Electorally speaking, for two decades now, it’s been a good time to be a Republican in Florida.
But after last fall’s victory by Donald Trump, the Chicken Chard and salmon dill seemed to go down even smoother Thursday night at the Sarasota County Reagan Patriot Day Dinner in Venice.
“Gosh, isn’t it great to be a Republican? Even greater that The Donald is our President,” said longtime Sarasota Republican Cynthia Crowe kicking off the festivities at the Jacaranda West Country Club.
“And isn’t it refreshing that we have a politician who keeps his word?”
“He’s not a politician!” a voice shouted from the back of the room.
Nobody will ever accuse Adam Putnam of not being a politician.
The state’s Agriculture Commissioner has served in public office for nearly half of his 42 years on the planet, and is running hard to succeed Rick Scott as the next Governor of Florida, even though he hasn’t actually declared his candidacy yet.
The keynote speaker for the evening, Putnam has often described his native Florida as a “reward for a life well lived,” which is great if you’re gunning for the over 60-crowd.
However, it isn’t dynamic enough for a general election campaign, something he’s obviously aware. That’s because he now pivots off that signature phrase to say that the Sunshine State can now be a “launchpad for the American dream.”
“We’re already the envy of the nation,” Putnam says. “Now we can be the envy of the world.”
If Marco Rubio was a champion of American exceptionalism during his ill-fated run for president a year ago, Putnam is running as a champion of Florida exceptionalism.
The state’s Agriculture Commissioner talks about the look in the eyes of out-of-state families when they arrive at a Florida airport for a vacation, and when they depart.
“They have made memories of a lifetime,” he says with the reverence of a child coming back from a week of enjoying theme parks, before stating with pride that “something like two-thirds of all Make a Wish Foundation requests are to come to Florida. That’s our state.” The crowd cheers.
(He asked not to be ‘PolitiFacted’ on that quote.)
Putnam is clearly on Rick Scott’s side in the debate with House Speaker Richard Corcoran over the merits of retaining Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.
“Coke doesn’t stop advertising. Budweiser doesn’t stop advertising,” he said, adding that the state needs to “invest in telling Florida’s story,” especially if it wants to diversify its economy.
While Florida is a classic Purple State in presidential elections, it’s otherwise awash in red, which is why Republicans have to revert to what it was like in the 1990s when talking about Democratic rule in Tallahassee (Putnam boasted about how crime rates have gone down 45 percent in Florida in the two decades since Republicans began ruling the roost, even though that has been a national trend).
Perhaps that’s why Putnam took aim at New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio instead, saying his policies are making people flee New York for Florida and calling him the best economic developer Florida’s ever had.
“We’re going to make him the honorary chairman of Enterprise Florida. How about that?”
And while Putnam praised the conservative government rule the state has been under for the past two decades, saying that’s why it’s done better economically than states like New York, California and Ohio, his policy prescriptions have tremendous room for growth.
“My strategy for infrastructure is to put up a picture of Atlanta,” Putnam said, decrying traffic conditions in the Georgia capital. But with Florida’s population growing again, traffic concerns are felt in the state’s biggest metropolis like never before.
Putnam ended his half-hour address with a stark reminder of how important it was for Republicans not to be complacent going into next year’s election cycle.
Referring to how the party out of power traditionally does well in off-year congressional elections, (not mentioning the intense grassroots Democratic opposition that manifested itself at town halls this winter and spring), Putnam said the GOP needs to reverse that narrative in 2018.
“We cannot rest on our laurels,” he stressed. “We have to be driven and focused and never take our foot off the gas. We can’t let up,” adding that “Florida has come too far, and America has come too far for us to sit back and become complacent and let the Democrats strip away all the gains we have made.”
So far, Putnam has already raised more than $9 million for the race, even though he’s still not officially a candidate for governor.
Nevertheless, the Democrats are indeed treating him as one, with the Democratic Governors Association requesting a full investigation into Florida Grown PC, a political committee associated with Putnam.
The DGA says that a Miami Herald report and public records show the committee has repeatedly circumvented requirements to reveal the ultimate purpose of a majority of its spending.