TALLAHASSEE — With another four years till the next election for governor, it’s a little awkward being a political heir apparent.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam held a post-inauguration open house in his Capitol office last week, chatting and taking pictures with a long line of friends and admirers.
The crowd included Bruce Borders, a north Florida man who trains riderless horses for tributes to fallen soldiers, police and firefighters.
Borders, wearing a cowboy hat, was with Koda, his Australian Shepherd dog, and friend Eddie Roberts, a Suwannee County farmer.
“Come on over here,” Borders said to Roberts. “You want to meet the next governor of Florida?”
Putnam, who had just been sworn in for a second term as head of Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, kept smiling and shaking hands.
“Bruce is a very nice guy and very generous in his compliments,” Putnam later said.
Even this early, the guessing game for next governor has begun. Reports already have set up Putnam, a former congressman from Polk County, as a potential Republican rival with Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.
Others see Atwater skipping the governor’s race and taking on third-term incumbent Bill Nelson, a Democrat, for his U.S. Senate seat.
Still others have Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn running for governor in 2018, framing him as the Democrat most likely to win statewide office.
And Buckhorn has publicly suggested he’s interested: “There will be an open seat in four years – I’m just sayin’,” he joked at an apartment tower groundbreaking the morning after Election Day.
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With Gov. Rick Scott now a lame duck, it’s not surprising that people are picking favorites for the state’s next leader, said Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
“Look, you know there’s going to be an opening, so why wouldn’t ranchers rally around Adam Putnam for 2018?” Smith said. “It’s all part of the perpetual campaign, the jockeying for power.”
Smith said members of the state Legislature, bound by term limits, start running years in advance for leadership positions such as Senate president and House speaker.
Handicapping a race that’s years away isn’t driven by the media, he added, “but by the politicians and their ambitions.”
Smith and others also said not to count out GOP Attorney General Pam Bondi, who’s proven her mettle by raising millions in campaign contributions and running two successful statewide campaigns.
Bondi, a former Hillsborough County prosecutor, also is known for her many appearances as a Fox News guest.
“She’s got the money, she’s got a national reputation and she’s certainly not afraid to speak out on issues that conservatives like to hear,” Smith said, including opposing the Affordable Care Act.
Florida State University political science professor Carol Weissert added that Bondi is a “consummate politician.”
Bondi has weathered criticism for her legal battles against same-sex marriage and for hobnobbing with out-of-state lobbyists about cases against their corporate clients in Florida.
In four years, “I think any problems she’s had will be long forgotten,” said Weissert, also director of FSU’s LeRoy Collins Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank.
Atwater, Bondi and Putnam all have declined comment on their future political aspirations, saying they’re focused on completing a second term in their respective offices.
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Though she’s been in office less than a week, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, a Tallahassee Democrat, also is being talked about for governor in 2018.
Graham, daughter of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, already is making news. She was one of four Democrats in the U.S. House who voted against Nancy Pelosi for speaker, saying it was time for new leadership.
“She’s got the potential to unite conservative Democrats in north Florida and liberals in South Florida,” said Lance DeHaven-Smith, a public policy professor at Florida State University. “In four years, she could build enough of a reputation to run statewide and possibly win.”
Other early names for governor include:
♦ Pasco County’s Will Weatherford, a Republican who ascended to speaker of the Florida House of Representatives before reaching term limits last year.
♦ Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a Democrat who also served in the state Senate.
♦ Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, a Democrat who previously represented Broward County in the state House.
For now, potential candidates like Putnam can afford to be gracious – and cagey.
“I’m just going to keep doing my job and keep being a good teammate in this Cabinet,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of good things together and will continue to do good things, and the future will sort itself out.”
When asked when he might disclose his future political plans, Putnam responded, “Well, certainly not on Inauguration Day.”
“These things have a natural ebb and flow,” he added. “There will be an appropriate time for people to evaluate what the future will be. But the better job you do here, the more options you’ll have … and I haven’t closed any doors.”