Delivering a speech at the Florida Chamber’s Future of Florida event that touched on a range of topics from education to water management, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam unveiled his vision for the Sunshine State over the next decade. The only thing missing from his 20 minute stem-winder were the words, “…and that’s why I’m formally announcing my candidacy for governor of Florida.”
There will be plenty of time for a staffer to pencil that sentence into future drafts of the speech after the 2016 election cycle. But even without those words, there is zero doubt that Adam Putnam not only plans to run, but that he’s already executing the 2009 Bill McCollum playbook in which a former U.S. Congressman, now statewide officeholder, clears the field and locks up all the major institutional financial support.
Fast forward to 2016, and political consultants from Miami to Washington D.C., eager to cash in on what is sure to be a lucrative campaign, constantly attempt to network their way into Putnam’s orbit. After all, they, like everyone else, can see that Putnam has already amassed a $4 million war chest in his “Florida Grown” political committee. At the rate he’s raising money, he’ll make McCollum’s 2009 cash advantage over Paula Dockery look like chump change.
But is Adam Putnam really “inevitable” as the GOP nominee? Certainly things looked that way for Bill McCollum most of the 2010 cycle. From 2009 through May of 2010, only a handful of people with access to focus group data and extensive polling could have known that McCollum was so vulnerable.
“His support is a mile wide and an inch deep,” pollster Tony Fabrizio said of Bill McCollum in early 2010 after a round of focus groups demonstrated that McCollum was only popular because there were no credible alternatives.
In Tallahassee, the mile-wide support for Putnam already exists, and largely for the exact same reasons that people supported McCollum. All it takes to understand why he stands head and shoulders over all others is a quick glance around the political landscape. On the GOP side of the equation, while Republicans have a very deep bench, there’s less than a handful of potential “Tier One” gubernatorial candidates that are palatable to big, institutional donors, and of these, few are doing any serious saber-rattling at this early stage.
Here’s a look at ten top-tier Republicans that could mount a challenge under the right conditions:
UNKNOWN SELF-FUNDER / CELEBRITY CANDIDATE – This mystery man (or woman) possesses either the ability to self-fund, or is a wildly popular celebrity who can galvanize Republicans as a true “outsider.” And no, we’re not talking about Carlos Beruff. Just as Rick Scott seemed to come out of nowhere in 2010 (but was actually hiding in plain sight if you knew where to look), a self-funder or celebrity candidate will need to start laying the ground work early, but do so in such a way that nobody will notice. Scott’s core team (myself included) was hand picked from outside of Florida in order to conceal his plans to run until after the filing deadline in April 2010. It wasn’t until after that point that he started to add Florida consultants, advisers and staff.
How the stars could align: The Mets cut Tim Tebow, he immediately announces formation of joint Adidas / Nike SuperDuperPAC, releases 15-15-15 economic plan promising 15 steps to 15 million jobs in 15 years. Or some less popular gazillionaire hires the right team and navigates his or her way to victory.
Why a self-funder / celebrity won’t emerge: Simply put, such individuals are like unicorns, exceedingly rare in the political world.
MARCO RUBIO – Sure, he’s got his hands full running for reelection to the Senate. Of course he’s got his eyes on future opportunities in 2020. And yeah, running for governor in 2018 after running for president AND senate in 2016 won’t play well with voters. But prior to his announcement to run for reelection, virtually every serious conversation about Florida’s 2018 governor’s race included some mention of Marco Rubio. He’s got high name ID, and a strong team around him that includes a robust fundraising operation. If he wanted to challenge Putnam, he could easily do it.
How the stars could align: He would need a Draft Marco movement. That is, a geniune desire from the conservative base to enter the race and “save” the party. That only happens if it appears the establishment choice is unpopular with the base and is in danger of losing the general election.
Why Rubio won’t run: He’s still very young. And he’s almost certainly going to beat Democrat Patrick Murphy by high single digits in November, which means he’ll be in the Senate for another six year term. If Rubio doesn’t run for President in 2020, he can either run for governor or a third term in the senate in 2022. Bottom line is that he’s got a long political future ahead of him if he plays his cards right. There’s too much unnecessary risk in a 2018 gubernatorial run. By waiting, he can safely assess the mood of the electorate in a post-2016 environment. There’s no need to rush.
JEFF ATWATER – Not that long ago, Atwater was mentioned in the same breath as Adam Putnam whenever the subject of the governor’s race came up. There was good reason for it: Atwater has collected more of the popular vote than any other candidate in Florida since 2010. His ice cream socials at Republican events have been a mainstay for years, which is but one anecdotal example of how he has built a strong statewide network of support. On the fundraising side, few doubt he knows which trees to shake. In his role as Florida’s chief financial officer, he works closely with some of the biggest financial players in Florida politics.
How the stars could align: A crowded field where Atwater calculates he can win a plurality of votes.
Why Atwater won’t run: The timing may not be right, and Atwater knows he will need establishment help if he’s going win another big statewide race. Like a savvy poker player, he knows when to hold them and when to fold them. In this case, he’s neither walking away nor running from the table. It appears he’s just waiting to be dealt a better hand to play.
RICHARD CORCORAN – Ability to raise money? Check. Conservative pedigree? Check. Rumors zipping around Tallahassee that he’s eyeing the prize? Check. The ability to control the agenda in the legislature and shape the conversation in a runup to the campaign? Check.
How the stars could align: Corcoran catches “lightning in a bottle” through some legislative issue by taking the conservative high-road against other Republicans, which catapults him to the top of a crowded heap.
Why Corcoran won’t run: See entry for “Mike Haridopolos.” Corcoran can’t make the necessary preparations without word leaking. At that point, virtually everything he does will be viewed through the prism of “political calculation.” As the pressure mounts, the media coverage will reach a new level of skepticism, he’ll find he has little ability to maneuver in the final months of his term as Speaker, and his political opponents will leverage his ambition and use it against him. Only the greatest political strategists can navigate that kind of minefield without getting something vital blown off in the process. Some think Corcoran has the ability to make it through unscathed. They are called “Corcoranites.”
PAM BONDI – Yes, I am aware of Bondi’s recent media troubles, the fact that she doesn’t even appear interested in the job, etc. The point is, she’s wildly popular among rank-and-file Republicans across the state. Talk to any rank-and-file Republican voter who doesn’t live, eat and breath politics, and they’ll ask if Pam Bondi is going to run for governor. To the people watching at home on their 60″ flat screens, Pam Bondi is that “cute blond conservative girl who fought Obamacare, and oh, isn’t she friends with Trump?”
How the stars could align: Trump wins in November, and Bondi reaps the benefits, which include being lavished with Presidential attention and Fox News appearances.
Why Bondi won’t run: She doesn’t want the job. Plus, if Trump does win, she’ll probably have other opportunities.
JACK LATVALA – Like Corcoran, rumors whispered from one person to the next carry Latvala’s name in the same breath as the word “governor.” And $2.5 million cash on hand is nothing to sneeze at. Neither is his political ambition. Latvala has many friends in Tallahassee and around the state, and is owed a great many favors.
How the stars could align: Several conservative candidates join the fray and attack Putnam, peeling away his support. Latvala gets in late and cobbles together a plurality to win the nomination.
Why Latvala may not run: His home base is Pinellas, the same neck of the woods as Adam Putnam. He has a track record as a moderate, and would face difficulty in a GOP primary for governor. Plus, there are ample rumors he’s also eyeing the CFO job when Atwater is term-limited out in 2018. He’s going to run for something. But governor is probably not a realistic option for him unless several other viable candidates also join the fray.
RON DESANTIS – This cycle, he was willing to risk his congressional seat to run for Senate. That is, until Rubio jumped back in and he read the writing on the wall. But in 2018, a DeSantis vs. Putnam race could be interesting. DeSantis has a street-legal Super PAC charged up that would only require a few legal tweaks, coupled with the ability to raise a lot of money both inside and outside of Florida. On top of that, he’s spent his first term in office honing his conservative political chops. He’s got a good resume, and it’s clear he’s setting himself up for something bigger.
How the stars could align: Nobody else jumps in to take on Putnam, and DeSantis gets him one-on-one.
Why DeSantis may not run: His senate campaign never really hit full stride before Rubio jumped in, so his name ID remains low, which is to say he’ll need lots of money to be successful in a statewide contest, and a good measure of that cash will go towards building positive name ID. The political landscape in 2018 remains murky, and any number of developments or opportunities could divert his attention elsewhere.
CARLOS LOPEZ-CANTERA – In most states, it’s perfectly natural that the lieutenant governor becomes one of the leading candidates for governor in subsequent election cycles. For whatever reason, that hasn’t been the case in Florida. But it doesn’t have to be that way. CLC, as he’s affectionately called by those with affection for him, has all the tools to be a great standalone candidate. He’s already been vetted by the notoriously nitpicky Scott administration, he has a conservative pedigree, and his abortive run for Rubio’s senate seat provided him with a decent foundation from which to run for governor.
How the stars could align: Nobody else jumps in, and Rick Scott decides he wants to play kingmaker, helping his Lt. Gov. raise money to take on Putnam.
Why Lopez-Cantera may not run: If the senate race taught him anything, it was that it’s tough to gain traction in a crowded field. And if a legimate heavyweight contender is in the race, as we saw with Marco Rubio, CLC has little to gain by taking him head on. Like Rubio, he’s young and has a promising career ahead of him. Like Atwater, he’s more likely to fold this hand and wait to be dealt some better cards before pushing all his chips into the pot.
WILL WEATHERFORD – He’s been back in the private sector now for nearly two years, and by the time 2018 rolls around, he’ll be able to say with a straight face that he’s “not a career politician.” He’s well liked among Repubicans, and well connected, both inside Florida and out. He spoke at CPAC in 2013, something few state-level elected officials get to do. In short, he’s the kind of young, electrifying conservative that could follow the Marco Rubio template with great success.
How the stars could align: Putnam has the field all to himself, but fails to shore up his base, and as a result, looks vulnerable in the general election. The establishment and the base could turn to someone like Weatherford.
Why Will Weatherford may not run: The Republican bench is so deep, he might not get any serious playing time. Even with all his political skills and talent, he’s no doubt going to ask himself if it’s worthwhile to scratch, claw and elbow other, similar candidates when he’s perfectly content in the private sector. Only a significant lack of other challengers will prompt Weatherford to jump into the fray. Like several of his contemporaries, he’s one of the youngest, with a long potential political career ahead of him and no compelling reason to risk it on a 2018 run.
LENNY CURRY – Jacksonville’s fresh-faced mayor is slowly and meticulously becoming a political juggernaut in Northeast Florida. His work ethic matches that of Governor Rick Scott, he’s virtually fearless when it comes to taking on tough challenges (Exhibit 1a: his defeat of incumbent Mayor Alvin Brown in 2015), and he possesses an effective combination of political acumen and coachability that his top-flight political advisers know is extremely rare. He knows how to raise money, too.
How the stars could align: Jacksonville becomes a national focal point for any number of reasons, and Curry’s handling of the given situation garners him adoration from throngs of conservative voters. That, coupled with a few other extremely fortuitous developments – such as a weak field and Putnam’s failure to shore up the base, could thrust him into the governor’s race.
Why Curry won’t run: The timing just isn’t right. The mayor’s post is his first elected office (not counting his brief stint as RPOF chairman), and he’s got far more friends listed on this page than he has people he wants to run against. He’s definitely a viable candidate for higher office at some later point in his career, but the 2018 cycle is too much, too soon, and there are many others far more ambitious and eager than him that would make a move in 2018 before he would.
Got a candidate I missed? Email me or leave it in the comments section below.