Outcome of Republican primary for Florida governor may rewrite political playbook

President Donald Trump looks on as Ron DeSantis, a Republican candidate for Florida governor, speaks at a Make America Great Again rally at a fairground auditorium in Tampa, on Tuesday, July 31, 2018.
President Donald Trump looks on as Ron DeSantis, a Republican candidate for Florida governor, speaks at a Make America Great Again rally at a fairground auditorium in Tampa, on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. NYT

The photo was sent to him by another Adam Putnam canvasser, who snapped it Tuesday in Pensacola: a faded Ron DeSantis rally poster, stapled to a yard sign for U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.

To Jon Ward, a Putnam volunteer from Panama City, the picture was a perfect summary of the Republican side of the Florida governor’s race from his vantage point.

“You literally can’t find a Ron DeSantis yard sign anywhere,” Ward said. “I’ve not heard of anyone having their doors knocked by a volunteer for Ron DeSantis on the 500 or so doors I knocked on.”

Not an election goes by without one candidate claiming a stronger ground game than the opponent. It’s commonplace to brag about having more volunteers, more yard signs and knocking on more doors.

But this time, it’s a one-sided debate.

There is little sign DeSantis is trying to beat Putnam in several tenets of a traditional campaign. Instead, the Palm Coast congressman has put most of his chips in one pot: the weighty endorsement of President Donald Trump.

Take the deep red Florida Panhandle, which has served as a home base for DeSantis’ campaign. He has repeatedly visited, stumping with political allies and taking selfies on voters’ Harleys. Even there, his footprint isn’t noticeable — until you start talking to Republican primary voters.

“Whoever the president is backing, I’m backing the president,” said Bea Thomas, a Republican activist who attended a June DeSantis rally in Pensacola. “What he [DeSantis] is trying to do for Floridians is unique and different.”

It’s quite the contrast to the operation of his opponent, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. The “Team Putnam” volunteer-themed Twitter account boasts photos of supporters at every event and giant signs mounted on semi-trucks. There are T-shirts and a bus and even dogs wearing Putnam swag.

Adam Putnam greets Osvaldo Castellanos during a campaign event on Aug. 2, 2018, at the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association Museum in Miami as he runs to be the Republican nominee in the race to be the next governor of Florida. Joe Raedle Getty Images

If DeSantis wins Tuesday — and most signs indicate that is likely — it would be a complete rewrite of the battle-tested Florida campaign playbook. Races here are traditionally fought on the airwaves and bolstered with a strong get-out-the-vote effort. On both fronts, Putnam is killing DeSantis.

Through Aug. 10, Putnam had raised $38.8 million to DeSantis’ $17.6 million, and has used it to outspend DeSantis in television ads $21.9 million to $10.5 million, according to campaign finance reports.

The Putnam campaign says its volunteers have knocked on more than 400,000 doors, they’ve hosted more than 200 grassroots events — not including those hosted by industry groups outside the campaign — and they have 500 active volunteers on the ground. The campaign has offices in Bartow, Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville and Brandon.

“Grassroots wins elections and the same enthusiasm that put President Trump in the White House is going to put Adam Putnam in the Governor’s Mansion,” said Meredith Beatrice, spokeswoman for the Putnam campaign, who added that in addition to door-knocking, the campaign is also reaching voters through social media, mail and digital ads.

Meanwhile, the DeSantis campaign has hosted 50 events total, and has chosen to focus its voter outreach efforts on mailers, digital ads and customized text messages to Republican voters who haven’t turned in their absentee ballots. There are volunteers for DeSantis on the ground, but the campaign could not provide an exact figure.

“Through our voter contact and GOTV [get-out-the-vote] efforts, we’ve reached hundreds of thousands of voters,” said DeSantis campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson in a statement. “We feel confident that our targeted voter outreach efforts will help us win in a big way on Tuesday.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis appears in Little Havana on Tuesday, August 14, 2018 to talk to Republican voters at the Cubaocho Museum.

The stark contrast in canvassing efforts is yet another example of the opposite approaches by the campaigns. Putnam, who has made his rural Bartow roots a refrain in his appearances and ads, for months has visited every corner of the state, meeting with voters in greasy spoons and parks over barbecue and breakfast. No town is too small.

DeSantis has spring-boarded from a much lighter schedule featuring star-studded rallies that have included Fox News host Sean Hannity, conservative radio host Mark Levin and Donald Trump Jr.

Of course, the biggest moment of DeSantis’ campaign so far was on July 31 when President Trump joined him in Tampa for a rally nationally televised by Fox News.

Until that point, DeSantis had relied on ads that boasted support from “the big man himself” to spread the word of Trump’s endorsement. Since the rally, he’s aired ads featuring Trump’s compliments in front of a cheering crowd.

DeSantis surged in the polls after the rally and remains the front-runner by an average of 7.5 percentage points, according to the Real Clear Politics poll aggregator.

It appears DeSantis plans to ride the Trump bump through Tuesday’s primary, even as the president faces mounting legal problems.

On Tuesday, Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was found guilty of eight charges of tax fraud and Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other charges in a separate case. Yet that same evening, Trump in West Virginia took credit for DeSantis’ lead, and DeSantis responded on Twitter by recommitting to the president.

Since the Trump event, Democrats in the race have almost ignored Putnam for DeSantis, the surest sign yet that their campaigns assume the latter will exit the primary victorious. Former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine, for example, has taken to calling DeSantis “Radical Ron” on the trail.

For his part, DeSantis has also taken steps more expected of a general election candidate. At a critical juncture in the primary calendar, he visited Puerto Rico for a day — typically a stop for candidates eying a November election.

Adam Putnam’s appearance in Hialeah Thursday — and Ron DeSantis’ absence — highlighted the infrequency of the Republican gubernatorial candidates’ South Florida appearances.

Meanwhile, Putnam has been touring the state constantly since Aug. 1 and will continue through Election Day, with stops in Escambia, Seminole, Tampa, Orlando, North Port, Bradenton, Lake City, Brandon, Fruit Cove, Ormond Beach, Winter Park, Sanford, Melbourne — to name a few.

In the past few weeks, there are some indications the race may have narrowed. The most recent polls, though some with questionable methodology, have DeSantis and Putnam within a couple of percentage points of each other.

DeSantis will close out the race with a one-day, six-stop swing through Florida on Monday through major media markets.

Some experts say that at this stage in the campaign, knocking on doors is an efficient use of time because contact with a real, breathing human being is much more motivating for voters than glossy handouts mixed in with the junk mail.

Professor Donald Green, who teaches political science at Columbia University, said Putnam’s statewide bus tour and robust volunteer efforts are exactly how he should be spending his final week before the primary, when he’s looking to mobilize his voters in a midterm where turnout will be the deciding factor.

“It is an extremely sensible use of money and resources and time,” Green said. “To the extent a candidate is running from behind looking to close a narrow gap, the ground game is sometimes likened to a field goal — it will get you a couple points.”