Thousands of red-hatted fans braved the heat and the rain to crowd into a Tampa arena this week, greeting President Donald Trump with a raucous welcome and boosting the political fortunes of Trump acolyte Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis, a Northeast Florida congressman, has made Trump’s endorsement a cornerstone of his primary campaign against Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the “establishment” candidate who just a blink of an eye ago was considered the clear front-runner in the contest to succeed outgoing Gov. Rick Scott.
But after a seeming lifetime of preparation to take up residence at 700 North Adams Street, Putnam’s candidacy for governor now appears doomed, in what one veteran Republican operative gloomily predicted “could be the last nail in the GOP’s coffin in Florida.”
“The Republican Party has lost its collective mind. It is some sort of mass psychosis. I close my eyes and I see my colleagues in the party just shuffling across this broad plain like lemmings, as they raise this little cloud of dust as they head toward the cliff,” operative J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview this week.
If Trump’s endorsement of DeSantis — described by Stipanovich as “a hologram of a man who knows nothing about Florida” and “whose only claim to fame is 100 appearances on Fox TV and being a Trump sycophant” — secures the nomination for the congressman, “it is a disheartening commentary on the shallowness, superficiality and the gullibility of the Republican primary electorate,” Stipanovich said.
The eloquent and erudite Stipanovich, a wily political strategist who’s advised a number of Republican governors and played a role in the 2000 presidential recount, said he isn’t writing off Putnam, yet, “if for no other reason than that hope springs eternal.”
But Republican strategist Rick Wilson, one of the founders of the “Never Trump” movement, sees more dire headwinds for Putnam’s dream of moving into the governor’s mansion.
“It’s over. It’s been over for a while. It no longer matters what you are, what you believe, where you come from. What matters now is does Donald Trump tweet about you and does Fox News book you every night or not,” said Wilson, the author of “Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever,” which will be released Tuesday.
Wilson is among a chorus of strategists on both sides of the aisle who say a DeSantis nomination could help Democrats in November, if the right candidate makes it out of the crowded primary.
“The pro-Trump, pro-Fox, Ron DeSantis audience that exists in the Republican base is not purple Florida. It is not a 50-percent-plus-one equation at this moment,” he said, while warning that the Democrats “could easily f— things up.”
“Their infinite capacity to screw themselves is remarkable, but without too fine a point on the thing, if they pick a Gwen Graham, they have a chance. And if they pick a Jeff Greene, welcome to Gov. DeSantis,” Wilson said.
Trump thrust his outsized persona into the middle of Florida’s governor’s race with a full-throated endorsement of DeSantis in the Sunshine State’s largest media market Tuesday.
Less than a month before the Aug. 28 gubernatorial primary, Trump opened his speech by telling a crowd of more than 10,000 people packed into the cavernous Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds that DeSantis was a “good friend” and a “tough, brilliant cookie.”
DeSantis, a three-term congressman who grew up in nearby Dunedin, said it was “a true honor to be standing here endorsed by the president of the United States.”
“I appreciate your support. But I appreciate more the leadership you are showing,” DeSantis said, citing Trump’s record on the economy, Israel and U.S. Supreme Court appointments.
DeSantis said Florida “is going in the right direction” but can continue to improve on “economic opportunities,” and “we can fight illegal immigration.”
His last statement drew a loud cheer and chants of “build that wall.” DeSantis said he would support imposing an electronic-verification system to make sure Florida workers have legal immigration status. He also said he would “stop sanctuary cities,” although there are none in Florida.
Putnam, who celebrated his 44th birthday Tuesday at a political event highlighting veterans in The Villages retirement community, said he supports Trump and his agenda.
“But this is about being Florida’s governor. This is about leading a $1 trillion economy in the third largest state, and to do that you need to know Florida,” Putnam said. “I know Florida better than any of the other candidates running. I’m confident that there’s an awful lot of Trump-Putnam voters out there who want a governor who actually understands the challenges facing them and puts them first.”
The venue Tuesday was important because the Tampa Bay media market can potentially reach a quarter of the state’s voters and has the largest concentration of Republican voters, said Susan MacManus, a longtime political-science professor at the University of South Florida.
“It’s clear now that DeSantis is playing offense and Putnam is playing defense. We’ll have to see. Putnam probably still has a lot of loyalists who see polls that suggest he could be better against any of the Democratic nominees,” MacManus said.
Several times during Trump’s speech, he made sure to mention his support for DeSantis, who has been a frequent guest on the Fox News network and is an ardent defender of the president.
“He’s going to be an incredible governor,” Trump said.
Trump also said he doesn’t “do these endorsements easily,” but then cited his recent endorsement of Brian Kemp, a hard-line conservative who went on to a landslide victory in a Georgia Republican primary for governor.