On Thursday night, at a debate held by the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) and broadcast across the country on Fox News, the two leading candidates for the GOP gubernatorial nomination clashed.
The sparks flew as Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla,, met in the debate in Orlando. With two months to go until the primary, polls show Putnam ahead of DeSantis but almost half of Florida Republicans remain on the fence.
Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier from Fox News moderated the debate which often dealt more with national instead of state issues.
Both Republican candidates stressed their conservatism and tried to appeal to Florida Republicans. DeSantis continually reminded the audience that he had the support of President Donald Trump while Putnam attempted to contrast his experience in Tallahassee with his opponent’s time in Congress.
Putnam jabbed DeSanits early noting the environment was “completely different than a Washington D.C. studio and I just want to say welcome to Florida congressman.” At the start of the debate, Putnam welcomed the news that Justice Anthony Kennedy was leaving the U.S. Supreme Court and welcomed Trump picking a replacement.
“I am thrilled, I am thrilled that President Trump has a second opportunity to remake the U.S. Supreme Court with a constitutionalist justice. This is going to be exciting for decades to come. We look forward to seeing who it is. It will be -- if they are near as good as Justice Gorsuch has been, it's an exciting time for America,” Putnam said before stressing his pro-life credentials.
“I’ve said I would sign the heart beat bill. Yes, we need a constitutionalist on the bench, someone who is not going to try and make law from the bench, but someone who will abide by our Constitution and protect and defend life,” Putnam said. “We should have a strict constitutionalist on the bench, someone who recognizes the individual rights in this country, someone who also recognizes that our founders intended that you defend life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I’m honored to have the support of the Florida Family Action Council in the governor's race here in Florida, because they know that as governor, I will pursue a pro-life agenda here in Florida as Florida's next governor.”
DeSantis also insisted he backed social conservatism and was pro-life.
“I’m proud to have the endorsement of President Donald Trump in this race,” DeSantis said. “And I think that Donald Trump has done a better job of appointing judges to both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Appeals Court than any other president in my lifetime, including one of my heroes, Ronald Reagan. So, God bless Donald Trump for doing that. And I think the opportunity to replace Justice Kennedy is really a historic opportunity. It should be a constitutionalist in the mold of Justice Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas who understands the proper role of the court is to apply the law and Constitution as it’s actually written, not to legislate from the bench, not to impose a judge's philosophy on the rest of the country.
“And I say there’s an analog here in Florida,” DeSantis added. “The next governor in all likelihood is going to have three appointments to our state supreme court, which is a historically liberal court. They’re activists. They legislate from the bench. I can tell you this, I am best position to identify those candidates for nomination to the state supreme court who are going to apply the law faithfully and will not be judicial activists. If we get it right, we can end judicial activism in Florida for a generation. "
Both candidates tried to embrace Trump but DeSantis insisted Putnam stood in the president’s way back in 2016. Putnam tried to reassure Republicans that he had Trump’s back.
"Democrats want to hijack Florida," said Putnam. "They have their eye on taking down President Trump in 2020, and that won’t happen on my watch."
“When Donald Trump was trying to win Florida in 2016, Adam Putnam did not attend a single rally with him,” DeSantis insisted. “You couldn’t find Adam Putnam if you had a search warrant.”
DeSantis also stressed that he had Trump’s support and looked to showcase his conservative credentials on immigration.
“There are not going to be any sanctuary cities in the state of Florida,” DeSantis vowed if he was elected, adding he would remove officials who set up sanctuary cities. He also insisted Putnam backed amnesty supported by the Obama administration.
“Washington should do its job,” Putnam fired back. “You have to have an immigration fix that meets the needs of this economy.”
"Washington is not going to solve our problems," said Putnam. "We need someone who knows Florida best and will put Florida first."
As the debate turned to gun control, Putnam stressed that he was a “proud” supporter of the Second Amendment and insisted the left was trying to undermine it. “We must not let the left hijack this debate,” Putnam said.
“If I was governor, I would not have signed gun control,” DeSantis said before ripping into the FBI and Broward County. “The lack of accountability is what puts our people at risk.”
Both candidates called for Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel to be dismissed for his handling of the Parkland school shooting and weigh in school shootings.
“It is critically important that we defend our rights and protect our students in the schools,” Putnam said. “Those two things are not incompatible.”
“My wife and I have two young kids under the age of two,” DeSantis noted. “The thought that someone would come and shoot them fills me with rage.”
DeSantis insisted Putnam “covered up” the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services allowed loopholes for concealed carry applications. Putnam insisted he handled the matter and noted he had the backing of police officers.
“Law enforcement is....in my camp,” Putnam said, reminding the audience he had the support of 45 sheriffs across the state.
The debate then turned to trade policy. DeSantis praised Trump’s dealmaking abilities but noted that “international trade” was important to Florida and noted that he helped bring funds to improve Jacksonville’s port. Putnam ripped China and Mexico, insisting they had been waging a trade war on the U.S. for decades which has hurt Florida agriculture.
As the moderators turned to entitlements, Putnam ripped into expanding Medicaid under former President Barack Obama’s health-care law. Noting that Medicaid was a third of the state budget, Putnam said Florida had to get it under control.
“It is the Pac Man gobbling up the Florida budget,” Putnam said, adding he would support mandatory work for Medicaid.
As the moderators began a lightning round, DeSantis and Putnam both stressed they would appeal to Puerto Rican voters. Turning to marijuana, DeSantis said he opposed bring recreational marijuana to Florida but said it should be a state issue. Putnam also opposed recreational marijuana but both candidates said they backed medical marijuana.
Calling himself a “principled and proven conservative,” DeSantis closed by noting he had Trump’s support and saying he would follow Gov. Rick Scott’s model. He ripped “insiders in Tallahassee” who backed Putnam and insisting they could not be trust, pointing to former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist’s tenure in office as an example of it.
Putnam noted that he knew the state very well. “The governor of Florida is....a prize but you must be present to win,” he said, trying to contrast himself with DeSanits. “I will always put Florida first.”
Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo weighed in after the debate and ripped both Republicans.
“After tonight’s debate, I’ve never been more confident that Democrats will retake the Governor’s Mansion in November. This debate was a right-wing circus brought to you by Fox News and inspired by Donald Trump. Before a nationwide audience, Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis made clear that they only have one message: Trump, Trump, Trump,” Rizzo said.
"Both DeSantis and Putnam failed to substantively discuss issues they will have to address as governor of Florida — like public education — and instead focused on divisive and demagogic rhetoric,” Rizzo added. “In stark contrast to the Republican gubernatorial campaigns, Florida Democrats are standing up for public education, affordable healthcare, and an economy that works for everyone of us — and that’s why we are confident of victory in November.”