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Florida voters often know little about their state constitutional office candidates. Perhaps our rating system can offer some insight.
By: 
Aug. 17, 2018

Primary elections are always confusing. Talk about throwing darts.

Just look at the two major parties’ gubernatorial races. Eight candidates are seeking the Republican nomination for governor, and seven are seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination.

On the Democratic Party side, five of the seven gubernatorial contenders have garnered some name recognition via the news media, but none of them has broken out as the clear front-runner. Whom do you pick?

On the Republican side, have you ever heard of candidates Don Baldauf, Timothy Devine, Bob Langford, John Joseph Mercadante, Bruce Nathan or Bob White? Give them credit for at least stepping into the arena. But most Floridians who follow the news know the Republican race is a contest between Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam and Congressman Ron DeSantis.

But even that — Putnam versus DeSantis — is a difficult choice for Republicans (more on that below). Just as the gubernatorial race is for Democrats.

The decision making becomes even more challenging when selecting candidates for commissioner of agriculture and attorney general. We would bet most of the 9.2 million registered Republicans and Democrats have no clue who the seven candidates are for commissioner of agriculture or the four vying to be attorney general.

And yet, these are big decisions that will influence the quality of your life.

To that end, we hope we can offer some insights into which candidates are best suited for office. That’s why we are continuing our tradition of recommending candidates. 

But caveat emptor: Longtime Observer readers know we are unapologetically one-sided. Our politico-economic philosophy always has aligned with that of economist Friedrich Hayek:

“… [A] policy of freedom for the individual is the only truly progressive policy.”

We also subscribe to what the founders crafted in 1789 — a vision for a strictly limited government. The closer a candidate is to the Hayek philosophy of individual freedom and the founders’ vision of limited government, the better. 

What’s more — and longtime Observer readers know this — rare is the partisan election that we recommend a Democratic Party candidate. While most Democratic candidates are well-intended, good people, by virtue of aligning with the Democratic Party, those candidates have declared allegiance to a philosophy that embraces a state-controlled society, which we reject.

With all of that as context, here, then, are our recommendations for the Aug. 28 primary election for the statewide offices:

Governor

This race is a reflection of the national political environment.

Third-term Congressman Ron DeSantis is the unequivocal Trump guy. His campaign platform has three acclamations: President Donald Trump has endorsed him; he calls himself the No. 1 conservative; and he is an Iraq War veteran, having served as a military lawyer with a Navy SEAL team in Fallujah.

To buttress his conservative bonafides, DeSantis notes in the first paragraph of his website that not only does President Trump endorse him, but so do two leading, national media constitutionalists, Fox News’ Sean Hannity and Mark Levin.

And how’s this for in-your-face, here’s proof that I’m a tough conservative appealing to Trump’s base. From the second paragraph of his online bio, DeSantis lists almost every national issue that would rally diehard conservatives behind him:

“… [L]ed efforts to impose term limits on members of Congress, cut taxes, repeal ObamaCare, relocate America’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, assist veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, prevent American tax dollars from being sent to Iran, combat radical Islamic terrorism, stop illegal immigration and defund sanctuary cities, and conduct oversight over agencies such as the IRS and Department of Justice, including the investigation into Uranium One, the use of the Clinton-funded Steele dossier against Donald Trump, and the failure to prosecute the criminal activity of terrorist group Hezbollah by Eric Holder’s DOJ.”

The only thing he didn’t mention was his support for the Second Amendment.

But Adam Putnam has made sure Republicans know he’s a 100% Second Amendment guy. On his website homepage:

Adam Supports

“GUN RIGHTS • VETERANS •
THE ECONOMY”

And let’s not overlook Putnam’s Republican credentials. At the tender age of 26, Putnam was elected to Congress in 2000, the youngest in office. Six years later, he became the House Republican Conference chairman, the third-highest ranking member in the House. After 10 years in Congress, he returned to Florida and won two terms as agriculture commissioner.

No doubt about it, DeSantis and Putnam are top-tier Republican candidates.

But we all have flaws.

Who is Ron DeSantis, age 39? He tells his audiences he was born and raised in Florida and played Little League in Pinellas County. Beyond that and his frequent appearances on Fox News, few Floridians know him. 

Go to congressional District 6, which covers Flagler and Volusia counties, and you’ll find hardly anyone knows DeSantis. Says Brian McMillan, longtime executive editor of our sister newspaper, the Palm Coast Observer: “It’s not like he’s a local figure.”

And that’s the point: What has DeSantis done in Florida that makes voters believe: “Yeah, he’s a Floridian. He’s one of us. He knows us … That he knows what ails Gadsden County; where Waldo is; or what to do when the next Irma hits?

It’s one thing to question FBI liars at congressional hearings in D.C. It’s quite another to be a leading policy maker; CEO of an entire state bureaucracy; chief financial steward of an $80 billion budget; a governor responsible for the safety of 20 million people; and the leading sales executive for the state.

And then there’s Adam Putnam. Give him this: Putnam knows Florida. He knows where Waldo is. And when you’re Florida’s ag commissioner, your job isn’t just about growing oranges and cattle. The ag commissioner is a CEO in his own right, overseeing a sprawling statewide bureaucracy that touches every aspect of Floridians’ lives. 

But in the case of Putnam, there is also this: From age 22 to now, at age 44, Putnam has been an elected politician. The dreaded career politician. And until DeSantis came along, Putnam’s candidacy had the aura that this was his turn to be the anointed Republican nominee. He’s the “establishment” Republican.

On our politico-economic scale, DeSantis is the candidate whose philosophy and record most closely align with freedom for the individual and the limited government the founders envisioned.

According to the Washington-based Club for Growth, which scores members of Congress on votes on “economic policies that strengthen the economy and shrink the size of the federal government,” in three terms DeSantis has earned a 94% rating. 

Putnam’s rating was 68%.

Which presents this conundrum for Republicans:

Of the nearly 12,927,318 registered voters in Florida, 37% are Democrats; 35.3% are Republicans; and 27% are Non-Party Affiliates (NPAs).

To win the gubernatorial election, the Republican candidate must persuade roughly 15% of NPAs and/or Democrats to his side. And most of those conversions likely would have to include philosophically moderate voters, who are more likely in tune with Putnam’s philosophy.

Which brings to mind the “Buckley Rule.” In 1967, the late William F. Buckley, godfather of modern American conservatism, said: “I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win. If you could convince me that Barry Goldwater could win, I’d vote for him.” Buckley recommended Richard Nixon.

By that measure, Buckley would recommend the more moderate Putnam. 

But if you think back to Rick Scott in 2010, he was a far more conservative candidate and disrupter than the establishment candidate, Bill McCollum. Scott won, twice, with his more conservative philosophy.

On our liberty spectrum, DeSantis has the edge.

Attorney General

The standard themes continue in the races for attorney general: The two Democratic Party candidates want an activist government that curbs individual freedoms; the Republican candidates focus on wanting to enforce the laws, which is the job of the attorney general.

With that, the Republican race between former Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Ashley Moody and Rep. Frank White, a first-term legislator who is general counsel of his father-in-law’s auto dealerships in the Panhandle, comes down to the candidates’ breadth of experience in the justice system.

White is more conservative than Moody. But more important, Moody has experience as a federal prosecutor in Jacksonville and Tampa, where she tried all manner of criminal cases. And while a judge, she developed a stellar reputation for fairness in the juvenile, family and felony divisions. In this job, courtroom prowess counts.

We recommend: Ashley Moody

Commissioner of Agriculture

There is much more to this job than citrus and cattle. As noted above, Florida’s commissioner of agriculture and consumer services is the CEO of a vast army of inspectors and regulators whose job is to protect Florida consumers.

As such, it makes sense for the ag commissioner to have knowledge of every aspect of agriculture — from seed to shipping overseas; to understand the legislative challenges of balancing farming, the environment, water and urban needs; and have had experience as a CEO of a multifaceted business enterprise.

The Democratic candidates have no agriculture experience. Three of the four Republican candidates have ag roots and experience, with little separating Denise Grimsley, Matt Caldwell and Baxter Troutman.

Indeed, either Grimsley or Caldwell would serve Floridians well. But when we weigh the full breadth of knowledge, experience and accomplishments of those two, one has a teeny edge.

We recommend: Denise Grimsley

Next week: Recommendations on local races.