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Does DeSantis Return to Florida As a Weaker Governor?

Ron DeSantis started his presidential run as a Republican rock star. As he returns to Florida, it’s not clear what he’ll do next.

Ron DeSantis appearing at a winery in New Hampshire on Jan. 17
DeSantis called it quits on Sunday after his disappointing finish in last week's Iowa caucuses. (Matias J. Ocner/TNS)
Ron DeSantis ruled Florida politics before launching his Republican presidential bid. Now that it’s over, the question is how much strength he’ll maintain for the three years he has left to serve as governor.

Failing in such a high-profile way is not going to help him. “We’re coming into unknown territory here a little bit because he has been such a dominant future,” says Steve Bousquet, an opinion columnist with the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “He’s gotten almost everything he’s wanted, with very few exceptions.”

DeSantis left for the presidential trail on Sunday with more than $100 million in his campaign war chest. His prodigious fundraising helped make him a force in Florida politics, down to the school board level. By the end, however, his campaign was running on fumes. As a defeated candidate, DeSantis won’t be the money magnet he once was.

DeSantis has been largely an absentee governor over the past year. His State of the State address two weeks ago was more a litany of past accomplishments — and complaints about President Biden and blue states such as California — than it was a list of fresh priorities for the year. “The Republican legislative leaders didn’t want to say this publicly,” Bousquet says, “but they were very disappointed that he didn’t come forth with any sort of specific agenda he wants passed.”

DeSantis looked like a winner as he prepared his presidential bid, having won a decisive re-election victory in 2022 even as many candidates endorsed by former President Donald Trump went down to defeat. He had taken the lead on many conservative priorities, from reopening his state quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic to banning most abortions and expanding school choice. He seemed to have a knack for making the right enemies, from Disney to the purveyors of the so-called “woke” agenda. DeSantis appeared to have the love of the GOP donor class and the Murdoch media empire.

All that has fizzled, of course. Rather than remaining a rising star, DeSantis has surely lost some luster, given the constant drumbeat of criticism of his campaign from national news outlets. “A year ago, he seemed like he was just unbeatable,” says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. “That just doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. There’s just the perception that he is not as strong and powerful as he was, because he lost.”

‘Stay the Course’

DeSantis watched many legislators and members of Congress from his state endorse Trump, but he retains many allies in the Legislature.

“There is no greater governor in America than Ron DeSantis,” Florida House Speaker Paul Renner said after DeSantis dropped out on Sunday. “I am proud to have fought alongside him to achieve major policy victories, and I look forward to his continued leadership for our great state of Florida and our country.”

DeSantis will clearly continue to pursue conservative policies on issues such as taxes, business creation and education. “My message is simple: Stay the course,” he said in his State of the State address. “The state of our state is strong. Let’s keep doing what works.”

Presidential run or not, he’s already at the point of his term when Florida governors start thinking about legacy projects, says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. She notes that he’s been more active on environmental issues than he’s usually given credit for. She hesitates to predict whether he will devote extra attention to the environment or education or some other issue, but she notes there will be areas where he’ll seek to make his mark.

What Comes Next

DeSantis is only 45. He clearly harbors huge ambitions, but it’s not clear exactly where he might go.

After months of attacks, Trump was forgiving toward DeSantis after the governor dropped out and endorsed him. Trump said he was “gracious” and that he’d run a good campaign. A few forgiving words, however, are not a guarantee of a job offer in a future administration.

Rick Scott is running for re-election to the U.S. Senate this year. Marco Rubio, another Republican who’s only a few years older than DeSantis, just won a third Senate term in 2022.

Still, it’s not like DeSantis is going away. He's got just under three years left in his term. Florida is the nation’s third-largest state and remains a leader in the growth of both population and jobs; last year, its total number of jobs surpassed New York’s for the first time. Being the successful governor of a growing state is a large part of what put DeSantis on the national map in the first place.

It’s not unusual for governors who have tried and failed to reach the White House to come home a bit wounded. Voters resent being neglected in favor of personal aspirations, and in politics losing does not add to your aura.

During the campaign runup last year, DeSantis’ approval rating among Florida voters dipped a bit. He’s still doing OK and he certainly has time to mend fences at home. But he certainly doesn’t look at the moment like as much of a world-beater as he seemed when he won re-election in 2022 by 19 percentage points.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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