President Trump with Congressman DeSantis
From DeSantis campaign

President Trump’s name isn’t on the ballot in 2018 but he’s a force to be reckoned with in the Republican race for governor. Polling shows Trump’s tweet endorsement of Ron DeSantis is the main reason the Jacksonville-area Congressman has flipped a double-digit deficit into a double-digit lead over state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. DeSantis’ quick turnaround is a feat not recently witnessed in modern Florida politics.

There’s growing speculation that DeSantis may also be the benefactor of a campaign appearance with President Trump. Congressman DeSantis all but confirmed that during a weekend campaign event in Jacksonville.

“He’ll be saying whatever he says in front of ten or fifteen thousand, however much the arena can hold, and I think that’s going to carry far and wide around the state,” DeSantis said. “Nobody has the kind of megaphone he has. He’s excited about the developments in this race. Florida’s like a second home to him.”

Despite a sizable money advantage, some of Putnam’s supporters are now privately questioning if he can overcome the bully pulpit of the presidency in a primary election just five weeks away. Trump’s popularity among Florida Republicans is high, hovering around the mid 80s.

Just One Month Ago
Adam Putnam
From Putnam campaign

As recently as June, Commissioner Putnam was riding high. Three independent polls showed him with a 15-17 point lead, he had raised over $30 million for his campaign, the support was wide-ranging and he performed well in a Fox News debate, even though the questions were primarily centered on national issues and not Florida-specific.

If there’s one moment when the dynamics of the race changed, it was the morning after the debate when President Trump tweeted his full endorsement of DeSantis.

With that tweet you could almost hear the collective sighs coming from the Putnam campaign in Polk County.

Congressman Ron DeSantis
Photo by Gage Skidmore / Alamy Stock Photo

Since that moment, DeSantis has seized the momentum in the race. Fox News celebrities Sean Hannity and Mark Levine have campaigned on his behalf. The President’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., rallied supporters in Orlando this past week. DeSantis also launched a $12 million TV ad buy touting the President’s endorsement. And he got the endorsement of the Charles Koch-backed organization Freedom Partners Action Fund, which promises to bring additional third-party support on his behalf. All of that resulted in a seismic shift in the race, which three public polls confirm.

Race to the Finish

The most recent poll conducted by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which has endorsed Putnam, shows the race is tied. Whether or not the Chamber poll is an outlier, it gives the Putnam camp hope that it still has a battle to fight. A senior Republican consultant unaffiliated with either campaign, who asked to remain anonymous to speak openly, tells FLA News the Putnam campaign will have to intensify it’s strategy to win. “He has to take it directly to DeSantis and not try to have elderly third parties (such as in the “Seniors” ad released this week) deliver soft blows. It won’t be enough in these circumstances beyond his control,” the consultant said. “Sharp hits, focused messaging and a superior ground game. He has resources and manpower to make this happen in five weeks, and if Trump taught Florida conventional-wisdom anything, it is do not try to predict elections. Impact them instead.”

In other words follow the DeSantis’ campaign playbook which has sharply hit Putnam this past month by attempting to nationalize the race. DeSantis tags Putnam on immigration, calling him “Amnesty” Adam. DeSantis says Putnam isn’t a true supporter of President Trump. Accuses him of being the candidate supported by special interests. And he calls Putnam a career politician, having been in elected office half his life as a state representative, congressman, and agriculture commissioner.

Putnam’s supporters say that last point is actually a stark difference between the two candidates. “Adam Putnam is not a ‘life time politician’ — he’s a lifetime public servant,” said former Lieutenant Governor Jeff Kottkamp. “He has prepared his whole life for this moment. No one is better prepared to lead Florida on Day 1 in office than Adam Putnam.”

Winning the August 28 primary is only the battle, not the war.  Democrats hope to use Trump’s low overall approval ratings to make gains in Congress and statehouses across America. Florida hasn’t had a Democrat elected governor since Lawton Chiles, who died in office a month before he was succeed by Jeb Bush.

One of the recent polls showing DeSantis winning the primary, shows him beating three Democrats, tying businessman Jeff Greene and losing to Gwen Graham, a former Congresswoman and daughter of former Governor Bob Graham. That same poll shows Putnam beating every Democrat running. Might DeSantis win the primary and lose the general election? One Florida pollster believes DeSantis will do better with Democrats and independents as they learn more about him. “It’s still very early before the general election. Not many Democrats or independents know DeSantis while Putnam has been around forever,” said Doug Kaplan, president of Gravis Marketing, a national polling firm.  “As of right now Putnam would make the better general election candidate but I think DeSantis will be fine. Either way, it’s going to be a tough election.”

If the past two governor’s elections have shown us anything, it’s to expect a tight race. Governor Scott was elected in 2010 by just over 62,000 votes out of 5.3 million cast. Four years later, he was re-elected by 64,000 votes out of 5.9 million ballots. 2018 should be no different. But first, DeSantis and Putnam have an August 28 battle looming and if July has shown us anything, it’s to expect a knock-down, drag-out August.

David Bishop is a native Floridian, husband and father. During his 30 year career, David has been a journalist, political operative and communications consultant.