President Donald Trump's Florida rally couldn't have come at a better time for Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who may have locked up a primary victory as he seeks to become Florida's next governor.
Thousands of people attended the Tuesday rally in Tampa as thousands of absentee ballots are arriving in mailboxes across Florida. Just the fact that Trump endorsed DeSantis earlier in the campaign helped him surge past Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in Republican primary polls. Now with headlines and photos of DeSantis and Trump together on nearly every major newspaper's front page and on television news around the state reinforces that support with a Republican base that loves the president.
"It would appear that Republican primary voters are willing to slavishly follow their master's every dictamen," said Tallahassee-based lobbyist and Republican political strategist Mac Stipanovich. "It's really odd, hard to describe and actually frightening."
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Most political observers would have assumed Putnam was going to be the nominee when he entered the race 15 months ago. He had seemingly been building up to this campaign his entire adult life. He was elected to the state House in 1996 as a 22-year-old and four years later to the U.S. House, where he served five terms and became one of the most powerful House Republicans. He left Washington and was elected agriculture commissioner in 2010. This year, he has widespread establishment support and has spent more than $26 million between his campaign account and a political committee on the race. He's made countless stops around the state, running a traditional grassroots campaign with a focus on Florida issues.
But seemingly overnight DeSantis has erased whatever advantage Putnam had with a campaign largely based on Fox News appearances, Trump's backing and a focus on national issues. DeSantis, a former Navy officer, cast himself as a Washington outsider when he won his seat in 2012 and his goal was originally to remain in Washington — not run for governor. He ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, but dropped out of the race when Republican Sen. Marco Rubio decided to run for re-election. DeSantis didn't enter the governor's race until January and until recently held few in-state campaign events. Instead, he's appeared on Fox News more than 100 times, usually defending Trump.
That loyalty helped sway the endorsement. Trump called DeSantis a great friend and a "tough, brilliant cookie."
"I know him well. He's a great, great guy. He's going to be an incredible governor," said Trump, who is a part-time Palm Beach resident. "I don't do these endorsements easily. I don't need to be here, but I happen to love this state ... Though it seems to have an impact."
Trump then pointed out the recent Georgia Republican gubernatorial primary, where one-time presumptive front-runner Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle lost by 40 percentage points after Trump-endorsed Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
DeSantis's Trump strategy also appears to be working in Florida.
Terry Castro, a 71-year-old retiree from Tampa, says she likes Putnam, but is supporting DeSantis.
"I like that he has a great association with the president, and he knows how the Hill works. I think that would be a big asset for Florida," she said.
As for Putnam?
"Adam, what's not to like? He truly loves Florida," she said. "But he's been running for this job for 15 years."
While DeSantis was earning statewide attention Tuesday, Putnam was in The Villages retirement community meeting with several dozen veterans in an event that was largely lost amid the Trump headlines.
"I know Florida best and I'm focused on putting Florida first. I support the president and I support the president's 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 told reporters. "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."
He's right that not every Trump supporter is going to vote for DeSantis just because of the endorsement.
"I'm a Trump fan, but that doesn't sway me one way or the other," said Nancy Laminack, 47, a hairdresser from Mayo, during a Putnam campaign event shortly after Trump announced he was going to hold Tuesday's rally.