Adam Putnam faced a ballroom full of grass-roots Republican activists and delivered a battle cry.
“Our state is at a crossroads,” he said, “because the left is coming for us.”
That was last August at a party gathering in Orlando.
Eight months later, Putnam’s bid for governor could be at a crossroads for one reason: The right is coming for him.
Putnam, the state agriculture commissioner, once appeared to have a clear path to the GOP nomination.
A prolific fund-raiser, the self-described grass-roots conservative has spent $7 million so far and has another $17 million in the bank — far more than any other candidate.
But polls show that after nearly a year of campaigning, Putnam is in a neck-and-neck race with U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Palm Coast, who entered the race in late January and whose campaign appears to consist mostly of a tweeted shout-out from President Donald Trump and frequent Fox News appearances that provide a pipeline to Republican voters’ living rooms.
Polls also show that more than 60 percent of Republican voters are undecided about how they will vote in the Aug. 28 primary, a sign that the race is wide open and that many GOP voters are not yet sold on Putnam.
In that Orlando crowd last August was Patricia Sullivan of Eustis, the Republican state committeewoman from Lake County, a former candidate for Congress, the mother of state Rep. Jennifer Sullivan and a founder of Central Florida’s tea party movement a decade ago.
She was undecided then and she’s undecided now.
“It’s anybody’s race to win,” Sullivan says. “I haven’t made up my mind. There’s plenty of time to watch and see.”
Sullivan has known Putnam for decades, since they were both active in 4-H in high school.
She called DeSantis “a great candidate” and said that while Putnam is well-known, “he has been more moderate on some issues than some conservatives would like, but he would run a strong race in the general election.”
She cited Putnam’s vote in Congress for the “cash for clunkers” program that promoted sales of fuel-efficient cars and was the bane of many conservatives.
As for DeSantis, she said: “Ron has had the opportunity to be on TV quite a bit more. I never see Putnam on the airwaves. That’s free advertising for Ron, but we have a long way to go.”
Lourdes Castillo de la Pena, DeSantis’ campaign coordinator in Miami-Dade County, calls him “a brilliant man” and a fresh face that Republicans need.
Nancy McGowan, a Republican activist in Jacksonville, said DeSantis has numerous advantages over Putnam.
“He’s not a career politician,” McGowan said. “He’s a straight shooter. He didn’t vote to raise his own salary. Ron is clearly not part of the establishment.”
Putnam’s predicament can be traced partly to changing political times.
Many Republicans learned painful lessons by backing the early front-runner, Bill McCollum, in the 2010 race for governor, only to watch as a rich neophyte from Naples named Rick Scott methodically spent millions to defeat him.
After promising themselves they would not repeat that mistake, they endorsed Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio for president in 2016 only to see Trump win, in large part by his narrow Florida victory.
Trump complicates Putnam’s path to the Governor’s Mansion.
Rick Wilson, a national GOP strategist and vocal leader of the #NeverTrump movement, said Trump “has broken the traditional model” and changed what Republican voters want from they candidates.
“What voters seem to want is the loudest and screechiest populist they can find,” Wilson said. “Adam Putnam is not a screamer. He’s a doer. But we’re back where the discussion is who’s the most like Trump. ... If we follow Ron DeSantis’ Trumpian type of conservatism, we’re going to get our a-- handed to us.”
Wilson said DeSantis’ alliance with Trump will make the GOP a loser in November, just as it lost recent special elections in Virginia, Alabama and Pennsylvania.
With Florida’s long record of close statewide elections, Wilson said, general election candidates must garner support beyond their own party’s base.
“But we’ve become is a party that values emotion over substance,” he said. “You’re not a real Republican unless you’re talking about Muslims or the liberal media.”
Taking to NRA TV
In fact, Putnam criticized the liberal media on the NRA’s online TV channel, his alternative to Fox News.
Stressing his opposition to gun restrictions recently passed by the Legislature and Scott after the Parkland school shooting, Putnam said “the left-wing media wants to wrap those monsters” like the Parkland shooter with law-abiding gun owners.
The statewide primary is nearly five months away, but voters can begin voting by mail one month earlier, in late July.
An affable and effective campaigner, Putnam travels the state constantly, speaking at party dinners, marching in parades and hosting “Up & Adam” breakfasts from Boca Raton to Marianna, where he promises a renewed emphasis on vocational education and improving state colleges to make Florida “the launch pad for the American dream.”
“I want Florida to be more than a prize for a life well-lived someplace else,” he says.
Clint Pate of Marianna, a Jackson County commissioner, said Putnam’s small town roots are a major asset in northwest Florida.
“He’s a friend of the Panhandle. That’s important,” Pate said. “He’s a real down-to-earth guy.”
Jack Furnari of Boca Raton, a longtime Republican activist, is a strong Putnam supporter.
“Adam is the best choice,” Furnari said. “He’s a solid conservative who’ll stand up for the Second Amendment. I trust him on the issues, I value his experience and I trust his competence.”
Pasco County Republican state committeeman Bill Bunting said Putnam is doing “fairly well” and that at a recent gun show in Lakeland on Putnam’s home turf of Polk County, “he was mobbed. Everybody wanted pictures with him.”
Bunting said he remains concerned about DeSantis’ frequent TV appearances on Fox News.
“Fox has basically given him a free pass,” Bunting said. “But Adam’s working and working hard.”
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @stevebousquet.