In the GOP campaign for Governor, it wasn’t too long ago that Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam was left for dead.
Putnam suffered what appeared to be a mortal wound when President Donald Trump came to Florida for U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis. And then there were polls showing DeSantis up by 20 points.
Some discussed the idea of Putnam getting out of the race. Previous Putnam donors moved over to DeSantis.
However, he doubled down, with a bravura performance in a Jacksonville debate, and some new polling showing that the race could be a dead heat.
In a primary season full of ironies, perhaps the greatest would be if Putnam could overcome Trump endorsing his opponent — after a campaign season where the leading question was about how Trump would, in the words of Putnam, put his “thumb on the scale” in the campaign.
We caught Putnam’s speech off the beaten path: on the outskirts of Lake City, at a breakfast buffet with a raft of domestic pickups in the parking lot.
This is Putnam’s element: what once was “real” Florida, which is becoming demographically obscured by blotched suburban and exurban sprawl, homes for transplants from other places, who brought their values with them.
A lost cause? Perhaps. But you wouldn’t know that from Putnam’s speech or from the reception in Lake City, a place where Donald Trump Jr. isn’t likely to make a campaign stop with a candidate.
Putnam’s remarks were full of markers of cultural authenticity, of being a “real Floridian” (unlike his primary opponent). Many of these were familiar.
From trumpeting endorsements from nearly 50 sheriffs and Attorney General Pam Bondi, to noting the next Governor needs to know where Union and Bradford Counties are “without a GPS,”, and — most tellingly — lifting a famous line from Democrat Lawton Chiles‘ 1994 defeat of Jeb Bush.
“The old he-coon walks just before the light of day,” Putnam said, before describing himself as a “fifth generation Florida cracker.”
Putnam noted the importance of “running up the numbers out here,” as spots on two-lane roads are not DeSantis Country, because DeSantis doesn’t make the appeal.
“They don’t bother to drive up your road and visit you at your business,” Putnam said.
Putnam also razzed DeSantis’ dependence on Trump, at one point lampooning him calling the White House and asking “what are we going to do today, boss?”
After the remarks, we caught up with the candidate, who was laconic in his answers.
Asked about the poll mentioned up top, Putnam described it as a “good way to start a Monday,” but the “only poll that matters” is, of course, Election Day.
“I like the feel on the ground, I love the sense that I’m getting from the crowds, the energy, the doorknocking. This is where I believe a year and half’s work pays off of actually being in people’s communities, listening to them, hearing their concerns and sharing my vision for Florida … running on more than just an endorsement,” Putnam said.
Worth noting: his team has knocked on 300,000 doors, a stark contrast to what seems to be a phantom field operation on DeSantis’ side, an appeal to what the candidate calls “Trump/Putnam voters,” who support the President, but who also expect a “real plan for Florida” from the next governor, rather than just being “totally dependent on the President’s coattails.”
Putnam’s appeal, he says, is targeted to “small towns and big cities alike,” citing workforce development as something that matters statewide.
“This is not a message that is narrow in scope,” Putnam said.
DeSantis has already leaked potential Lieutenant Governor picks. When asked about that, Putnam said “he can run his campaign the way he wants to and I’ll run mine the way I want to.”
In a real sense, with candidates that fundamentally deviate little from Florida Republican status-quoism, difference in presentation, style, and temperament will be dispositive in the end.