Is Putnam Yet Inevitable?

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY AUG 12, 2017

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam swung through Sarasota this week for a campaign fundraiser, a reminder the 2018 election cycle has already started for serious candidates. Putnam, who aspires to be Florida’s next governor, clearly falls into that category, and it’s not clear anybody in his party can yet say the same.

“I don’t think there’s anybody on the Republican side that can challenge him,” says John Saputo, owner of Gold Coast Eagle Distributing, where the Tuesday fundraiser was held. “Adam has paid his dues in the state.”

I can't argue. Putnam, a native Floridian, graduated out of college and into politics, winning a seat in the Florida House of Representatives at age 22, the youngest person ever to do so. In the year 2000, he made an ambitious leap into federal politics and won a Congressional seat the first year he could.  In 2010, he made his move for statewide office, humbly seeking the least prominent post on Florida’s Cabinet and easily winning his current post.

Of course, another strange thing happened in 2010 that reshaped Florida’s political landscape dramatically, especially for the GOP. It brought the rise of the Tea Party, allowing Marco Rubio in his first statewide run to knock out then-popular Gov. Charlie Crist in a bid for US Senate. But less noticed then and more important now, it saw the entry of virtually anonymous Naples businessman Rick Scott into the governor’s race, challenging “paid-his-dues” Attorney General Bill McCollum. Scott would stun the establishment and defeat McCollum in the primary before winning the governor’s mansion twice.

Since then, Florida GOP voters picked businessman Donald Trump over Rubio, now a “Washington insider,” in the Republican primary last year. Trump, of course, also won the state in November on his way to the White House. Notably, the Scott wing of the party helped assemble those victories as well.

That’s likely why it’s hard to find much of Putnam’s political biography on his own website. Besides mentioning his current post, there’s more about his church than the fact he’s held elected office for decades. That alone shows how much politics has changed.

So will Republican voters this year pick a career pol to be their gubernatorial nominee? Saputo, a Scott convert himself, still sees the advantages of an experienced lawmaker in charge. “He will be able to work with the hardliners and the moderates,” Saputo says.

Pat Neal, a Manatee County builder and Putnam supporter, believes it’s too late for another candidate to challenge Putnam in the primary. He figures affable Putnam won’t be as vulnerable to an outsider challenge as McCollum. As for other established pols, he hopes House Speaker Richard Corcoran decide to run for a different post like Attorney General, and candidates like state Sen. Jack Latvala haven’t shown the penchant to capture a statewide base. “What Adam needs to do is raise enough money to ensure his inevitability,” Neal says. “I think he’s doing that.”

Indeed, with $2.2 in donations to Putnam’s account and another $13 million to a pro-Putnam PAC, his money will hard to match.

Could someone label Putnam as a squishy moderate, as Rubio did to Crist? Maybe, but anti-incentive crusader Corcoran still must duke it out with US Rep. Ron DeSantis for that title. Of course, some still itch for a primary fight. And Scott, now on a US Senate quest, reportedly looked for a businessman last year to rock the field.

But state Rep. Joe Gruters, also chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County and a stalwart Scott and Trump supporter, figures the field is set. But he also believes any of the four major GOP candidates in the running could win the nod. “Adam has a little bit of an advantage,” he acknowledges, “but at the end of the day, it’s whoever runs the bets campaign.”

That’s always true, but it’s also especially important. now, as a solid campaigner will be what the party needs. Mid-terms typically prove unkind to the party holding the White House, and while Florida voters haven’t elected a Democrat as governor since Lawton Chiles won re-election in 1994, the Dems have more credible candidates running than has been seen in a generation. Even if Putnam prevail in the primary, he needs to be ready for a fight next November.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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