Ferocious chants of “USA! USA! USA!” erupted inside an elegant ballroom in Hialeah as Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam prepared to address a crowd that — even if its feelings about him were unclear — supported President Donald Trump to the fullest.
Florida’s commissioner of agriculture flashed a smile, but knew this fit of patriotism wasn’t for him. In fact, much of the crowd had turned its back on him, rubbernecking to see city cops remove a group of protesters clamoring for free college, and against child separations and private prison contributions.
But for Putnam, who spent his birthday in a north Florida retirement community this week while Trump whipped his MAGA fanatics into a frenzy for primary opponent U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, standing on stage Thursday night with the wind of Miami’s Republican base at his back might have felt empowering.
“Hasta la vista, baby,” Putnam hollered, to laughter and cheers. “Anybody else?”
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Still an ardent supporter of the president, Putnam trails DeSantis in polls. But he maintains that he sees a path to victory on the back of effective economic policies, his deep ties to Florida and his willingness to campaign in “every corner” of the state. That includes Miami, even if voters down south might wonder where the Republican candidates have been the last six months.
“We’ve run a grassroots campaign, a Florida-first campaign, and I’m everywhere. I’m in cities as big as Hialeah and I’m in small towns that you’ve probably never heard of,” he told a reporter before the event began. “That’s what the next governor of Florida should do. You should be willing to campaign in every corner of the state, not just buzz in and buzz out with an entourage of celebrities.”
Trump’s pick to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Scott did not attend Thursday’s marathon event, which featured 27 Republican candidates running for state and national office in the upcoming midterm elections. In fact, public campaign visits by the two GOP governor candidates to Miami, where the cost of advertising is high and the share of Republican voters less so, have seemed few and far between this year.
“I just don’t see a presence,” a veteran Republican strategist told the Herald.
Still, Putnam and DeSantis each say they’re courting Miami’s diverse Republican base in their own way, with DeSantis using TV appearances and Putnam hosting small gatherings in places like La Carreta on Bird Road and roundtable sessions with leaders in South Florida’s Haitian and Hispanic communities. On Thursday, Putnam was back, taking part in a Hialeah forum organized by the Federated Republican Women of North Dade, a group whose logo is a high-heel shoe with the state of Florida tucked inside like a foot.
A member of the GOP group who did not wish to be named said she felt relieved DeSantis did not show. Having him and Putnam in a divided room would have been a “sh-- show,” she said. The primaries in Florida will be held on Aug. 28, and the general election is Nov. 6.
Red hats bearing the MAGA slogan dotted the ballroom and foyer area, which evoked memories of President Trump’s political rallies. The evening began with a heartfelt prayer that included several references to Trump.
A salesman hawking Trump-themed memorabilia set up two tables off to the side. As the main event grew closer, tangy jazz numbers were replaced with a Trump favorite: “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood.
Putnam’s headlining stump speech — and his repeated use of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan — elicited healthy applause from the audience, some of whom are backing DeSantis.
“If you care about making America great, then the third-largest state must be pulling our share of the weight,” he told them. “And as Floridians, we know that we are the envy of the nation... When we put Florida first, we will make America great again.”
But the audience hollered at almost every candidates’ mention of the president. One fringe gubernatorial candidate, Bob White, went as far as to compare the good looks of his wife to that of Trump’s wife, Melania.
Putnam also railed against the media, very few of whom covered his remarks. Democratic candidates for governor held a fifth debate Thursday night, which was widely broadcast and moved to Palm Beach Gardens from the University of Miami after Putnam and DeSantis declined to participate in their own debate in Miami.
“The future of Florida should be determined by Floridians, by a leader — a governor — who knows our state, will put our state first and will push back against the fake news on the left and the George Soroses and the Tom Steyers of the world who want to hijack our politics so that they can defeat our president,” Putnam said.
Wearing a red MAGA hat signed by Vice President Mike Pence, Republican voter Gustavo Garagorry received Putnam’s message, but won’t vote for him. The president of the Venezuelan American Republican Club of Miami-Dade, Garagorry said the candidates were similar but that Trump’s endorsement sealed his vote.
“For me, it’s important,” Garagorry said. “Because President Trump supports him.”
Jane Muir, treasurer of the Federated Republican Women of North Dade and the evening’s host and time keeper, said the group does not endorse primary candidates but will support all Republicans in the general election.
“The great thing about primaries is we get to see all the shades of gray in a party, right?” she said.
That’s if they get to see them at all.
Miami’s geography — out of the way from the rest of the state — makes the area tougher for campaign stops. Consider that Miami-Dade has about 370,000 registered Republicans to Duval County’s 220,000, but costs about four times more for air time, and the decision to spend time in Miami-Dade County becomes even more complicated for conservative candidates.
For the most part, the only candidates for governor who have blanketed the Miami media market are Jeff Greene and Philip Levine — two independently wealthy Democrats from South Florida who are using their own money to bankroll their campaigns. DeSantis’ political committee is running a Spanish-language commercial, and Putnam’s campaign says it’s run commercials statewide, but television ads have nevertheless been scant.
But just because they’re not on television doesn’t mean they’re not in Miami.
DeSantis, a Palm Coast congressman who announced his campaign for governor in Boca Raton, has paid visits to South Florida when he can, visiting the Bay of Pigs museum in May and stopping by TV Marti in July. He’ll be at a Southwest Eight Street restaurant Monday for a luncheon with women voters, according to his Miami-Dade campaign chairwoman. But his campaign has relied less on physical stops than Putnam’s, and his position in Congress and frequent appearances on Fox News also give him greater exposure to audiences that don’t require him to blow his campaign cash.
“We obviously can reach the Miami market through our earned media in a way that Adam can’t,” said Brad Herold, a political strategist for the DeSantis campaign. “When Ron is on Fox news doing prime time hits, people in Miami are seeing that.”
Herold noted that a light-hearted DeSantis commercial, in which he jokingly taught his baby to speak Trumpisms and his young son to build a wall with blocks, was so widely covered in the news that the campaign didn’t even have to pay to run the ad in Miami for it to be seen by Miami voters.
DeSantis’ campaign, meanwhile, has paid and volunteer campaign workers calling absentee voters, and his political team believes his work in Congress on the Americas and Cuba — where he’s among the politicians calling for the indictment of Raúl Castro for the 1996 death of four Brothers to the Rescue pilots — is winning him supporters.
On Thursday, Putnam also visited the Bay of Pigs Museum and Library. He later stressed the importance of reaching voters in South Florida, though several consultants told the Miami Herald that polls show DeSantis ahead in Miami-Dade, where Cuban-American voters have embraced Trump.
“They are going to show up to vote come rain, come shine, come heat, come weather, it doesn’t matter,” Putnam said. “This is a really important part of our state to do well in, not only in the Republican primary but in the general election as well.”
About one in seven Republican voters in the state are located in South Florida, and the area drove about 10 percent of the vote during the last Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010.
Nelson Diaz, chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, acknowledged that Miami can be a complicated place to campaign for statewide candidates, who more often than not are not bilingual. But he said he’s seen Putnam and DeSantis reaching out to voters in different ways — through social media and direct mail, for instance — in order to get around the cost of television commercials, and doesn’t think they’re ignoring Miami.