Trump endorsement boosts Republican in Fla. gov race

Trump endorsement boosts Republican in Fla. gov race
© Greg Nash

Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisTrump privately bashing DeSantis as 'disloyal' after breaking with him on Puerto Rico death toll: report DeSantis 'hell bent' on debating Gillum in Florida governor race Trump stands by tweets questioning Puerto Rico death toll: 'NO WAY' MORE (R-Fla.) has turned an endorsement from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE into a political weapon in the Republican primary for Florida governor.

DeSantis has emerged as one of Trump’s fiercest defenders in the House, brushing aside accusations of collusion stemming from the Russia investigations and advancing the Republican claims that the FBI was biased against the president.

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Before Trump’s endorsement, tweeted out days before Christmas, Florida Republicans considered Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner, to be the favorite for the governor’s mansion. Putnam has raised more than $22 million for his bid.

But now, thanks to Trump’s endorsement, DeSantis could pull off a surprise primary win.

“Without Trump, DeSantis would have had a bigger headwind,” said Alex Patton, a GOP strategist in the state. “With Trump’s endorsement, the assumption is it comes with outside spending, money, the whole gaggle of people in Trump’s web.”

Trump’s endorsement underscored DeSantis’s defense of the president amid special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s ongoing Russia investigation.

In August, DeSantis offered an amendment that sought to limit Mueller’s funding to six additional months, as well as limit him from investigating “matters occurring before June 2015.”  The president likely welcomed that attempt, since he told The New York Times in July that he’d consider it crossing a line if Mueller looked into his family’s finances.

As the chairman of a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee subcommittee, DeSantis is also part of the House investigation into the 2010 approval of a deal that allowed a Russian firm to buy Uranium One, a Canadian company with American uranium holdings.

Trump has blasted the deal and linked it to his 2016 presidential opponent, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton: FBI investigation into Kavanaugh could be done quickly Hillary Clinton urges Americans to 'check and reject' Trump's 'authoritarian tendencies' by voting in midterms EXCLUSIVE: Trump says exposing ‘corrupt’ FBI probe could be ‘crowning achievement’ of presidency MORE, who had been secretary of State at the time of the deal’s approval. But there’s been no evidence she played a role in the approval of the deal, which required the approval of eight agencies in addition to the State Department.

DeSantis also spent time with Trump shortly before his endorsement, flying with him on Air Force One to a December rally in Pensacola, Fla. A week later, Trump tweeted his endorsement as he landed for his trip to his Mar-a-Lago resort.

“Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader, Yale and then Harvard Law, who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida,” Trump tweeted. “He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!”

That endorsement came shortly after DeSantis appeared on Fox News to criticize the Obama administration’s handling of Iran, an interview that played on the television screens on Air Force One.

Recent polling from Remington Research Group, which puts DeSantis a few points ahead of Putnam, shows Trump’s endorsement makes Republican primary voters polled 69 percent more likely to support DeSantis.

The plurality of respondents, 36 percent, identified as “Trump Republicans” when asked to describe what type of Republican they consider themselves.

Putnam had led all major polls before the endorsement, including a Gravis poll that was in the field when Trump endorsed DeSantis.

The dynamics could change again if Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who could challenge DeSantis for the more conservative votes, jumps in. Corcoran is expected to make a decision after the Florida legislative session ends in March, but would have a long way to go to catch the two candidates. 

DeSantis is held back in the primary in part by his position representing parts of suburban Jacksonville — no stronghold for GOP votes. 

Instead, DeSantis derives his strength in part from strong relationships with national conservative leaders and donors. And his regular appearances on Fox News amount to free advertising for his campaign.

“He’s always had this unique place in Florida politics, where he was positioned to close the money gap with Putnam if he decided to get in, but Trump closes other gaps with Putnam,” said one former Florida GOP operative who worked for Gov. Rick Scott. “Putnam was never going to be the favorite of the hardcore Trump base.”

DeSantis’s position as the pick for big-money, national conservative donors is reflected on his “Financial Leadership Team,” which the budding campaign released after Trump’s endorsement.  The list included GOP mega-donors like Sheldon Adelson, Doug Deason, Foster Friess and Rebekah Mercer, as well as Home Depot founder and Florida resident Bernie Marcus.

Some of the donors likely jumped on board after Trump’s endorsement, while others, like Mercer, had previously donated to DeSantis.

It’s too early to know how much those mega-donors will pony up for their candidate. But state law, which allows unlimited political contributions to candidate-affiliated groups, could make DeSantis’s wealthy backers a political force as he looks to catch Putnam.

The announcement of DeSantis’s finance team was likely meant to push back against Putnam, who has raised mountains of cash of his own.

Putnam’s campaign and political action committee, Florida Grown, have raised a combined $22.5 million for his bid, with more than $16 million in cash on hand.

Putnam has been in public office for nearly his entire adult life. He won election to the Florida state House in 1996 at the age of 22, serving two terms before his elevation to the U.S. House, where he served for 10 years and rose to the position of House Republican Conference chairman. Now he’s the state agriculture commissioner, term-limited out of the job after his second four-year term and looking for his next step.

Putnam’s résumé made him an obvious choice for Republicans looking to replace Scott after his term expires in 2018. The agriculture commissioner became the early favorite, posting double-digit leads in the polls and getting a head start on the campaign trail by announcing in May. 

“Adam has been to every chicken dinner, every hay barn, every meet and greet you can be at for the last eight years. He’s really put in his time with the grass roots in Florida. They know him,” Patton said.

Putnam’s campaign tried to tie the Republican to Trump early in the campaign, but that strategy is more complicated with Trump in DeSantis’s corner.

Putnam’s campaign immediately hit DeSantis for announcing on Fox, attempting to drive a distinction between DeSantis as a “Washington, D.C., insider” and Putnam as a “Florida First conservative.”

Spokeswoman Amanda Bevis hammered the point home by chiding DeSantis for announcing “his latest campaign from an empty TV studio to broadcasters in New York,” contrasting it to Putnam’s May announcement at a rally in Florida.

The strategist with ties to Scott also added that Putnam could benefit from his closeness to the governor, who had a 54 percent approval rating in Morning Consult’s October poll and received an almost 61 percent favorable rating in a St. Leo University poll from November. Those numbers are far higher among Republicans.

“You may see Putnam, rather than the Trump conservative message, leaning more toward the Rick Scott conservative message to say he’s been in Tallahassee and part of the Cabinet for eight years, and here’s all we’ve accomplished,” the strategist said.

Neither candidate has much experience in tough elections.

DeSantis won a crowded 2012 primary on the way to his congressional seat, but has cruised to reelection since. And he hardly separated himself from the crowded pack of GOP Senate candidates in 2016, before the field largely cleared when Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio unloads on Turkish chef for 'feasting' Venezuela's Maduro: 'I got pissed' For Poland, a time for justice Judiciary Democrat calls for additional witnesses to testify on Kavanaugh MORE (R-Fla.) changed his mind and ran for reelection.

Putnam has largely coasted electorally, too. He won big in both of his agriculture commissioner bids and rarely faced difficulties winning elections during his House career.

“We don’t know if Adam Putnam can take a punch,” Patton said.

“What we also don’t know is if Ron DeSantis can throw one, or if he can take one either.”