Florida Primary Exposes Familiar GOP Fault Line

Ron DeSantis and Adam Putnam are facing off for the governor nomination.

Florida Agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam walks along shops on Main Street in Bartow, Fla. on May 9.
AP Photo/John Raoux
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
Jan. 11, 2018, 8 p.m.

Ron DeSantis and Adam Putnam are running for the Republican nomination for Florida governor this year after relatively brief but consequential terms in Congress.

That’s about where the similarity ends. DeSantis, a founding member of the rabble-rousing House Freedom Caucus, will face Putnam, a former House Republican Conference chairman now serving as the state’s agriculture commissioner.

While the two men never overlapped in Washington, their shared biography at different points in the party’s recent fractious history will help define this battleground-state primary.

“Ron’s entry—and President Trump’s endorsement of his entry—has blown up the governor’s race,” said Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

In an interview Thursday, Putnam said he decided to run for agriculture commissioner in 2010 after growing frustrated during his five terms in Congress about having “to answer for whatever dumb thing that someone had done somewhere in the country at some particular time, regardless of party.”

“The things that were frustrating to me when I left have only gotten worse,” Putnam said, bemoaning Washington’s “permanent campaign.”

While he said he was “very proud” of his work on agriculture, trade, and bipartisanship “in the aftermath of 9/11,” he sought the executive branch “where the problems are being solved.”

“There are people who go to Congress who roll up their sleeves and work on policy solutions,” Putnam said. “And there are others who I think are content and even drawn to the cable-news food fight that has come to typify how people view Congress.”

DeSantis launched his campaign on Fox & Friends last week by promising to “drain the swamp in Tallahassee,” where Republican Gov. Rick Scott is term-limited. Trump tweeted last month that the Navy veteran and critic of the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election “would make a GREAT Governor.” DeSantis’s campaign did not return requests for comment.

Putnam, the son of an influential agriculture family, has stockpiled $16 million for his campaign with the help of the business community. DeSantis’s nascent campaign, bolstered by a well-heeled group supporting him called Fund for Florida’s Future, has assembled a finance committee that will be crucial to campaigning in the state’s many expensive media markets. National megadonors such as Sheldon Adelson, Rebekah Mercer, and Foster Friess as well as a host of local donors have signed on for the former Senate candidate.

DeSantis and Putnam’s colleagues on the Hill are split on the primary.

Dave Schnittger, a spokesman for former Speaker John Boehner, said the Ohio Republican “thinks very highly of” Putnam. He said Putnam, who chaired the House Republican Policy Committee while Boehner was majority leader, was “a loyal and honest public servant whose first allegiance was always to his constituents and the people he was elected to serve.”

“The Speaker has every confidence Adam Putnam will be a great governor for the state of Florida,” Schnittger said.

Ros-Lehtinen said she and Putnam have been friends “for decades” and is supporting him. Fellow South Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart said he “committed a long time ago” to support Putnam while emphasizing that both men are “great public servants.” Freshman Rep. John Rutherford of Jacksonville Beach hasn’t endorsed in the primary but is “lean Putnam.” And Rep. Tom Rooney, who represents Putnam’s native home of Bartow, said he “endorsed” Putnam and promised to help in “whatever [way] he wants me to.”

“Adam Putnam is Florida,” Rooney said. “The guy has dedicated his life to the service of that state and he knows more about Florida than probably anybody that I’ve ever met.”

Others—including Reps. Dennis Ross, Neal Dunn, and Francis Rooney—are staying on the sidelines, at least for now. Rep. Ted Yoho, another Floridian in the House Freedom Caucus, said Wednesday he and other members of the caucus “will make a decision here before long who we’re going to support.” The group’s current and former chairmen, Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, said Tuesday that they want DeSantis to win but wouldn’t say how they’ll support his campaign.

“I don’t know that an endorsement from a sitting member of Congress from North Carolina is gonna carry a lot of weight in Florida,” Meadows said.

Some of the House’s newest entrants from Florida are backing DeSantis, including freshman Rep. Brian Mast. After Putnam’s campaign dismissed DeSantis as “a Washington D.C. insider,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, until recently a state legislator, tweeted, “Putnam calling anyone else an ‘insider’ is rich. He’s spent a career licking the boots of the establishment.”

Gaetz said Tuesday in a follow-up interview that he “would probably prefer one of the conservatives,” in reference to DeSantis (“one of the leaders of exposing some of the bias that really is working against the president”) and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, whom he said “has done more to advance the cause of conservative reform than any person in Tallahassee since Jeb Bush.”

Putnam took a number of moderate votes while in Congress, where he supported taxpayer-funded bailouts after the recession, Cash for Clunkers, and aid to undocumented immigrants.

Corcoran has not announced a bid for governor but will likely do so after the legislative session ends in March. But, “I wouldn’t bet on [Jack] Latvala,” Gaetz said, in apparent reference to the candidate’s resignation from the state Senate in light of allegations of sexual assault.

Democrats have their own primary. Another former member of Congress, Gwen Graham, is facing Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, and Orlando housing investor Chris King in the hopes of flipping Florida’s governorship for the first time in 20 years. Democrats hope that a faceoff between Putnam, DeSantis, and Corcoran hurts the eventual nominee.

“The [Republican] battle will be costly,” Democratic Governors Association spokesman Jared Leopold said in a statement, “and leave the last man standing far outside the mainstream.”

Nia Prater contributed to this article.
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