Opie's All Grown Up Now
Every political race Adam Putnam has run, it seems, has focused on his age. When he was 22 and running for the Florida Statehouse, with his mother laying out district maps on the kitchen table and his father creating campaign literature in front of the television, his 69-year-old opponent attacked him for trying to run from "the frat house to the statehouse" and used his sophomore-class high school yearbook photo in an advertisement. The cherubic redhead heard pretty much the same refrain when he ran for Congress in 2000. Even the national Republican Party was hesitant about backing such a young prospect. "I looked about 12," he jokes now. And he had the nickname to match: "Opie" was the favorite at the time. He then, well, graduated to President Bush's favorite moniker, "Red," and now, at 32, Putnam occasionally gets "Howdy Doody."
And yet, in this terrible political year for the GOP, Putnam is one Republican for whom "stay the course" has proved a winning strategy. Yes, he's still a youngster. He's not a household name, and he doesn't grab all the headlines, even back home in Florida. But having just won a fourth term by garnering 69 percent of the vote, Putnam is racing up the Capitol Hill pecking order. Republicans bumped him up again last month to chair of the House Republican Conference, the No. 3 GOP position in the House, in effect the communications maestro behind Minority-Leader-to-be John Boehner and Minority Whip Roy Blunt. Putnam was tapped to boost a beleaguered party. How well he does with that assignment may help determine the GOP's future. And it may have a major bearing on Adam Putnam's political future as well.
A state the size of Florida has no shortage of big-time politicians. And Florida has its share of metropolitan power circles around Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Tallahassee. Putnam's roots aren't in any of those areas. No, he hails from Bartow in Polk County-that's east of Tampa and southwest of Orlando. As a fifth-generation Floridian, Putnam grew up in a family that runs a cattle ranch and a citrus farm. (He still gets hefty campaign donations from agriculture, and most of his personal worth of more than $2 million is tied to the family business.) And at the University of Florida, he was a food and resource economics major and spent a little time in college politics, but unlike many young Republicans-Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist-who have quickly risen through the ranks, he wasn't head of College Republicans or some other national political club. He was in "Florida for Jeb" and "Gators for Bush ," he says, and was involved in the statewide 4-H club. But "there is no political blood in my family," he notes.
His first experience with Washington politics was interning for hometown Republican Rep. Charles Canady, whose seat he now holds, during the summer before he graduated from college in 1995. Republicans were basking in the warm glow of the Gingrich revolution, and even though his car was broken into four times, Putnam loved the job, because he felt a need for young people to have their political voices heard. He'd been interested in the Florida legislature as a high schooler, so he decided to make his first run there, just a year out of the University of Florida. His father "was just silent for what seemed like an eternity" when he heard the news, but ultimately, Dad campaigned hard for him. Putnam was elected in a season when Republicans took control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in 122 years; before long, the young state rep was chairing the Agriculture Committee.
Old enough. When Canady retired under a self-imposed four-term limit, Putnam jumped into the congressional race against Ford dealer Michael Stedem, a first-time candidate who claimed Putnam didn't have enough experience to run. MTV wanted to tag along with the 26-year-old on the campaign trail, but he'd have none of it. "I watched all that play out in 1996 with the Clinton-Dole race, when they kind of distilled down young people's views about whether the president wore boxers or briefs, and I felt that was insulting," he says. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert went down to Florida to stump for Putnam, and they hit it off. They stayed in touch during Putnam's first term in Congress and became increasingly close-so much so that Putnam now says he's part of Hastert's "farm team" of young members of Congress. "We're both from small towns. Background in agriculture," Putnam says. "He raised Angus cattle. I raise Hereford cattle and showed them as a 4-H'er, so we had some common experiences."
Those common experiences have proved tremendously helpful; Putnam has landed plum assignments on congressional panels like the Rules Committee and the Budget Committee-and built the relationships necessary to race up the leadership ladder. When indicted Rep. Tom DeLay stepped down earlier this year, Putnam jumped up to the No. 5 spot-chair of the House Republican Policy Committee-during the shake-up. He's been a reliably conservative Republican, with a 94 percent rating from the American Conservative Union over his three terms, and he gets kudos from Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform for his Reaganesque stances on taxes and spending. But Putnam isn't easily labeled. Until the last minute, he opposed a trade bill that the president strongly lobbied for in 2001 but that he felt would have hurt his district's agriculture businesses. He isn't in the influential 100-plus-member Republican Study Committee of fiscal conservatives, and he's not a member of the vocal immigration caucus led by Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo. "He's been very careful to keep his politics right of center but in the middle of our conference and to frankly not be associated with any of the groups," says Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee. "He is seen as having a foot in everyone's camp."
This fall, during the Mark Foley page scandal, Republicans praised Putnam for a smooth performance in debating Democrats' campaigner-in-chief Rahm Emanuel on ABC, something he'll probably have to get used to. Putnam's new post is largely a communications job that will put him in front of the cameras and microphones but also require him to be in the war room issuing "intellectual ammunition"-bullet points for members going to speak in Congress, on television talk shows, or with constituents, as well as more detailed policy papers. "He brings this kind of fresh face, kind of new face," says Rep. Ander Crenshaw, a Jacksonville Republican who served with Putnam in the Florida legislature and now in Congress. "He kind of represents the future." Putnam says he's planning to work "very tactically" on "highlighting the differences between the parties and working across the aisle on certain issues." He anticipates being able to work on budget questions with some of the more fiscally conservative Democrats who were elected this year.
Part of Putnam's strategy for getting back into the majority is "getting out of Washington" and talking about big generational issues that he campaigned on in his first race for Congress: Social Security and healthcare. "I go back to the Social Security debate" of 2005, he says. "We should have had a university bus tour ... on that issue we owned the college generation because it's the young man or young woman about to get their diploma entering the workforce and paying into a system that everyone agrees will not have anything to pay them when they get to the magic age." Republicans, Putnam says, are "still licking the wounds" about why they lost the midterm elections-wondering whether they spent too much time on the social values agenda or not enough. But Putnam's focused on tackling the big issues such as Social Security. "He's a very studied person of very complex issues," says Susan McManus, professor at the University of South Florida. "He doesn't just shoot from the hip."
Having won re-election by an average margin of 40 percentage points the past two races, Putnam, a lay minister in his Episcopal Church and a commuter congressman with four small kids, is pretty safe in his central Florida district. Once an old southern Democratic bastion, the district has become steadily Republican over the past few decades. According to local lore, Putnam's grandfather once told reporters that at the age of 8 through 11 or so, Putnam said that he wanted to be governor, a suggestion Putnam laughs off-at least for the moment. Still, politics watchers in Florida see him traveling around the state more these days and mention his name in races for higher office. For now, at least, Putnam says: "I'm a House guy." A House guy suddenly in the minority. A House guy with a lot of work on his plate.
Born: July 31, 1974; Bartow, Fla.
Family: Married, wife Melissa; four children: girls 5, 4, 3, and boy, 5 months. Lives in Bartow, Fla.
Education: University of Florida, B.S. 1995, food and resource economics
Public Service: Florida House of Representatives, 1997-2000, Agriculture Committee chair; U.S. House of Representatives, 2001 to present, 12th District of Florida; House Republican Policy Committee chair, 2006; House Republican Conference chair, 2006
This story appears in the December 11, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.