The candidates fighting to become Florida’s Republican nominee for governor are fighting over more than just tax and immigration proposals.
They’re framing Florida as a 2020 test-tube, which could determine the strength of a potential Trump challenger’s message.
“What we're seeing is, forces from the left come into Florida to hijack our politics," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam says. "And it's not because they care about our schools, it's not because they care about our business climate, it's not because they care about how much traffic there is on the Florida Turnpike. It's because they're choosing Florida as a proxy fight for the war on the White House in 2020."
Putnam and Congressman Ron DeSantis are vying to become Florida’s fourth Republican governor in a row, following Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist (who became a Democrat after leaving office), and Rick Scott.
The early frontrunner is Putnam, who leads DeSantis 32 percent to 17 percent according to a Fox News poll of the state’s likely GOP primary voters.
However, 39 percent say they are still undecided, and 46 percent say they may change their minds between now and the August 28 primary.
President Trump’s job approval rating is a strong 86 percent among likely GOP primary voters, according to the Fox News poll.
Florida stands out because 20.1 percent of the population is 65 year old or older – the highest percentage in the country.
"They want a place where they can retire and have the government off their back,” Florida’s GOP Chairman Blaise Ingoglia says.
DeSantis, a Navy veteran, has never campaigned for statewide office before. But that doesn’t mean he’s a stranger to Floridians who keep tabs on what happens in Washington.
"I am earning my paycheck," DeSantis said. "We're holding – trying to hold the Peter Strozks and the [James] Comeys accountable."
That attachment to high-profile investigations earned DeSantis a shout-out from the world’s most powerful twitter account.
"Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader, Yale and then Harvard Law, who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida. He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!” President Trump tweeted in late 2017.
DeSantis believes the president's support gives him a big boost.
"As Governor of Florida, you're going to have to have a relationship with the White House," DeSantis says. "[If] we have a hurricane, [if] we need aid, I call the president directly, he’s going to take my call."
Putnam supports President Trump as well, but doubts DeSantis can use his D.C. connections to win.
"This is a Florida-based race," Putnam says. "Washington is not going to get it done, and dialing in a gubernatorial campaign from out of state, long distance, isn’t going to get it done."
Ultimately, this race's result may cause a ripple effect felt far from Tallahassee.
"As Florida goes, so the nation goes," Ingoglia, the party chairman, says. "We're a swing state, we're an important state, and I would like to think we set the policy in the state of Florida for the rest of the nation."