislature. Four years later, he was in Congress. In eight years as agriculture commissioner, a statewide elected position, he’s raised millions of dollars -- $32.7 million for his gubernatorial bid as of June 30 -- and has garnered endorsements from politicians up and down the state, as well as backing from Florida’s major business lobbies. He’s managed to drive most potential competitors from the race, including state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who dropped out in May, saying it had taken him “all of 2.2 seconds” to back Putnam. “Putnam has done all the right things and checked every box,” says Matthew Corrigan, who chairs the University of North Florida’s political science department. “He’s spent a lifetime in politics, he’s been all over the state, he can raise money and he has the endorsements of the party establishment.”

But there’s at least one important endorsement Putnam has failed to win -- Donald Trump’s. The president has lent his support to Ron DeSantis, a third-term congressman. DeSantis has been one of Trump’s most ardent backers, and has appeared on Fox News roughly 100 times since January to criticize the FBI and defend the president against any accusations regarding Russian interference in the last election. DeSantis has the enthusiastic backing of Fox host Sean Hannity. Perhaps more important, he has ready access to Fox viewers. Meanwhile, Putnam has been shut out of Fox, completely absent from the network all year. “Ron has done a masterful job on Fox News, putting himself out there almost as Donald Trump’s lawyer,” says Mike Haridopolos, a former Florida Senate president and a Putnam supporter.

The primary between Putnam and DeSantis -- the party regular vs. the cable news guy -- provides a case study in how much politics and the Republican Party are changing this year. You can barely talk about the race to any prominent Florida Republicans without hearing them say that “in a normal year” Putnam would win, and he has been leading in the polls. DeSantis lacks much of a campaign infrastructure, and his fundraising trails Putnam’s, although he’s gotten support from the Mercer family, among the most important donors in Trump’s universe. While Putnam has hit every county fair and Republican pig roast, DeSantis has mostly been stuck in Washington. Putnam has had paid television ads running since the spring, while DeSantis didn’t launch his first ad until shortly before the Fourth of July. 

For all that, however, the support of Trump and Fox means that no one is counting DeSantis out. A wealth of GOP voters remains undecided. Florida’s primary elections are restricted to party members, and they tend to be dominated by the most committed activists. DeSantis was never going to have the support of the insider class in Tallahassee, but the backing of the Republican Party’s greatest current hero and its TV channel of choice means he has a real shot. “Everyone thought for many years that Putnam would be the next governor of Florida,” says GOP consultant Ryan Wiggins, who is neutral in the race, “but the party changed from under him and he’s got the race of his life on his hands.”

 


Ron DeSantis, right, has President Trump’s endorsement in the Florida GOP primary.

 

Whoever wins the Aug. 28 primary will have another difficult hurdle in front of him. The departing Republican governor, Rick Scott, spent more than $100 million in his two campaigns and won by only a single percentage point each time. And that was in 2010 and 2014, the strongest Republican years in recent history. Reports of a Democratic wave this November may prove to be exaggerated, but there’s no question that the environment is less favorable to the GOP than it was during those last two midterms. “The only reason Rick Scott won in 2010 or 2014 was because of the national Republican wave,” says Steve Geller, a Democratic commissioner in Broward County.

Republicans are defending 26 governorships this year, compared to just nine for Democrats. That in itself doesn’t portend a Democratic sweep. A few of the races look like easy Democratic wins, but many of the states Republicans are defending are unassailably red, such as Arkansas, Idaho, Texas and Wyoming. For Democrats to make big inroads on the gubernatorial map this year, they’ll have to carry states such as Florida that Barack Obama won twice but which Hillary Clinton lost to Trump in 2016. Several of those states look highly competitive, among them Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. But none of them are going to be easy Democratic pickups.

Still, Florida offers one of the Democrats’ best chances. Not only were Scott’s victories one-point affairs, but so were the last two presidential contests in the state. As elsewhere, Democrats are counting on anti-Trump sentiment to bring more of their supporters to the polls than has been the case in recent midterms. If 2018 does turn out to be a Democratic year nationally, that may be enough to get the party the added percentage point or two it needs to win.

But Trump’s poll numbers are stronger in Florida than they are nationwide. His support is especially high among seniors, always a critical voting bloc in the Sunshine State. And while Scott’s margins were close, Republicans have managed to win each of the last five elections for governor -- and 17 of the last 18 statewide contests. Florida remains a coin toss, but the coin always seems to come up Republican, at least at the state level. “Republicans have just been better at getting those last 100,000 to 200,000 voters,” Corrigan says.

 

As in many other states this year, the Democratic candidates for governor of Florida have talked up a number of decidedly progressive policy proposals. Climate change is an issue that’s absent from the Republican discussion, but it’s a prime topic among the five leading Democrats. They also agree on the need to ban assault-style weapons and raise the minimum wage and teacher pay. They support an expansion of Medicaid, and some are on board with the idea of single-payer health insurance through Medicare. “What he wants to do as governor is lead as a progressive,” says Geoff Burgan, spokesman for Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum’s campaign. “Andrew presents a bold case for legalization of marijuana.”

Gillum and his rivals in the primary argue that Democrats want someone who is not just an opponent of Trump and his policies, but a champion of progressive ideals. Most of them say that Florida Democrats have too often stayed home in midterms and need to be excited by ideas that cut sharply against the grain of the state’s GOP leadership. “Chris has shown the courage to fight for issues that haven’t traditionally been talked about by Florida Democrats for the past five elections,” says Avery Jaffe, spokesman for Chris King, a private equity investor making his first political run.

Philip Levine, the wealthy former mayor of Miami Beach, built up a polling lead in the spring with millions of dollars’ worth of unanswered TV ads. He no longer has the airwaves to himself, however. Jeff Greene, a Palm Beach real estate tycoon who entered the race in June, is another rich Democrat who has pledged to spend whatever it takes to be competitive both in the primary and in the fall. Greene, in fact, has made his wealth into a talking point, contending that past Democratic hopefuls often had “great ideas” but lacked the wherewithal to have their message heard against a well-funded Republican machine.

 


Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (far left) and his rivals in the Democratic primary argue that Democrats don’t just want an anti-Trump candidate, but also one who champions progressive ideals.

 

All this money and the field’s general movement to the left has hurt the initial Democratic frontrunner, Gwen Graham. She started out with a polling lead, thanks in part to her name recognition as the daughter of Bob Graham, a former governor and U.S. senator. She defeated a GOP incumbent to take a congressional seat against the tide in the strongly Republican year of 2014, but a court-ordered redistricting left her without a political home after a single term. During her two years in office, Graham was rated one of the most bipartisan members in Congress. That sounded good to centrist think tanks and was the right positioning for her moderate district, but it lingers unhelpfully over her gubernatorial campaign. Her opponents don’t let her forget that during her first year in office, she voted against President Obama on a majority of issues where the president’s position was clear, including construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which she supported. Graham is a down-the-line liberal on health care and some other key issues, but her opponents have been painting her as too centrist to win over many of today’s Democratic voters.

Each of the Democratic candidates, though, has a potential flaw that allows opponents to say they can’t win the primary or be competitive in the fall. The FBI has been dropping subpoenas around Tallahassee for the last couple of years. While the investigation hasn’t touched Gillum directly, some Democrats wish he’d waited until his name could be definitively cleared. Greene entered the race late and is a former Republican who has said kind words about Trump, his Palm Beach neighbor. Greene’s 2010 campaign for the U.S. Senate foundered amid reports of heavy partying on his 145-foot yacht. Levine’s opponents say his business interests overlapped too closely with his policy moves as mayor, while some Democrats believe that King, while talented, is too young and inexperienced at age 38 to conquer the field.

In the fractured Democratic competition, it might take as little as 30 percent of the vote to win nomination. That’s led to a lot of speculation about which candidates will play strongest in particular parts of the state or among certain blocs of voters. For his part, Gillum might have an advantage as the only African-American in a state where blacks make up a quarter of registered Democrats. But so might Graham in a year in which women are doing particularly well in Democratic primaries. “Gwen Graham has a real shot at winning the general election, but only if she can get past the primary,” says GOP consultant Wiggins, echoing a common Republican sentiment. “But the Democrats are notorious at picking someone they like versus someone who can win.”

The eventual nominee will have to appeal to the state’s fastest-growing group of voters -- independents, who in Florida are known as NPAs, for “no party affiliation.” When Scott was first elected governor in 2010, 19 percent of the state’s registered voters were NPAs. Their number is now up to 27 percent. Given Florida’s late primary date of Aug. 28, candidates will have only September and October to persuade NPAs not to worry about the hard ideological stances they took to win nomination.

 

That may be a problem on the Republican side as well. DeSantis, a hardliner on immigration and abortion, is not only a fervent Trump supporter but a founding member of the militantly conservative House Freedom Caucus. If he’s the GOP nominee, the Democratic attack ads will practically write themselves. Putnam has given Democrats some ammunition as well. Always considered a conservative, he’s veered further right in pursuit of the nomination, notably on the issue of guns. Last year, Putnam enthusiastically declared himself a “proud NRA sellout.” “It might not hurt him within the Republican primary, but comments like that might come back to haunt him in the fall,” says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida.

In fact, the remark has already done Putnam some damage. After the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in February, the grocery chain Publix found itself the target of a consumer boycott because it had given Putnam $650,000 over the past couple of years. Publix distanced itself from him in response to the criticism. In June, the Tampa Bay Times broke the story of an internal investigation that showed Putnam’s department, which handles gun registrations, failed to conduct parts of the criminal background check on some individuals applying for concealed weapons permits. Democrats called for Putnam to drop out of the race, and even Republicans criticized him for the management failure and for not releasing the report for a year.

Early polling suggests that Putnam would be stronger in the fall than DeSantis. But either Republican would enjoy certain advantages. Rick Scott can’t run for governor because of term limits, but he will be on the ballot. He entered the U.S. Senate contest against incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson in April and immediately unleashed millions of dollars in TV ads. Scott was not especially popular when he ran for reelection four years ago, but his approval ratings are peaking as he leaves office. His focus as governor has been almost exclusively on jobs and the economy, and he takes credit for a state unemployment rate that has dropped below 4 percent. He wins praise for his handling of Hurricane Irma last year, as well as for his outreach to Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in Florida following the devastating Hurricane Maria last September. Scott’s race could bring more GOP voters to the polls.

 


Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s approval ratings have improved, thanks in part to his handling of Hurricane Irma last year.

 

Some Democratic strategists have expressed hopes that the influx of Puerto Ricans into the state following the storm would give their side a boost. They are U.S. citizens and eligible to vote, and are expected to play a role in some central Florida contests, but their numbers are probably not large enough to tip a statewide election. Their actual voting registration numbers -- along with those of millennials -- have thus far been disappointing to Democrats. 

Seniors, as everyone knows, are crucial to the outcome of any statewide election in Florida. Their presence and influence are sometimes exaggerated -- a full 25 percent of the residents of South Florida are now millennials -- but seniors are maintaining their numbers as baby boomers join the ranks of the elderly and continue to retire to Florida. The Villages, which is in Central Florida’s Sumter County and sprawls into neighboring communities, is America’s largest retirement enclave. In 2016, turnout in Sumter County was 83 percent and Trump received nearly 70 percent of the vote. “Folks down here that are retired always turn out,” says Sumter County Commissioner Al Butler.

The fact that demographic groups seem to cancel each other out is one reason why a state that is gaining more than a thousand residents every day can remain politically stable. Florida is so closely balanced between the parties that who leads in the polls can depend almost entirely on the choices pollsters make in weighting the demographic and partisan mix within their samples. 

Who will come out ahead when it matters in November? It seems like conditions are right for Democrats to do better than they have in the last two contests. Since they have finished tantalizingly close, the current climate may be enough to translate into victory. But they have yet to settle on a candidate who can excite the party’s base while attracting more moderate independents and disaffected Republicans. The GOP, for its part, has all the advantages that come from being the party entrenched in power, particularly at a moment when the economy is humming. “They’re going to be fighting tooth and nail to win by 1 percent, or 2 percent,” says Robert McClure, president of the James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank in Tallahassee.

Campaigns often turn on things that candidates can’t control. This year, that includes first and foremost the president’s approval ratings. “Trump’s numbers in this election are going to be more important, I think, than anything the candidates do,” says Geller, the Broward County commissioner. “If you can guarantee me today what Donald Trump’s poll numbers are in November, I’ll tell you whether we’ll have a Democratic or a Republican governor.”

*CORRECTION: A caption previously misidentified Devin Nunes as Ron DeSantis.

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