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How Ron DeSantis Became a Republican Rock Star

Lots of other Republican governors and senators hoped to be the one who could take down Donald Trump. At this early stage, DeSantis has the best shot, thanks to his ability to frame hot-button issues and attract media attention.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets supporters during a rally on the eve of Election Day last November. DeSantis is already playing an outsized role in the 2024 presidential race, either ahead of Trump or easily his strongest challenger.
(Jose A. Iglesias/TNS)
You almost have to feel sorry for Adam Putnam. Elected to both the Florida House and Congress before reaching the age of 30, Putnam then served in statewide office as agriculture commissioner, clearly positioning himself for a run for governor. He started out with a hefty polling lead, but then Putnam ran into a three-term congressman named Ron DeSantis.

In the 2018 GOP primary, DeSantis won the key endorsement of President Donald Trump, making Putnam look like yesterday’s party establishment news. DeSantis ended up crushing Putnam, winning the primary by 20 points. “He deliberately chose a very Fox News heavy campaign,” says Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver. “He was not the best-known candidate and he didn’t have the most party support, so he calculated that his best path for being nominated for governor was simply getting on Fox News as much as possible.”

Something similar is happening now. DeSantis will not announce his presidential run until later in the spring, but he is a media-savvy candidate, appearing not only on Fox News but finding issues and approaches that garner him national attention from all kinds of outlets.

“In a sense, the national media made him,” says Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank. “He has become somebody who champions the cultural issues that animate MAGA Republicans,” a term based on Trump’s 2016 slogan “make America great again.”

Florida is a major state, but DeSantis is already playing an outsized role in the 2024 presidential race. Depending on which poll you look at, DeSantis is either ahead of Trump or easily his strongest challenger, both nationally and in the early primary states. In a Quinnipiac University poll released last week, Trump has the support of 42 percent of GOP voters nationwide, compared to DeSantis’ 36 percent, with no other candidate receiving more than 5 percent.

DeSantis is clearly an acceptable alternative among remaining Trump supporters. A poll released last month by The Bulwark and North Star Opinion Research showed DeSantis running well ahead of Trump. Even among those who consider themselves to be more supporters of Trump than of the Republican Party in general, DeSantis had a net favorable rating of 87 percent, including 69 percent who said they were “very favorable” toward him. “He’s managed to generate 95 percent name ID among Republicans across the country, which is pretty amazing for a governor,” says Whit Ayres, president of North Star.

So why did DeSantis become the leading challenger to Trump, and not any of the many other Republican governors and senators who might have wanted that slot? Ayres says it’s simple — “he’s Trump without the crazy.” His slogans — calling himself the governor of the free state of Florida and saying that Florida is where woke goes to die — resonate resoundingly with Republican base voters, Ayres says.

DeSantis hasn’t picked every fight, but he’s picked an awful lot of them — pushing back against COVID-19 restrictions, “woke” corporations and teachers unions. While taking up arms as a culture warrior, DeSantis has also pursued traditional conservative goals, such as cutting taxes and promoting school choice, while also paying attention to non-climate environmental issues that are important in Florida, including Everglades restoration. All of that appeals to non-MAGA Republicans. “Being a competent executive is not enough to get a national reputation,” Olsen says. “The fact that he is a competent executive helps dramatically.”

Of course, not everyone loves DeSantis. Various Democrats have labeled him everything from a racist to an autocrat. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist and erstwhile presidential candidate, says that by rejecting the Advanced Placement course on African American studies, DeSantis was turning February into “Erase Black History Month.”

Democrats may well be able to convince a majority of voters that DeSantis, if he ends up being the GOP nominee, presents a danger to the republic. For now, though, their attacks only serve to further his cause. Drawing complaints from Democrats is all upside for a Republican candidate whose supporters want to see him as a fighter against the libs.

None of this means that DeSantis will prevail, or even necessarily perform well in the primaries. Well before announcing, he’s already drawing flak not only from Trump but other presidential wannabes. There are plenty of recent examples of governors who started strong but flamed out, either in or before Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s uncertain how DeSantis, who is not widely accused of charisma as a speaker and can be prickly in more intimate settings, will play on the national stage.

Ayres recalls that Lamar Alexander, a former Tennessee governor and senator who twice ran unsuccessfully for the presidency, said that going from a statewide race to a run for the White House is like going from eighth grade basketball to the NBA finals. Still, Ayres says, DeSantis is polling better at this point than other governors such as Scott Walker or Jeb Bush back in 2015. “It’s hard to remember another time when the challenger to the best-known candidate was also as well-known as Ron DeSantis is today,” he says.

King of Florida

In 2018, DeSantis not only won Trump’s endorsement, but ran a TV ad in which he read a picture book to his young son about Trump and played blocks with his daughter so she could “build the wall.” One Democratic consultant called it the “dumbest, most effective ad in Florida history.”

After trouncing Putnam in the primary, DeSantis barely won election in a tough year for Republicans, prevailing over Democrat Andrew Gillum by less than half a percentage point. When he first took office, DeSantis appeared more moderate than he does today, for example by devoting attention to environmental issues. Like other governors, DeSantis supported COVID-19 restrictions in the early weeks of the pandemic, including issuing a statewide stay-home order.
Trump and DeSantis at a campaign rally in 2019. Now that DeSantis is Trump's rival, the two are not so chummy.
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)
DeSantis changed course, however, stating the science was wrong when it came to mask mandates and the like. He loudly announced that his state was open for business and insisted that schools offer in-person instruction in the fall of 2020. He has pushed hard against vaccine mandates, convincing the state Supreme Court in December to empanel a grand jury to investigate any “wrongdoing” associated with mRNA vaccines.

“I think Gov. DeSantis is just soaring in popularity based on how he’s handled the last two years with the COVID restrictions,” says GOP state Rep. Griff Griffitts. “He stepped in early on and said we’re going to make Florida work.”

To the extent people really do vote with their feet, Florida has been a winner. The state has continued its long-term population growth under DeSantis — last year marked the first time the state was the nation’s fastest-growing since 1957 — and Florida is now home to a half-million more jobs than before the pandemic. Florida, which outgrew New York state in population in 2014, recently passed the Empire State in its total number of jobs.

Last year, DeSantis signed the largest tax cut in state history. This year, he’s proposed an even bigger cut. At the same time, Florida’s growth allows him to continue spending, including a proposal in his current budget to lift teacher salaries by $1 billion. “He’s the most powerful governor we’ve ever had,” Griffitts says. “He’s the most popular governor we’ve ever had.”

Weeks before his re-election, DeSantis had to respond to Hurricane Ian, a massive storm that cut across the width of Florida and did more than $100 billion worth of damage. On his watch, the mobilization effort was highly visible, including the rebuilding of causeways to Pine Island and Sanibel in Southwest Florida within weeks, instead of the expected period of months. “What the governor’s done is pretty remarkable,” President Biden said during a Florida visit shortly after the storm.

Looking Like a Winner

After barely winning office in 2018, DeSantis was re-elected by nearly 20 points last fall. His performance looked especially strong on a night when Republicans nationally failed to capitalize on favorable midterm conditions, giving up a seat in the U.S. Senate rather than taking control.

That’s what made Trump vulnerable, says Masket, who is writing a Substack about the GOP primary race. Trump not only continues to put off many voters, but his endorsements elevated candidates who ended up losing winnable races in states such as Arizona, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. “This is less about Trump doing an impolitic tweet or saying something racist,” Masket says. “This is about him losing elections, and that gets them where they live.”

DeSantis not only carried Florida but was one of the hidden architects of the party’s new House majority. The Republicans who control the Legislature seemed content drawing a congressional map that pretty much maintained the status quo, but the governor insisted that they make one much more aggressively partisan. He prevailed and the state sent four additional Republicans to the House as a result, accounting for most of the party’s bare majority.

As governor, DeSantis has run through a sort of greatest hits list of issues important to Republican voters. He took advantage of the unique power of Florida governors to suspend elected local officials in going after Andrew Warren, the prosecutor in Hillsborough County, for saying he would not devote resources to pursuing abortion cases. He not only set up an election integrity unit, as other states have, but held a high-profile news conference last August, personally announcing 20 arrests. (Not all the charges have held up.)

DeSantis signed a bill last year limiting the way sexual orientation and gender identity can be discussed in schools, which critics have derided as the “don’t say gay” bill. It’s being imitated in other states. After Disney criticized the law, DeSantis convinced the Legislature to strip the company of its ability to manage the special district around its theme parks in Orlando, giving the governor himself that power earlier this month.

DeSantis has been able time and again to put himself at the forefront of issues with national resonance. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had already bused thousands of migrants to East Coast cities when DeSantis chartered flights carrying four-dozen migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in September. Whether it was the mode of transportation or the destination, or DeSantis’ mastery of earned media, suddenly the non-border state governor was the one getting attention. “His stunt in flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard put him on the map,” says Olsen, who writes an opinion column for The Washington Post. “With that one thing, he probably got more publicity than Greg Abbott has gotten for everything he’s done on immigration.”

The Right Profile?

This week, DeSantis kicked off a “pro-police tour,” visiting New York and suburbs of Philadelphia and Chicago. In the coming weeks, he’ll embark on a book tour that may double as a soft launch for his presidential campaign. DeSantis is expected to announce formally in May or June, after the Legislature concludes its current session.

For all his mastery of cutting-edge issues and contemporary media, DeSantis’ profile in some ways is a throwback — a governor and former member of Congress who has checked a lot of other boxes along the way. DeSantis, who is 44, has a young and attractive family. He’s a graduate of Yale and Harvard and served as a Navy lawyer in Iraq.

Lots of candidates look good on paper, only to fall apart on the stump. Scott Walker, then the Wisconsin governor, was considered a top contender in 2015, but dropped out just a couple of months after formally entering the race. Texas Gov. Rick Perry looked formidable in 2011, but had already fallen flat before his infamous “oops” moment during a debate, when he was unable to name the three Cabinet departments he intended to abolish. But, as Nate Cohn points out in The New York Times, only twice in the last half-century have candidates of any party entered the primaries with 20 percent-plus support and then seen the nomination go to someone else who started out with less than 20 percent.
The land outside Walt Disney World now belongs, in effect, to DeSantis.
After the midterms, a narrative in the media and the GOP’s donor class quickly anointed DeSantis as finally offering a true, viable alternative to Trump. Trump, of course, immediately started insulting DeSantis, attacks the governor has mostly shrugged off. But his success in making Trump appear potentially weak, rather than clearing the field, has convinced other Republicans that they might have a shot. Most of them now seem to think that their path involves taking down DeSantis first, so that they can emerge as the Trump alternative. Just over the weekend, DeSantis took some knocks from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.

While DeSantis’ hopes depend on Trump fading, he also needs for Trump to have changed all the rules. Primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are used to candidates dropping in at diners and answering questions at town halls. Trump bypassed all that with his big rallies. DeSantis, who can be awkward in smaller settings, must similarly hope he can get by with appearances at big venues and on television.

Maybe that will happen. DeSantis will be the keynote speaker at the Alabama Republican Party’s winter dinner next month, and the party has already moved the event from a hotel ballroom to an arena to accommodate demand. DeSantis should have no trouble getting on TV or paying for ads. Last year, he raised $217 million for his re-election effort, a record amount for any gubernatorial candidate.

Not everyone in the Republican Party is ready to move on from Trump, but plenty of people are. And, a year ahead of the primaries, DeSantis has, as his opponents implicitly recognize, positioned himself better than anyone to seize the mantle.

“A fair number of Republicans are content with someone who’s not Trump — who seems a lot more controlled, who doesn’t seem likely to tweet angrily, who doesn’t seem likely to lead an insurrection if he loses an election,” Masket says. “In some ways, he’s the Trumpism without Trump that they’ve been looking for.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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