WAUSAU, Fla. – Clad in jeans and a blue-checkered shirt with rolled-up sleeves, Adam Putnam easily blended into the rural North Florida residents attending the annual Wausau Possum Festival in early August.
“I’m a farmer, a business owner,” the boyish-looking, 44-year-old Republican candidate for governor told the crowd in a brief speech. “The foundation of my campaign is that I know Florida best. This isn’t my first trip to Wausau just because I’m running for statewide office.”
Since launching his campaign in May 2017 on the steps of a century-old courthouse in Bartow, his Polk County hometown, Putnam has emphasized the “grassroots” nature of his campaign to succeed Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for the U.S. Senate.
Putnam, who has served two terms as Florida’s agriculture commissioner, has campaigned relentlessly across the state, while putting a particular focus on smaller, rural communities and their political and business leaders. It has resulted in the endorsement of his campaign by 49 of the 66 elected sheriffs in Florida.
“Working families are my people. They are my base. They are our grassroots energy,” Putnam said in an interview with The News Service of Florida. “They are the reason why we are going to win.”
In a nationally televised debate in late June with Congressman Ron DeSantis, his GOP primary rival, Putnam emphasized his “Florida First” campaign as opposed to DeSantis, who has talked more about national issues and has played up an endorsement from President Donald Trump.
“I care more about this county than I do about Washington, D.C. And I think that’s what the next governor needs to be focused on,” Putnam said referring to Washington County, which has a population of about 25,000 residents, including the 380 who live in Wausau.
Putnam accused DeSantis of having “a fly-in, fly-out strategy with a D.C. entourage.”
“It’s not real Florida. It’s not Florida focused,” Putnam said.
Yet in the final weeks of the Aug. 28 primary campaign, Putnam faces the challenge of winning votes in deeply conservative regions of the state, like Washington County, where Trump is wildly popular. The president carried nearly eight of every 10 votes in the county in the 2016 general election.
Polls have shown DeSantis building a lead as he touts the Trump connection.
In the final debate of the primary campaign last week at Jacksonville University, Putnam said while he agreed with the president’s overall agenda, “I wish he hadn’t put his thumb on the scale of Florida’s campaigns.”
Trump’s involvement, which was underscored by a July 31 political rally in Tampa where the president personally endorsed DeSantis, is the “only card” DeSantis has, Putnam said, while acknowledging “it’s a big one.”
“But it still means you’re not playing with a full deck,” Putnam told DeSantis.
Putnam was born in Bartow on July 31, 1974, into a family steeped in Florida’s agricultural tradition. A fifth-generation Floridian, Putnam’s grandfather, Dudley Adelbert Putnam, is credited with creating the family’s successful citrus and cattle business.
Putnam was raised by his parents, Dudley and Sally Putnam, in Bartow along with two brothers and a sister. He went on to the University of Florida where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1995. He was president of the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and a member of Florida Blue Key, a campus organization that has claimed a number of future state leaders.
Putnam met his wife, Melissa, at UF and they later married and moved to Bartow, where they are raising three teen-age daughters who are in high school and a son in middle school.
The Putnam family’s citrus and cattle business has provided a comfortable living for the candidate and his family, with Putnam’s latest state financial disclosure showing a net worth of a little more than $9 million.
Although his family was not particularly active in politics, Putnam’s interest was piqued in his final year in college when he served as an intern in the Washington, D.C., office of former U.S. Rep. Charles Canady, who is now chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
Putnam ran in 1996 for a state House seat in Polk County, winning his election as a 22-year-old, which was then the youngest member ever elected to the state House. Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, has since claimed that distinction, winning her election as a 21-year-old in 2016.
Putnam served two terms in the Legislature, where he rose to the chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee.
When Canady prepared to leave Congress in 2000, Putnam ran for the seat. His victory, which made him the youngest serving member in the U.S. House, launched a 10-year career in Washington. Again demonstrating leadership ability, Putnam became chairman of the House Republican Conference, the third-ranking position among GOP members.
When the Cabinet seat for state agriculture commissioner opened in 2010, Putnam returned to Tallahassee, facing no primary opposition and easily beating a Democratic opponent in the general election. He cruised to re-election to his Cabinet seat in 2014.
Putnam’s experience as a state legislator, congressman and a Cabinet member gives him a wide range of experience.
But DeSantis has turned that against him, labeling him as a “career politician” who has spent his adulthood in a public office.
Susan MacManus, a longtime political-science professor at the University of South Florida, said experience may not be an asset in the eyes of many voters during these contentious political times.
In addition to Trump’s impact on elections, MacManus said “the other phenomenon we’re seeing in this election cycle is that in just about every race, where there is an incumbent or an incumbent-like candidate, is that longevity in office is turning out to be less of an asset than usual.”
Facing his first primary for a statewide office, Putnam has played up conservative policy positions, including promising to block any effort by local communities to provide “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants. He has also promised to crack down on undocumented immigrants who commit crimes, saying they are driving up the cost of the criminal justice system.
Putnam, like DeSantis, has promised to appoint conservative judges and has reiterated his opposition to abortion. Both candidates have vowed to support a “heartbeat bill,” which would prohibit abortions if fetal heartbeats can be detected.
Although a staunch advocate for gun rights, Putnam has drawn criticism for a campaign tweet that described him as “a proud NRA sellout.” The controversy was amplified when guns became a major issue following the mass shooting at a Broward County high school in February and after reports described the mishandling of concealed-weapons license applications in Putnam’s office. Putnam said the problems with the licensing process have been corrected.
Putnam’s supporters say his conservative credentials, his experience and his knowledge of the challenges facing Florida, as the nation’s third-largest state, would make him a successful governor.
“Adam reflects the values and interests of Northwest Florida and the rest of the state of Florida, more so than anybody else. He has spent his whole life dedicated to improving the quality of life in Florida,” said state Sen. George Gainer, a Panama City Republican who joined Putnam at the Wausau Possum Festival.
“What happens in the federal government is important, but he has been here taking care of business at home,” Gainer said.