Florida: Trump ushers DeSantis into governor’s race

By Hastings Wyman –

The week after President Trump tweeted that US Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) is “a brilliant young leader, Yale and then Harvard Law, who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida,” the hard-right conservative congressman announced that he would run for the job of CEO of the Sunshine State. DeSantis’ conservative credentials include membership in the House Freedom Caucus, a group that often tries to hold Speaker Paul Ryan’s feet to the fire, and is a frequent guest on Fox News.

After Trump’s tweet, a poll came out that showed DeSantis’ numbers jumped dramatically. Remington Research Group, new to political polling, released a survey of Republicans that showed DeSantis with 28%, state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam at 25% and state House Speaker Richard Corcoran 3%, with 44% undecided. Narrowed to the top two candidates, DeSantis had 30%, Putnam 29%.

Some careful observers of Florida politics question the accuracy of the poll. Noting that DeSantis had been polling in the low teens, one opined, “I don’t believe one Trump tweet would change the race that much overnight.” In a November poll Putnam led with 26%, DeSantis had 9%, former state Sen. Jack Latvala 2% and Corcoran 1%. And in a mid-December poll by Gravis Marketing, Putnam had 23%, DeSantis 12%, Corcoran 2% and Latvala 2%. Despite Putnam’s first place in these surveys, one observer says that for Putnam to be in the mid to high 20s is “weak for a statewide officeholder.”

Even if Trump’s endorsement did produce such a major shift in public opinion – from 9% to 28% – these early numbers may not mean that much. They mainly reflect name ID. “Joe Lunchbucket is following tax reform, not the governor’s race,” says Barney Bishop, a Tallahassee-based political analyst. Brad Coker, head of Florida-based Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy, says, “If you go out to dinner with friends, nobody is talking about the governor’s race. If politics comes up and it’s not about Trump, it might be about the Nelson-Scott Senate race.” Says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, “Both political parties’ governors’ races are wide open.”

Polls aside, however, DeSantis gained significantly from the presidential tweet. Bishop says that the Trump money people are getting behind the congressman: “Those are people in the Koch brothers’ network,” among them Sheldon Adelson, Rebekah Mercer and groups oriented toward economic conservatism. Although some are affiliated with the Koch brothers, the brothers themselves have made no endorsement.

“A problem for DeSantis is that he is not known. It’s still Putnam’s to lose,” says Bishop. But a GOP insider adds, “If Trump’s guys bring in big bucks, it will help DeSantis. He will have to raise $50 to $75 million to win the primary.” For example, the cost of a serious campaign includes up to $3 million a week for statewide television ads.

“DeSantis will be a serious challenge for Putnam,” says pollster Coker, who points out that “DeSantis has been on Fox News a lot. That Republican/Fox News vote will go for him.”

In his announcement, DeSantis said he wanted to “build on the great work that Governor Rick Scott has done,” a statement designed to please a number of Republican voters, including the party’s money and muscle establishment, most of whom are for Putnam.

Professor MacManus points out that Putnam, who has been Agriculture Commissioner for seven years and before that 12 years in Congress, “goes to all these small county events, like Rubio… the party loyalists favor Putnam.” In addition, while Putnam has a conservative record, he appears to be more moderate, or at least pragmatic, than any of the others, which appeals to some – though not all –Republicans.

Former state Sen. Latvala, while officially still in the race, saw his candidacy “sink in one day,” as one source put it, when he got mired in a sexual harassment scandal. Many of his supporters are likely to gravitate toward Putnam.

The other Republican gubernatorial hopeful with some heft is House Speaker Richard Corcoran. His advantages include a solid knowledge of state issues, a feisty – if not fiery – style, the ability to raise money, especially in Tallahassee, and a strong appeal to the party’s rightwing voters.

In addition, says one source, Corcoran “is a superior tactician.” Corcoran suffers because he is unknown to most voters. He should get a lot of publicity this week when the legislature goes into session January 8, however.

“I can see DeSantis and Corcoran battling over the conservative vote,” giving Putnam the lead, says MacManus. The problem, echoes Bishop, is that “there are not that many Tea Party people for both DeSantis and Corcoran… It may depend on whether both DeSantis and Corcoran stay in the race. Corcoran is not likely to leave the race. (Being governor is) what he wants to do.” But says another observer, “Corcoran is not really a powerhouse.” His prospects may depend on whether the Speaker can get the money to make his case to the statewide Republican electorate.

Quips one insider, “Whoever is the most credible conservative and has the most money wins” the Republican nomination.

The news in the past week has been favorable to the GOP, but that doesn’t mean the Democrats will not mount a powerful challenge to the Republicans, who have won the last three gubernatorial elections. The Democrats have four credible candidates – Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum; former US Rep. Gwen Graham, daughter of former Gov. Bob Graham; businessman Chris King; and Philip Levine, former mayor of Miami Beach.

Indeed, Levine, from the left wing of his party and a multi-millionaire (ocean cruises), began running television spots last week, nearly a full eight months before the August 28 primary. “He can afford it,” offers one insider. Stay tuned.