In case there was any remaining doubt of where the president stood in the race for Florida’s next governor, he cleared things up Friday morning with a tweet.
“Congressman Ron DeSantis, a top student at Yale and Harvard Law School, is running for Governor of the Great State of Florida,” President Donald Trump wrote Friday morning. “Ron is strong on Borders, tough on Crime & big on Cutting Taxes – Loves our Military & our Vets. He will be a Great Governor & has my full Endorsement!”
DeSantis was one of the three Republicans that Trump endorsed in succession on Friday, as U.S. Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama and Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina also received praise from Trump’s tweeting fingers.
But long before Friday, DeSantis’ campaign was touting the president’s “endorsement” on its campaign mailers and website. That’s because Trump tweeted in December in support of DeSantis, saying he would “make a GREAT Governor of Florida” and that he was a “true FIGHTER.”
Some had questioned whether that tweet qualified as an “endorsement.” Now, there is no question — and that is likely to encourage more big-time Republican donors to join Team DeSantis, who’s already enjoyed six-figure donations from big names in the national conservative donor class like Illinois packaging supplies magnate Richard Uihlein and Chicago hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin.
But DeSantis has his work cut out for him. A recent telephone poll of about 900 likely Republican voters by Fox News showed him trailing his primary opponent, Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, by a 32-17 percent margin — with 39 percent still undecided. DeSantis is a Fox News regular.
And Putnam has raised about three times as much as DeSantis, which he has used to get on the airwaves with several ads. Politico has reported that DeSantis’ campaign has ramped up a $12 million TV ad buy for late June. That would mark the first time he will be on TV, still seen as one of the most important ways to capture voters’ attention in Florida.
Putnam’s campaign responded to Friday’s endorsement by citing Putnam’s comfortable lead.
“As the Fox News poll indicates, grassroots momentum behind his Florida First vision continues to grow,” said Meredith Beatrice, Putnam campaign spokeswoman, in a statement. “Adam looks forward to working with President Trump as Florida’s next governor to keep our economy thriving, taxes low and our borders secure.”
The tweet came at the end of a rough week for Trump, after he was battered by Republicans and Democrats alike over his “zero tolerance” policy of separating migrant families at the border, which has dominated the national conversation for days.
Regardless of controversy, DeSantis is along for the ride.
“I am absolutely honored to receive the FULL ENDORSEMENT of President Donald Trump,” read a post on DeSantis’ Facebook Friday.
A member of the right-wing Freedom Caucus and a prominent critic of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, he has made every effort to tie his fate to the president’s popularity in Florida’s election — including reading Trump’s December tweet into the microphone, word for word, at campaign rallies.
Trump’s national poll numbers have risen lately, though no polls have been published since the zero tolerance issue exploded. His Florida approval ratings, last measured around 43 percent in May by a Florida Atlantic University poll, have continued to slightly outpace his national numbers.
DeSantis portrays Putnam as anti-Trump because he didn’t embrace Trump until after he was the Republican nominee in 2016. In the lead-up to that election, Putnam stuck to the Florida candidates, endorsing first Jeb Bush and then Marco Rubio before landing on Trump when he was the only Republican option.
The New York Times had reported in May that Vice President Mike Pence, a former colleague of Putnam’s when both served in the U.S. House, had urged Trump not to meddle in the Florida governor’s race. And despite Trump’s pro-DeSantis tweets, Putnam’s campaign recently sent out mailers that said “Adam will support president Trump’s agenda” and he praised Trump’s tough immigration policies on Fox News.
At the very least, Friday’s tweet indicates Trump won’t be content on the sidelines.
Brett Doster, a Republican strategist who’s managed campaigns across the country, said Trump’s official endorsement is a win for DeSantis, but he shouldn’t count on it for ultimate victory. Doster worked in Alabama on the U.S. Senate campaign for Roy Moore, who was endorsed heavily by Trump but still lost last year after he was accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls.
“While the Republican primary base is generally still very ideological and still very informed, they are very inclined to make their own decisions,” he said. “Endorsements are the least important indicator of who’s going to win.”
What’s much more important, Doster explained, is how much money the candidate has raised, the “depth and breadth” of their support and on-the-ground organizing in all the state’s major regions. All of those metrics point to one man, Doster said.
“Adam Putnam is still the man to beat by a country mile in Florida.”
Both Doster and another Republican strategist, J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, who is anti-Trump, agreed that supporting Trump is a rock-solid strategy in the Republican primary. Their opinions differ about the general election, though, a reminder of just how close it might be in November.
In 2016, Trump won Florida over Hillary Clinton by only about 120,000 votes.
“The happiest people in Florida today are the Democratic candidates,” Stipanovich said. “Every night before they go to bed, they get on their knees and say, ‘Baby Jesus, please make Ron DeSantis the Republican nominee for governor.’ ”