In their first joint appearance of the campaign, the two leading Republican candidates for governor Saturday night outlined a series of conservative stances on abortion, gun rights and education.
There were few differences between Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who each took questions in separate half-hour sessions before the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative advocacy group that opposes abortion and gay marriage.
“Our party would be in a pretty bad place if there were broad disagreements in front of the Florida Family Policy Council,” said Putnam, a two-term member of the state Cabinet and a former congressman and state lawmaker.
Both candidates oppose abortion, with Putnam telling the council members that he would support a “heartbeat bill,” which would prohibit doctors from performing abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Iowa’s Republican governor signed such a bill Friday, setting up a legal fight that supporters hope could lead to a test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.
“If the heartbeat bill gets to my desk, I will sign it,” Putnam said, recounting listening to the heartbeat of one of his four children before birth. “That life is real. It should be protected. It should be defended.”
The Florida Democratic Party issued a statement late Saturday that blasted Putnam on the abortion issue, describing him as an “anti-choice extremist.”
"Instead of laying out a positive vision to move Florida forward, Putnam is putting forward an extreme, far right agenda that would hurt women's health and undermine working families,” Democratic Party spokesman Kevin Donohoe said.
DeSantis, a three-term congressman from Palm Coast, was not asked directly about abortion legislation, but he is a co-sponsor of a bill that would provide protections for fetuses “born alive” during abortion procedures. He recounted seeing an ultrasound of his son, who was born this year, calling it “a powerful example of science reinforcing something that I believe.”
Putnam and DeSantis are expected to face each other in the Aug. 28 Republican primary for governor. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, is also considering the race, although he has not announced his decision.
Issues addressed during Saturday night’s event could be important as the GOP candidates try to appeal to conservative primary voters.
Asked about the state’s response to the mass shooting at Broward County’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, DeSantis said he would have approached a school-safety bill, which included new restrictions on gun sales, “differently because I think it scapegoated law-abiding citizens in terms of their Second Amendment rights.”
DeSantis said the system failed at the local and federal levels to protect the 17 students and staff killed and wounded in the Valentine’s Day shooting.
If he were governor, DeSantis said he would have removed the Broward County sheriff, and he said FBI members who received two calls about the alleged shooter prior to the incident and “didn’t do anything” should be fired.
“They have not been fired. How do you have no accountability and expect to get good results?” he said.
The bill, which the Republican-dominated Legislature and GOP Gov. Rick Scott approved, includes increasing the minimum age for buying rifles and other long guns to 21. The National Rifle Association has filed a federal lawsuit challenging that restriction.
Although giving credit to Scott and lawmakers for “quickly moving” on the school tragedy, Putnam questioned how a 20-year-old could get sent on an overseas military operation “but can’t go to a sporting goods store and buy a shotgun.”
Both DeSantis and Putnam said the state needs to do more to keep weapons away from people with mental illnesses and to improve the security of school campuses.
Both candidates were asked by Frank Luntz, a Fox News analyst who moderated the event, about legislative battles over the public bathrooms that can be used by transgender people. The issue centers on whether transgender people should be required to use bathrooms that correspond to their sex at birth or whether they can use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
“As a father, I am not going to sign a bill that lets men into my daughters’ restrooms,” said Putnam, the father of three daughters.
DeSantis said he would oppose efforts to have “unmarked” bathrooms.
“That’s a totally inappropriate use of government to do that,” he said. “Getting into the bathroom wars, I don’t think that is a good use of our time.”
On education policy, Putnam said he would emphasize the importance of vocational and technical training for high school graduates in addition to students getting four-year college degrees.
He also said he would create an “ombudsman” position in the state Department of Education to help families with children who are home-schooled or who are looking to use other education opportunities outside the standard public-school system.
DeSantis said he would make civics education a top priority in his administration. Florida voters will consider a state constitutional amendment in November that would require a law to “promote civic literacy” in the public schools.
DeSantis also praised Florida’s school-choice programs, including scholarships that allow students with disabilities to obtain special services or to attend private schools. He said he would expand the alternative school programs by providing similar scholarship accounts for low-income students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches.
On other topics, Putnam said he would create an “Office of Faith-Based and Community-Based Initiatives” in the governor’s office to encourage a volunteer network that can help the state in various activities, including responding to hurricanes.
DeSantis talked about his relationship with President Donald Trump, who has praised his gubernatorial bid, and support for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He said he will attend the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, an event that Scott also plans to attend.