By Lloyd Dunkelberger, The News Service of Florida
ORLANDO — With the enthusiastic backing of President Donald Trump, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis won the Republican primary for governor on Tuesday, handily defeating Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
With more than 93 percent of the precincts reporting statewide, DeSantis, a three-term congressman from Northeast Florida, totaled 56 percent of the vote to 37 percent for Putnam, who has served two four-year terms on the Florida Cabinet.
DeSantis appeared with his wife, Casey Black DeSantis, at 8:51 p.m. on a stage at the Rosen Shingle Creek resort in Orlando to declare victory. He said Putnam called him shortly after the last polls closed in the Panhandle’s Central time zone to offer support.
He also got a call from Trump, whom DeSantis credited for helping him win the primary.
“I want to thank him for viewing me as someone who could be a great leader for Florida,” DeSantis told the crowd gathered at his election-night viewing party. “So, thank you Mr. President.”
The double-digit victory was an electoral exclamation point for DeSantis, 39, who began the campaign as a little-known congressman facing a veteran politician who had the backing of most of the Tallahassee Republican establishment.
DeSantis, 39, who has been one of Trump’s fiercest defenders in Congress, had the ultimate asset in the president’s support. It began in a series of favorable presidential tweets and reached a crescendo in a July 31 rally in Tampa where Trump gave DeSantis an in-person endorsement.
“He’s going to be an incredible governor,” Trump told the crowd.
DeSantis, a Harvard-educated lawyer and U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Iraq war, fully embraced Trump’s support. He melded that with frequent appearances on the Fox News network, where his campaign strategists astutely projected he could raise his profile among GOP voters despite Putnam’s early advantages in the race.
DeSantis’ victory derailed Putnam’s storied political journey, which began when he was elected as a 22-year-old to the Florida House of Representatives in 1996. Putnam also served 10 years in Congress before winning two four-year terms on the Florida Cabinet as the commissioner of agriculture.
But at age 44, Putnam has plenty of time to resurrect his political career. It has been done before. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson at the age of 47 was overwhelmed in a Democratic primary for governor by Lawton Chiles in 1990, but he came back to win a state Cabinet seat and then move on to the U.S. Senate in 2001.
On the final day of the campaign, Putnam stayed true to his “Florida First” strategy that took him across the state for face-to-face encounters with voters. He held sign-waving events with his supporters along busy roadways in Orlando and Brandon, before casting his vote in his hometown of Bartow.
DeSantis, who lives in Ponte Vedra Beach with his wife and two young children, had voted earlier by absentee ballot.
In an interview with Fox 35 News in Orlando on Tuesday morning, Putnam said he remained convinced that his effort to build a vast “grassroots” organization across the state would propel him to victory in his contest with DeSantis, who was making his first bid for a statewide office.
“The grassroots energy and momentum you’re seeing out here, the sign wavers, the rallies, the barbecues we’ve been hosting, all the grassroots work that we’ve been doing for the last year is going to pay off tonight when the polls close,” Putnam said.
Putnam also had a considerable financial advantage over DeSantis, spending more than $36 million for his campaign compared to $16 million for DeSantis through Aug. 23. The money edge helped Putnam dominate the television advertising in the primary.
But in the end, all of Putnam’s relentless retail campaigning and his advertising advantage was not enough to overcome DeSantis’ greatest strength: his relationship with Trump.
Trump reiterated his support with a final campaign tweet on Monday, calling DeSantis “a special person who has done an incredible job.”
“He will be a great Governor and has my full and total Endorsement!” Trump tweeted.
In a final debate with DeSantis at Jacksonville University on Aug. 8, Putnam seemed to lament the considerable role that the president’s intervention in a Republican primary had played.
“I wish he hadn’t put his thumb on the scale of Florida’s campaigns,” he said.