A “political hurricane,” named after a famous Palm Beach and White House resident, is currently swirling off Florida’s coast and scheduled to make landfall on Aug. 28 — the state’s primary day.
Yes, “Hurricane Trump” is central to a contentious Republican gubernatorial primary race between Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis from the 6th Congressional District, which encompasses Daytona Beach.
Just how central?
Trump’s involvement is shaping up to be a political strength test for the 2018 midterms with national implications for the 2020 presidential election.
Lest you think I am exaggerating, let’s start on Dec. 22, 2017, when Hurricane Trump’s “category 5” winds first started blowing from Air Force One after the president tweeted:
Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader, Yale and then Harvard Law, who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida. He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2017
Amazingly, Trump’s endorsement of DeSantis came two weeks before the conservative congressman officially announced on Jan. 5, 2018 that he was seeking the Republican nomination for governor.
DeSantis not only embraced Trump’s endorsement, but the three-term lawmaker’s entire campaign was baptized in Trump water. That has resulted in the Putnam/DeSantis primary fight for Republican base voters, which revolves around which candidate is more “Trumpian” — a clear disadvantage for Putnam, who was characterized last week as a “Trump-basher” in a RealClearPolitics op-ed.
On the other hand, Putnam, a Florida congressman between 2001 and 2011 who has served in the powerful agriculture post since 2011, is the well-funded “establishment” candidate. He had been planning his gubernatorial campaign for many pre-Trump years, working diligently within the state, building loyalty and collecting IOUs. Putnam is also well known and liked in Florida GOP circles.
As an active registered Republican in the state, I can attest to the longtime buzz that Putnam was “the man” who would be the nominee to succeed Republican Gov. Rick Scott, and without much opposition. But, since Trump’s endorsement last December, DeSantis has dramatically increased his name ID among base voters, achieving political rock-star status due to his frequent appearances on Fox News Channel while providing “cable catnip” to Trump-loyal viewers.
In fact, Trump recently called DeSantis one of his four GOP “warriors” who regularly go to “battle” for him on Capitol Hill and in the media against Robert Mueller and the Russia probe.
Back in Florida, the race is virtually tied and a long way from settled. According to the latest Florida Atlantic University poll, DeSantis leads Putnam by a percentage point, 16% to 15%, among registered Republican voters, with 43% undecided.
Conversely, in the money primary, Putnam is winning by a landslide. His May totals are not yet available, but by April’s end he had raised a total of $28.85 million from big traditional Florida money sources and had $19 million in cash on hand.
DeSantis made significant progress after raising $3 million in May, but still lags far behind Putman. At the end of April, DeSantis had raised only $8 million, with $7 million on hand, so May’s haul shows great promise.
Comparing the opening lines from both DeSantis’s and Putnam’s end-of-May fundraising emails speaks volumes about the branding and positioning differences between the two campaigns.
DeSantis opened his May 31 email by writing:
After publicly supporting me for governor, President Trump now calls me to check and see how our campaign is doing.
To be honest with you — at this moment — we’re behind on our end-of-month goal. I don’t want to have to pick up the phone and tell the President that we failed to hit our goal.
Then DeSantis followed up on June 2 with this opening:
The liberal media is attacking me for defending President Trump.
But they don’t understand that I’m not just defending the President. I’m defending you.
Putnam’s May 30 email began:
One of our generous donors has stepped up this month to MATCH all donations through MIDNIGHT before the end of month.
This is your chance to DOUBLE your impact on one of the most important races in the country. Democrats are using Florida as a political pawn to take back the presidency in 2020, and we can’t let that happen.
Thus, while DeSantis is glued to the “Trump ticket,” Putnam is looking past November’s general election to 2020 — subtly insinuating that he will be the Republican governor to fight for Florida’s 29 electoral votes — the key to a GOP victory.
In my discussions with influential Florida Republicans, many say that they like DeSantis but think Putnam would be a stronger general election candidate, believing he is better positioned to attract independent voters. Despite the ongoing efforts of anti-NRA activists, led by Parkland shooting survivors who recently wreaked havoc on Putnam’s campaign in the “Gunshine State,” the following political facts support such thinking:
Scott won re-election in 2014 by only one percentage point in a strong Republican wave year.
Trump won Florida in 2016 by only 1.2 percentage points.
In the May FAU poll cited earlier, Trump’s Florida job approval rating among all registered voters is 43%, up from 41% in February.
Trump’s Florida disapproval stands at 45%, up from 44% in February.
Among Florida registered Republicans, Trump’s job approval jumps to 62%, with 10.3% disapproving and 22.7 percent neutral.
Among Florida’s registered independent voters, only 24.8% approve of Trump, with 33.9% disapproving.
A huge X-factor in the August primary is whether or not Trump will hit the Florida campaign trail with DeSantis. In mid-May, the New York Times reported that Vice President Mike Pence had asked Trump not to campaign with his favorite Florida “warrior.” That was well after April 3 when DeSantis publicly said, “I think the president’s going to come down for me very soon. Which will be very good.”
However, the congressman is still waiting for the president. Then it was recently announced that Donald Trump, Jr., would campaign with DeSantis in late June. Perhaps Trump listened to Pence — at least for now.
With such a close race in a key state, if DeSantis loses the August primary, Trump runs the risk of suffering political embarrassment with national repercussions just as the fall campaigns enter the stretch run. This, of course, is why presidents don’t normally endorse primary candidates.
But Trump is a risk taker, and DeSantis is a brilliant young candidate with a bright national future who Trump may think is worth the risk. Furthermore, Trump may want to test his political strength in the state to see if he can push DeSantis over the primary finish line. If successful, that would be a great psychological victory for Trump and his base, not only in Florida but around the nation — a sign that he has once again triumphed over the GOP “establishment.”
Politics, like the weather, is unpredictable, but this we know: “Hurricane Trump” is either going to land with great force, make big waves for Ron DeSantis, and drown Adam Putnam. Or, Putnam wins the primary, the hurricane fizzles and quietly tries to sneak out to sea. Check the local Florida forecasts on Aug. 28 and then wait for the national damage assessment.
Cross posted at RealClear Politics