Adam Putnam’s Liberal Policies Are Dooming His Florida Governor Run

Published August 15, 2018

Florida gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam has dropped like a rock in recent polls and is poised for a devastating defeat in this month’s Republican primary. Long considered an unstoppable force in Florida politics, Putnam’s campaign is now on life support. When the postmortem is written on the Putnam campaign, he will have his own liberal policy agenda to blame.

The Inevitable Florida Governor

As long ago as Gov. Rick Scott’s first-term inauguration day in 2011, Putnam was considered a cinch to win the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2018, when he could use his moderate, compromising image to crush his Democratic opponent, whoever he or she may be, in the 2018 general election. But now Putnam trails conservative champion Rep. Ron DeSantis by 11 points in the Real Clear Politics polling average. Putnam is learning the hard way that Florida’s Republican grassroots voters will not choose an Establishment candidate with a liberal track record in a statewide election, especially to fill an important political office.

For most of his adult life, Putnam has been the golden boy of Florida politics. Putnam was the youngest person ever elected to the Florida Legislature, when, at just 22 years old, he won election to the Florida House of Representatives in 1996. In 2000, Putnam was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the youngest member in Congress. He served 10 years in Congress, ultimately rising to become the third-highest ranking Republican in the House.

When Putnam announced he would not seek reelection to Congress in 2010 and would instead seek election as the Florida agriculture commissioner, the play was obvious: Putnam was angling for the governor’s mansion in 2018. Using his statewide election as agriculture commissioner—a Florida cabinet position that was historically devoid of ideological agendas—Putnam would develop the experience, statewide political ties, and sense of inevitability to win the Republican gubernatorial primary and the general election in 2018.

At first, Putnam’s strategy appeared to be working. No Republican dared to challenge Putnam in the 2010 or 2014 primaries for agriculture commissioner. He won the 2010 general election by a whopping 16 percentage points, and he won re-election in 2014 by an even-larger 18 points. When, as early as 2011, talk turned to who would succeed Rick Scott as the Republican flag-bearer in the 2018 governor’s race, few prominent Republicans dared signal they would challenge the formidable Putnam machine.

Defying the Conservative Base

But the Republican Party has changed a great deal since Putnam became a career politician in 1996. The party’s voters no longer give rubber-stamp approval to whomever the party’s political establishment believes has earned the right to be next in line for office. Candidates must prove they are in greater political alignment with the party’s grassroots conservative base than the interests of business conglomerates, special interests, and Tallahassee political kingmakers. 

The first signs of the troubles that are now haunting Putnam became apparent, if largely overlooked, in 2011. Putnam backed—and, in many ways, directed—a bill in the Florida Legislature, House Bill 7117, that gave $100 million in taxpayer subsidies to the renewable energy industry. The conservative Republican base tends to be hostile to taxpayer subsidies and is particularly hostile to subsidies for renewable energy. This hostility was at a peak in 2011, when the Solyndra solar power scandal made headlines across the nation. When Florida grassroots conservative groups learned about H.B. 7117 in late 2011, they mobilized in force to express their displeasure. Americans for Prosperity-Florida and several Tea Party groups launched a letter-writing campaign and a public relations offensive to halt the bill. Tea Party members assembled in Tallahassee, held press conferences, and visited their legislators to express their anger.

As Republican legislators began to waver, Putnam doubled down on his efforts to pass H.B. 7117. Behind the scenes, Putnam worked the legislature and made fealty to H.B. 7117 a defining issue for Republican state legislators. Oppose the bill, legislators were told, and future Gov. Putnam would never forgive or forget it. Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature passed the bill in near-unanimous votes in March 2012.

Scott was more conservative and in tune with his party’s conservative base than Putnam. Scott’s team told grassroots conservative groups that he was leaning toward vetoing the bill. According to Tallahassee insiders, however, Putnam learned of Scott’s intent and delivered an ultimatum to Scott.  Putnam said he would challenge Scott in the 2014 gubernatorial primary if Scott followed through on his veto threat. At the time, Putnam was the rising star in Florida politics and Scott’s polling numbers were underwater.

Despite Putnam’s threat, Scott continued to signal he would follow through on his veto threat. However, on the morning of April 13, 2012—the last day Scott could veto the bill and the day grassroots groups were expecting such a veto—Putnam publicly released what he called “an independent economic analysis” claiming H.B. 7117 would benefit the Florida economy and save Floridians money. Florida’s liberal media outlets championed the study and Scott faced the headwinds of a vigorous public relations offensive mounted by his Republican agriculture commissioner. Scott reluctantly gave in and allowed H.B. 7117 to become law, without his signature, on April 14.

Florida’s grassroots conservatives were outraged and felt betrayed by the Republican agriculture commissioner they had elected. That sense of outrage and betrayal became even stronger when details surfaced about the “independent economic analysis” Putnam presented. The person Putnam commissioned to write the analysis was anything but independent and objective. The study’s author was a consultant for several renewable energy lobbying groups, including the U.S. Renewable Fuels Association, Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, and Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. Prominent conservative economists and energy experts disputed the conclusions of Putnam’s study and reported the H.B. 7117 subsidies would take money out of Floridians’ pockets and reduce economic growth.

Renewable Energy Champion

Fresh off his H.B. 7117 victory, Putnam made government subsidies and support for renewable energy one of his signature issues. In August 2012, Putnam’s Department of Agriculture released a report praising the Obama stimulus and claiming Florida benefited from the stimulus’ so-called “green energy” subsidies. Putnam stood by his support for the Obama stimulus even when economists at Columbia University, University of Massachusetts, and University of Maryland demonstrated the Obama stimulus represented a net drain of money from Florida taxpayers that was spent disproportionately in other states.

Also in 2012, Putnam spoke out against legislation that would repeal Florida’s ethanol mandate. “Symbolically, [repealing the ethanol mandate] sends the wrong message for Florida about our commitment to renewable energy,” Putnam said. Cowed by Putnam’s growing power, the Republican-dominated legislature defeated the 2012 ethanol repeal bill.

Putnam’s Agriculture Department launched an annual Florida Energy Summit that was fresh out of the Al Gore energy playbook. Year after year, speaker after speaker waxed poetic about solar power and other renewable energy sources. They lectured the audience about carbon dioxide emissions. They praised government subsidies and advocated for more. Speakers supporting free-market energy economics or the benefits of affordable coal and natural gas power never appeared on the program.

Putnam ventured still further away from his conservative base talking about global warming. He earned favorable attention from the establishment media for claiming global warming skeptics are “anti-science” and “don’t want science to be the good guide to public policy.”

Additionally, for years, Putnam was a highly visible cheerleader for expensive, government-funded high-speed rail projects. He hosted pro-rail rallies, as the lone Republican sponsor, with Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. As one press release for the rallies described it, “The rally will kick off a statewide campaign to reach out to the White House and demonstrate Florida’s support of the proposed High Speed Rail Project.”

Petitioning government to spend billions of dollars on high-speed rail is part of the liberal political agenda, not the conservative agenda. The same applies to renewable energy subsidies, ethanol mandates, global warming activism, and the Obama stimulus.

Liberal Policies Cause Voter Backlash

Fast forward to 2018, when Rep. Ron DeSantis entered the race, challenging Putnam’s liberal agenda directly and unapologetically. Adam Putnam, fade to black.

As recently as this spring, pundits considered Putnam a lock for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Polls showed Putnam with twice as many supporters as DeSantis. But early in the primary season, polls reflect little more than name recognition. People knew the name of their statewide agriculture commissioner, but relatively few were familiar with Rep. Ron DeSantis.

As recently as June, a Fox News poll showed Putnam leading DeSantis with a strong 32 percent to 17 percent lead. Although on the surface the early polling presented a daunting picture, the poll also showed half of Republican voters didn’t know enough about the candidates to state a clear preference. Since then, the candidates have debated, DeSantis has established himself as the conservative alternative to the more liberal Putnam, President Donald Trump and conservative icons Sean Hannity and Mark Levin have endorsed DeSantis, and Republicans who normally don’t closely follow their agriculture commissioner’s political agenda have learned about Putnam’s positions on renewable energy subsidies, global warming, Obama’s green stimulus, ethanol mandates, and high-speed rail subsidies. Putnam is retaining the support of the professional Republican Party establishment and continues to poll at approximately 30 percent. DeSantis, however, has picked up everybody else that has recently made a decision; he now polls at 40 percent. Putnam’s goose appears to be cooked.

The lesson to be learned is liberal policy agendas, even in the feel-good realm of energy and environment issues, can carry devastating political consequences in Republican primaries. More specifically, Republican politicians’ policy decisions that repeatedly defy their conservative base will come back to hit them like an anvil dropping on Wile E. Coyote’s head.

Adam Putnam once had the brightest future in Florida politics. Before he turned 30, pundits talked about his inevitable election as Florida governor, U.S. senator, and perhaps even president of the United States. But now, Putnam’s future appears to be that of a Tallahassee lobbyist, a return to his family homestead, or, at best, a return to his former congressional seat. Sure, that’s a good living, but it is not what Putnam has envisioned or desired for the past 22 years.

Republican policymakers who aspire to greater heights should take notice.