GOP well-funded in CFO, ag commissioner races

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The races for two of Florida’s most important offices, state agriculture commissioner and chief financial officer, both pit incumbent Republicans with big campaign coffers against little-known Democrats who haven’t raised much money.

CFO Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam are both expected to win easily over their lesser-known opponents, setting them up as strong GOP gubernatorial candidates four years from now. Beyond running their respective departments, the CFO and agriculture commissioner are part of the Cabinet along with the governor and attorney general. Each has a vote on pardons, and its members serve on a variety of state boards and commissions.

In the CFO race, Atwater, 56, has raised about $4 million. His opponent, 54-year-old Will Rankin of Pembroke Pines, has raised about $37,000. The CFO oversees a 2,600-employee agency that has a $325 million annual budget and manages a $21.4 billion portfolio. The agency includes the state’s treasury, insurance department, fire marshal’s office, and department of banking and finance.

Atwater’s TV ads tout him as the state official who arrests people for fraud and who “protects the state’s most vulnerable citizens from financial harm and abuse.” Atwater served in both the state House and Senate and had been a banker.

Rankin said Atwater supports insurance companies and big business, not the average Floridian.

Rankin, a former Republican, served 11 years in the Army and worked at the Ohio treasury department. According to campaign finance reports, he also owns a magazine called Millionaire Lifestyle.

“Three and a half years later in office, we have no more sustainable jobs than we had four years ago, and insurance rates are higher now than they were when he started,” Rankin said of Atwater in a video posted on his website.

In the agriculture commissioner race, Putnam has raised $3.7 million. His challenger, Thaddeus “Thad” Hamilton, has raised $38,000.

The job’s full title is commissioner of agriculture and consumer services. The commissioner is best known for overseeing food safety and helping farmers produce and promote their crops. The commissioner also oversees the state’s consumer protection operation. The department has a $1.5 billion budget and 3,400 employees. The department’s budget is so big, in part, because it oversees the state’s school lunch program.

Since Putnam, 40, was elected, he has received permission from the Legislature to put his department in charge of the state’s school lunch program and link farmers with schools to provide fresher food for children.

Putnam’s fundraising advantage has allowed him to advertise on television and campaign around the state in a bus. His re-election campaign also has a strong presence on Twitter.

Hamilton, 64, lives in suburban Fort Lauderdale and is making his first run for statewide office. He worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for 36 years before retiring. He served on Broward County’s land preservation advisory council and the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. According to his biography, he served 28 years combined in the Army and the Army Reserve and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He is married with three children.

“We have to get away from money. Money should not be a key qualifier in this,” Hamilton said. “Right now, it appears that money has taken over our democracy.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.