In the past few weeks, I have heard from more than a handful of Democrats who haven’t learned a powerful past lesson of Republican primaries in Florida – cheering on the most extreme right-wing candidate for an office and hoping to face them in November has often meant that candidate wins the office outright.
But be careful what you wish for, Democrats. Adam Putnam, the longtime presumed front-runner for has run a poor campaign and been dogged by public relations messes he hasn’t properly handled. In most polling, Putnam has fallen behind Congressman Ron DeSantis, one of the most conservative members of the US House. DeSantis might appear crazy to some, but his brand of conservatism is grounded largely in intellectual arguments and his conservative policy positions come across as more nuanced, consistent and seasoned than President Trump or his US House colleague the dogmatic and immature Matt Gaetz for instance.
Some in the Democratic Party make the assumption or the case for political reasons that nominating a moderate with a moderate reputation such as Gwen Graham, against DeSantis would allow the Democrats to occupy the middle ground and win the Governorship for the first time in close to a quarter century. This was similar logic employed in the nomination of Bill McBride in 2002 (McBride lost by the largest percentage margin of any Democratic nominee since reconstruction) and the Democrats in 2010 when Alex Sink was pushed and other potential candidates were shoved out of the way. In 2010, Democrats thought they had caught a big break with Rick Scott upsetting Bill McCollum in the primary – in fact they hadn’t as Sink’s milk toast moderation led to a lower than expected turnout in urban south Florida and the emergence of the conservative (carpetbagger) Scott as Florida’s leading political figure. Democrats felt in 2014, Scott’s conservatism defined the party and he’d be easy pickings. Again they were wrong.
A few faulty assumptions have been made in relation to this governor’s race among at least some Democrats, mirroring mistakes of the past:
- That Putnam would be more “moderate” than DeSantis. Putnam’s instincts are conservative and have always been in his 22 years serving in public office (his entire adult life). Putnam also has a nasty streak and an adherence to party talking points, DeSantis hasn’t yet demonstrated in his albeit much shorter time in public life. This is the same assumption that was made vis-a-vis a McCollum against Scott. McCollum was the NRA’s water carrier (much like Putnam) when in Congress and a viscous, nasty conservative when it came down to it. He showed that during the debate on the 1994 Crime Bill and the 1998 impeachment of President Clinton. Putnam performed similarly as a legislator only appearing “moderate” in relation to his replacement in the GOP House leadership, Mike Pence. This state has shown that time and again Democrats preferred to run against Scott who wasn’t temperamentally as prone to meltdowns as McCollum and they lost. Putnam is far more prone to a short fuse from my observations of him than DeSantis.
- DeSantis’ conservatism will favor Graham or the Democratic nominee. The problem with this is that DeSantis has a very clear and articulate vision of policy – unlike Putnam whose adherence to party talking points is easier to debunk. Pushing a mushy moderate agenda or playing it safe isn’t going to work against DeSantis. When given the choice Florida voters have proven time and again they will vote FOR something rather than against AGAINST someone or something.
- The attachment of DeSantis’ to Trump may stimulate greater turnout that projected for the GOP in a midterm election. Midterms are turnout wars and something Florida Democrats with the continued preference for moderate candidates from outside southeast Florida still haven’t comprehended. Democrats MUST match the energy and enthusiasm DeSantis could generate from Trump voters – remember Trump actually won Florida by over 100k votes in 2016.
It’s still only July, but the warning signs for another Democratic disappointment are already popping up. When a party has lost 17 of the last 18 elections for Governor or cabinet, something statistically almost improbable given the balanced nature of the state’s electorate, arrogance and entitlement isn’t a wise thing.