President Donald Trump jolted Florida's still-evolving governor's race by throwing his support Friday to Republican congressman Ron DeSantis.
Trump tweeted that DeSantis is "a brilliant young leader" who "would make a GREAT governor. He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!" The president made the endorsement even though DeSantis has not officially jumped into the race to replace Gov. Rick Scott. Scott leaves office in early 2019 due to term limits.
DeSantis, a U.S. Navy veteran and graduate of both Yale and Harvard, has represented a northeast Florida congressional district since 2013. He planned to run for U.S. Senate last year but dropped out of the race after Marco Rubio decided to seek re-election following his unsuccessful presidential bid.
In August, the 39-year-old congressman proposed a time limit on funding for special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into potential collusion between Russia and Trump or his associates. DeSantis's House website has a link to a column he signed on FoxNews.com.
DeSantis also joined Trump during a campaign-style event that the president held in Pensacola just before the recent Senate election in Alabama. At that rally, Trump urged voters in the neighboring state to vote for Roy Moore, who had been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct.
In a statement, DeSantis said he was "grateful to have the President's support" and that he appreciated Trump's push for tax cuts and for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and other efforts to "get our country back on track."
Brad Herold, an adviser to DeSantis, said in an email that the congressman will make a final decision on whether to enter the governor's race sometime next year.
Trump's endorsement came as the president headed to his Florida estate for Christmas vacation.
The president's backing could be a blow to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the current GOP front-runner in the Florida gubernatorial race. Putnam currently has more than $15 million in the bank that he has available to spend on the 2018 race and the Polk County politician has already been actively campaigning.
There has been speculation that Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran may also jump into the high-profile contest, which has attracted numerous candidates from both parties. State Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, is also in the race, but he announced his resignation from the Senate this week after an investigation found credible evidence of sexual misconduct. Latvala has denied any wrongdoing.
The campaign of Gwen Graham, a Democrat and a former congresswoman who is running for governor, sharply criticized Trump's endorsement.
"The president only cares about himself and it is no surprise he would support Ron DeSantis, an extreme congressman who is leading the smear campaign against Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Russia investigations," said Matt Harringer, a campaign spokesman. "Floridians want a leader who will stand up to the president — not protect him."