ORLANDO — Donald Trump Jr. traveled to central Florida to rally support for the White House’s favorite Republican gubernatorial candidate Rep. Ron DeSantis. What was striking was who the president’s son was not endorsing: Adam Putnam, the establishment political figure who entered the race as the presumed frontrunner.
When Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and a former congressman, announced his bid for governor in May 2017 in front of hundreds of supporters in a rural swath of the Tampa region where he grew up, a sentiment common in big-league Florida politics began to solidify: It was his turn.
With just over a month ahead of primary day, Putnam is in the fight of his political life against primary foe DeSantis, a Jacksonville-area congressman pulling ahead in public polling in large part due to the support of President Donald Trump. The race has narrowed, and the momentum — a less concrete, but very important political metric — is decidedly at DeSantis’ back.
“Ron DeSantis was there from day one. He got it,” said Trump Jr., who was the main event at a Wednesday rally in Orlando for DeSantis. “He was with us when it was not exactly cool to be with us.”
The race to decide the next resident of Florida governor’s mansion has wider implications than state policy fights to be waged in Tallahassee when lawmakers return to session. Florida has long carried heft as the nation’s largest swing state, and the state’s next governor will be in charge for the 2020 presidential election cycle. Those implications have the race squarely on the national political radar.
The high-energy rally, held at a packed B.B. King’s Blues Club in the heart of Orlando’s tourism center, took place while Putnam was an hour away mingling at a candidate forum in The Villages, a sprawling Central Florida retirement community and GOP stronghold. DeSantis skipped the forum in favor of his rally with Trump Jr. The competing events reflect the way both candidates have decided to run their races. Putnam’s camp has taken a workmen-like approach, holding dozens of small, grassroots events — such as “Up and Adam” breakfasts — across the state.
DeSantis, on the other hand, has used Trump’s support and the coattails of national conservative media personalities after he gained their support sitting on the GOP’s right flank during his three terms in Congress. Putnam has countered with a wave of state-level endorsements, including from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who is campaigning for him in Orlando Thursday, and most county sheriffs. That support, traditionally important in statewide Florida races, has been at times swamped by the national conservative microphone working to elect DeSantis.
Conservative influencers like radio host Mark Levin, Fox News’s Sean Hannity and Dan Bongino, a conservative commentator who makes frequent appearances on Hannity’s show, have been actively campaigning for DeSantis in Florida.
“If we had 200 Ron DeSantis in Congress, we would not be in this mess,” said Bongino as he opened the DeSantis rally.
That constant messaging from some of the biggest names in conservative politics has helped erode Putnam’s front-runner status, but nothing has fueled the DeSantis surge more than Trump. The president’s endorsement, which remains solid gold with GOP primary voters, has been touted twice on Trump’s Twitter account, and rumors about a Trump rally for DeSantis continue to hang over the primary contest.
“The president’s endorsement and DeSantis’ debate performance has certainly boosted his numbers,” said Nick Iarossi, a veteran GOP fundraiser and lobbyist. “There is still some ball to play, and Putnam has a good funding advantage and good grassroots operation. I expect the numbers will compress as the election nears. The big question is how much?”
After the rally focused on his status as a political outsider, DeSantis retreated to nearby Alaqua Country Club for a fundraiser headlined by Trump Jr. Those attending the fundraiser, for his official campaign, were asked to bring $3,000 for VIP entrance, and $500 for the general reception.
DeSantis has taken a sizable, at times double-digit, lead in recent public polling, all of which stresses the importance of Trump’s full-throated support.
A poll out earlier this week by GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio had DeSantis up 42-30, which is in line with other recent public polling of the race. Like others, Fabrizio pointed to Trump’s support as the biggest influencing factor, a dynamic not lost during the Orlando rally.
“I think it’s real,” a longtime GOP consultant said of DeSantis’ lead in the polls. “I’m not sure it’s double-digits, but I think it’s a six- or seven-point lead. Putnam has the resources to close the gap, but I’m not sure he will.”
The consultant and others contacted by POLITICO said they felt a momentum shift, but were reluctant to talk about it because they either had clients supporting Putnam or because the powerful state-level groups that have poured millions of dollars into his campaign could become upset.
“I don’t know if you heard this, but Ron DeSantis has been endorsed by Donald Trump,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, a panhandle Republican and staunch supporter of both DeSantis and Trump, said at the rally. “Can you make sure every Republican in Florida knows that?”
Trump not only serves as the force that has helped boost DeSantis’ poll numbers but also serves as an insurance policy against potential conservative critics. This is how one veteran of past Florida GOP primary battles sums it up: “Putnam has money and campaign ground mechanics to move numbers back. But one big challenge is that any negative ad he puts up, he risks a weaponized POTUS tweet in all caps that his charge is ‘Fake News,’ ending any threat to DeSantis.”