Putnam, DeSantis race showcases appeal of anti-establishment politics

U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump took the Republican Party by storm on his way to winning the White House.

Next up: The Florida governor’s mansion.

Trump’s endorsement could prove decisive in Florida’s GOP primary for governor, highlighting just how much the president has come to dominate a party that once had a fraught relationship with him.

READ ALSO: More Trump-centric campaign: Ron DeSantis or Jeff Greene?

The race between Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis also is showcasing the enduring appeal of the anti-establishment message that helped carry Trump and other Republicans into office over the last few years.

Putnam has built a broad network of support over more than two decades in public office. He is endorsed by a wide array of elected leaders and interest groups.

ALSO: Donald Trump Jr. joins Fox News team campaigning for DeSantis

But that doesn’t mean much in the modern GOP, especially when your opponent has the one endorsement that really counts.

Trump will arrive in Tampa Tuesday to hold a rally for DeSantis. Putnam’s campaign — already struggling — could suffer a mortal blow.

A pair of surveys released last week had DeSantis leading Putnam by significant margins.

READ ALSO: Want to vote? Deadline to register for August primary is July 30

“Our president’s stronger than he’s ever been with the base and I think he’s going to have a significant impact on the race,” said state Rep. Joe Gruters, who served as the co-chair of Trump’s Florida campaign and is not backing either candidate in the race.

If Putnam loses, it also would be another remarkable rejection of conventional politics and politicians in Florida, one that began when Rick Scott won the governor’s mansion in 2010 and carried through to Trump’s victory in the state in 2016.

Trump’s ability to boost DeSantis from relative obscurity into frontrunner status for the GOP nomination in the governor’s race — leapfrogging a well-liked candidate who has spent years sowing up support in every corner of the state — is the latest sign of a fundamental shift in Republican politics.

Putnam still has time before the Aug. 28 primary to try and beat back DeSantis and avoid the fate of other establishment Florida Republicans, candidates such as Trump opponent Jeb Bush and Scott opponent Bill McCollum.

But he faces a big obstacle in Trump.

Natural politician

Pat Neal first met Putnam in 1996 when he was a 22-year-old running for the state House.

Neal, a Lakewood Ranch home builder and former state senator who remains influential in GOP politics, was introduced to Putnam at the Pier 22 restaurant in downtown Bradenton.

“He had a unique ability to connect with people,” Neal said. “He impressed me as a genuine human being.”

Neal cut a check for Putnam’s legislative campaign and has been a supporter ever since, watching Putnam rise from the Legislature to Congress, where he quickly garnered a top leadership position, and then statewide office.

In 2010 Putnam — a fifth-generation Floridian who grew up in the tiny Polk County community of Bartow and hails from a family of citrus growers — decided not to run for reelection to his Central Florida congressional seat, instead returning home to seek the agriculture commissioner post.

Putnam easily won the job and immediately was viewed as a future candidate for governor. He began quietly laying the groundwork for his current race.

A few years ago, Peter A. Wish, a GOP fundraiser and political consultant from Sarasota, began attending retreats hosted by Putnam in the old money island community of Boca Grande, long a favorite vacation spot of the Bush family.

“I would always say to him I see you as governor of the state someday,” Wish said of his talks with Putnam. “I think he always aspired to be governor of the state. I can’t read his mind but I think that’s something he’s entertained for a long time.”

In Putnam, Wish saw a natural politician at ease in any setting.

“He’s a guy who emotionally connects with people,” Wish said. “He’s very authentic. What you see is what you get.”

Putnam has played up this folksy image with a steady string of low-key grassroots campaign events, including barbecues on country ranches and intimate breakfast chats. He recently held a rally at the Historic Venice Train Depot, where he wore a white dress shirt with rolled up sleeves and no tie and slammed DeSantis for basing much of his campaign on FOX News appearances.

“You gotta role up your sleeves and get involved in each one of our communities,” Putnam told the crowd. “The big ones and the small ones. You can’t run for governor from a studio. You gotta be in a train depot and you gotta be at the barbecue restaurant…”

But Putnam’s efforts to portray himself as Mr. Florida — the candidate who knows the state and its issues inside and out — and dismiss DeSantis as someone who lacks the requisite knowledge and experience for the job appears to be falling flat with many voters.

“Adam Putnam has spent nearly $20 million making that case and voters are just not buying it,” said U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a…

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