It was the end of one of the sleepiest weeks of the entire political year in Florida when the trajectory of the 2018 Republican race for governor changed.
On Friday afternoon, July 6, polling company Remington Research Group released a poll showing that North Florida U.S. Rep Ron DeSantis led Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam by 17 points, the first time a poll showed DeSantis leading the contest after entering it in January.
The climb by DeSantis in the polls (which remained steady the entire summer up until the last two weeks) has been attributed to two main factors: his frequent appearances on the Fox News Channel, and the enthusiastic support of one Donald J. Trump, who initially tipped his hand for DeSantis in a tweet late last December, and then solidified that with a personal campaign appearance in Tampa on July 31.
The GOP race for governor was never expected to just be a two-person affair; Legislative heavyweights state Sen. Jack Latvala and former Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran were always considered to be part of the mix, but in the end, neither made it very far.
As a perceived moderate in an increasingly conservative Republican Party of Florida, Latvala’s bid was always going to be quixotic, but it – and his political career – ended ignominiously late last year following reports of sexual harassment (Latvala resigned from his Senate seat in December, but he was never charged with a crime).
At least Latvala was a candidate for a few months; Corcoran’s much- promised candidacy died before it ever started when it became evident that there simply wasn’t much grassroots support for the man who had been labeled as one of the most powerful Florida House Speakers in recent history.
All of those other Republicans were always considered to be underdogs to the 43-year-old Putnam, whose 22-year political career appeared to be culminating with his run for the highest state office in Florida.
“Everything changed with the Trump endorsement of DeSantis, along with the backing of DeSantis by the conservative establishment,” says emeritus professor of government Darryl Paulson at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg. “Putnam became the candidate of the establishment and, for Republicans, that is the kiss of death.”
While Putnam has looked down and out for more than a month, his campaign became energized two weeks ago when a SurveyUSA poll showed him just two points behind DeSantis.
If DeSantis does defeat Putnam, it will be another election in which the Republican base tuned out the establishment candidate in favor of the next new thing.
In 2010, Republicans rejected Charlie Crist in his bid for U.S. Senate against the up-and-coming Marco Rubio, forcing Crist to leave the party and run as an independent, where he lost badly. That same year, Republicans rebuked then-Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and threw their support to a man most had never heard of – Rick Scott.
Now DeSantis, who had little name recognition and barely moved the needle in his aborted run for U.S. Senate in 2016, may be on the cusp of defeating Putnam – at least that’s what polling suggests. It would be an upset, since Putnam has boasted of his familiarity with the entire state and worked for years meeting grassroots Republicans.
“DeSantis is appealing to the anti-political class voter that got Rick Scott elected 8 years ago, and (got) Donald Trump elected president,” says Tampa conservative radio talk-show host Chris Ingram
There has been tremendous interest in the primary to date. The Florida Division of Elections website reports that more than 1.86 million people have voted already, more than participated in the 2016 presidential primary election.
The polls close at 7 pm Eastern in most of the state, with polls in the Panhandle closing at 8 pm Central time.