In the first debate between the two Republicans hoping to become Florida’s next governor, Congressman Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam were able to score points in an effort to define their opponent. Putnam called DeSantis an absentee Floridian more interested in Washington, DC than governing in the country’s third largest state. DeSantis labeled Putnam as a Tallahassee insider, weak on immigration and in the pocket of big donors.
The Republican Party of Florida debate, aired nationwide on Fox News, tended to focus more on national issues than Florida-specific concerns. President Trump dominated the Kissimmee debate as the Fox moderators asked about the new vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, immigration policy, tariffs and the Russia investigation. DeSantis, on multiple occasions, touted President Trump’s endorsement of his campaign. DeSantis also mentioned that Putnam didn’t support Trump in 2016. Putnam retorted he supports the president and will campaign with him during his 2020 re-election bid as “the governor of Florida.”
Both candidates support appointing a Supreme Court justice who will overturn Roe v. Wade and be a strict constitutionalist. They also support the implementation of medical marijuana in Florida, but oppose legalizing recreational marijuana use in the state.
DeSantis main assault on Putnam came on the issue of illegal immigration. DeSantis pledged to end sanctuary cities that provide refuge to illegal residents. He said he would remove from office local government leaders that house illegals. DeSantis claimed Putnam was weak on immigration and lobbied against proposed legislation that would have required all Florida employers use of E-Verify to ensure they were hiring legal residents. “He (Putnam) didn’t put Florida first. He put his big donors who want cheap foreign labor ahead of the interests of our citizens.” Putnam never disputed the claim and instead blamed Congress for its lack of action on immigration. “Washington let us down, as recently as this week, by not passing a fix immigration,” Putnam said.
When a Fox moderator said farmers need illegal workers, DeSantis said, “That’s not a reason to allow lawlessness in the state of Florida.” A recent Fox News poll conducted in Florida shows immigration to be the biggest concern of in-state Republicans. That same polls, as well as two other recent surveys show Putnam with a decisive lead over DeSantis – between 15-17 points. That partially explains the sharp elbows DeSantis has thrown Putnam’s way in the past week.
For Putnam’s part, he sought to label DeSantis as an outsider in his own home state. His opening line in the debate to DeSantis was “welcome to Florida, Congressman.” DeSantis, who is a former Navy JAG officer, said “duty calls.” DeSantis seemed much more comfortable talking about federal issues. His most passionate response of the debate was on the topic of the on-going investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. That contrasts with the “Florida First” theme Putnam has emphasized in this campaign. “Becoming governor of Florida is also a prize, but you must be present to win,” Putnam said.
With nearly eight weeks to go before the August 28 primary, the question is did DeSantis do anything to narrow the gap with Putnam? He’ll likely continue labeling Putnam as a “Tallahassee insider” and hope President Trump uses the power of the presidency by campaigning with him in Florida. For Putnam, he’ll continue his grassroots campaign and use his sizable money advantage to try and ride his lead to election day.
Watch the Fox News debate.