Ron DeSantis: Is the Florida governor the Republicans’ only hope?

The New York Post recently proclaimed him “DeFuture.”  The Florida governor has a lot to recommend himself for the Republican nomination.  A resounding re-election, a strong resume, a coronavirus response rooted in freedom, and a willingness to fight for conservative causes.  At least, that’s the theory.  The practice, as ever, is a lot more complicated and less certain.  

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was a legitimate frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination even before his triumphant re-election earlier this month, helping to turn Miami-Dade County red for the first time in recent memory.  This is not surprising when the former Navy man and Yale graduate already had a lot to recommend himself for the honor of being the GOP standard bearer in 2024.  To many on the right, he combines the conservative desire to battle progressives on cultural issues with the sort of quiet competence many are seeking amid the chaos of another potential Trump campaign.  The thinking behind his potential candidacy is quite simple:  Governor DeSantis’s supporters believe he can maintain former President Donald Trump’s working class coalition, further extend it to disaffected minority groups, primarily Latinos, and bring educated suburban voters wary if not outright hostile to Trump back into the Republican fold.  Essentially, they see Governor DeSantis as Trump’s voters plus a significant number of those who refused to vote for the former President for whatever reason.  Thus, The New York Post recently proclaimed him “DeFuture.”  At least, that’s the theory.  The practice, as ever, is a lot more complicated and less certain.  Should he seek the nomination, Governor DeSantis would not be the first popular state executive that failed to translate their appeal to the national stage.  Modern history is rife with examples of those who tried and failed:  Fred Thompson, Scott Walker, Tim Pawlenty, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mike Hukabee, and Rick Perry all come to mind over the past 14 years alone.  Why would Governor DeSantis prove any different?

There are certainly reasons to believe he would.  For starters, Governor DeSantis appears to be a fighter, willing to withstand scathing attacks to pursue policies he feels will be most effective. After an extremely close election in 2018, he first came to national attention during the coronavirus pandemic, where he embraced a light touch philosophy to combatting the virus that put him at odds with the public health and media establishments.  He eschewed lockdowns, school closures, mask mandates, and other restrictions, even restricting local health officials from doing so, while implementing a successful vaccine distribution network.  CNN described his response and the concerns around it in December 2020.  “DeSantis has consistently downplayed the severity of the pandemic, following President Donald Trump’s lead in denouncing mask mandates and restrictions on businesses. The governor has blocked local governments from enforcing their own measures to protect residents from coronavirus, and sidelined health experts even as he promoted questionable science, according to CNN interviews with more than a dozen Florida officials and experts.”  The article quoted public health officials on condition of anonymity.  “We’re putting politics in front of lives.  We are being handcuffed and kept from keeping the public properly informed so they can make informed decisions to protect their lives and the lives of others.”  Another bemoaned that, “We could have saved a lot more lives if we were allowed to do our jobs.”  At the time, Governor DeSantis’s reliance on the awareness and personal autonomy of the state’s citizens was considered a tremendous gamble.  Initially, his approval rating suffered, but as it became clear the state was performing no better or worse than its peers on health outcomes and far better on economic and educational outcomes, his popularity soared.  Today, even progressive outfits like The Atlantic admit that the gamble paid off and set the stage for something bigger.   “The first-term Republican’s defiance of conventional public-health wisdom in the initial year of the pandemic gave him a national platform while also flattering the self-image of his current constituents—or at least a large number of them—as brave freedom lovers.”

Governor DeSantis has also displayed a willingness to engage in the culture wars on behalf of conservative principles.  He promoted legislation that would enable parents to sue local school districts that teach critical race theory in classrooms.  “Nobody wants this crap,” the Governor told a crowd at the Villages in Florida, announcing the “Stop WOKE Act last year.  “This is an elite-driven phenomenon being driven by bureaucratic elites, elites in universities and elites in corporate America. And they’re trying to shove it down the throats of the American people. You’re not doing that in the state of Florida.”  “By us protecting against CRT in this ‘Stop WOKE Act,’ we’re going to be making sure that time in school is being spent learning and not just being targets of indoctrination,” he continued.  Corporations that use the principle of critical race theory for training that discriminates based on race was also a target for the governor.  “How is it not a hostile work environment to be attacking people based on their race, or telling them that they are privileged or that they’re part of oppressive systems, when all they’re doing is showing up to work and trying to earn a living?” Governor DeSantis asked while decrying “corporate-sanctioned racism.”  Both proposals earned the ire of Democrats and unions in the state.  “I refuse to sit and watch people who haven’t had a lived experience in my skin to use us as their political scapegoat,” State Senator Shevrin Jones wrote on Twitter.  After the bill was passed and signed into law earlier this year, the State Senator declared, “This is a continuation of a national agenda to whitewash history, all because we don’t want white children to feel uncomfortable about true Black history?”  The Human Rights Campaign issued a statement as well, claiming “Yet again, DeSantis is putting his ideology before the best interests of Floridians.”  Similar criticisms followed the proposal and passage of the much maligned “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, which prohibited classroom activities focused on gay, lesbian, transgender, or other sexuality in grades K through threeLikewise, his decision to charter a flight of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard earlier this year sparked a cycle of similar outrage.  In all three cases, Governor DeSantis refused to back down despite intense criticism from Democrats, supposedly non-partisan organizations, and the mainstream media.

The controversy over the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” also afforded Governor DeSantis a unique opportunity to further ingrain himself with conservatives.  When the state’s largest employer, Disney, publicly committed to opposing the measure, the governor shot back by passing legislation stripping them of special legal carve outs and perks the company has enjoyed in the state since the early 1970’s.  “I thought it was a mistake for Disney to get involved and I told them, ‘You shouldn’t get involved, it’s not going to work out well for you,’” he explained to conservative commentator Dave Rubin.  As he put it, Disney was not “not free to force all of us to subsidize their activism, and that’s what they were doing.”  Perhaps needless to say, opponents, even some establishment Republicans cried foul, insisting that Governor DeSantis had become an “autocrat.”  The St. Louis Dispatch believed the episode should “chill the spine of anyone who understands the dangers of abuse of power in service to ideological fervor,” claiming, “It’s but one example of GOP extremists’ rejection of their own limited-government ethos in the party’s slide toward authoritarian thinking.”  The editorial board continued, “DeSantis’ threats of official action against Disney for merely opposing him on a policy issue should strike any freedom-loving American as an outrageous and unacceptable infringement on free-speech rights.”  Ultimately, they declared what is essentially an inverted view of why Republicans find Governor DeSantis appealing.  “DeSantis is nurturing a brand of Trumpism without the incompetence, but he has certainly kept the thuggishness.”  His re-election by almost 20 points earlier this month suggests this outrage never materialized, at least among Florida voters, cementing his status as a potential Republican presidential candidate known for being willing to fight for conservative causes, executing his agenda with vigor and competence.

Otherwise, Governor DeSantis boasts a traditionally presidential resume.  A lifelong Floridian, he is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School before joining the Navy and ultimately earning the rank of lieutenant.  He was deployed to Iraq in 2007 and served as a legal advisor to SEAL Team One.  After his tour, he was appointed Special Assistant US Attorney by George W. Bush administration’s Department of Justice.  Governor DeSantis began his career in electoral politics in 2012, defeating Democrat Heather Beavan in a run for Congress.  He was a founding member of the conservative “Freedom Caucus.”  Briefly, he ran for Senate in 2016 before Marco Rubio officially entered the race, and then had a successful run for governor in 2018.  His tenure as governor has been marked by both controversy and competence.  Variously, he has pardoned black men falsely convicted of rape decades ago, the Groveland Four, suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel for his department’s failure to stop the Parkland shooting, appointed conservatives to the state Supreme Court, and authorized $2.5 billion by Executive Order for water quality and restoration of the Everglades.  He’s attempted to crack down on big tech censorship, limit Chinese influence in technology, and has further enraged progressives with what they perceive as restrictive election laws and harsh penalties for protests that explode into mobs.  In short, there are few issues Governor DeSantis has not engaged with, and in almost all cases he has pursued policies favored by conservatives, combining the requisite resume with a proven track record on these issues at the state level.  In the mind’s of many Republicans, that has prompted a “what’s not to like attitude,” especially when his chief rival for the nomination appears to be the far more grating, chaotic Trump.

In theory, the answer is none.  There is nothing for conservatives not to like about Ron DeSantis at this point.  If theory alone propelled you to the presidency, he  would be well on his way.  The practice of getting from a Governor’s Mansion to the Oval Office, however, is another matter entirely.  National appeal is a rare thing in politics; many simply cannot make the transition for whatever reason, however popular they are in their home states.  This might be especially challenging for Governor DeSantis when one of the few criticisms leveled against him by conservatives is the belief that he’s a bit boring and vanilla.  Personally, I think he is an adequate speaker who is fast on his feet, but far from exciting or inspiring.  Some find this a benefit after the Trump years, but it’s not clear that is the case, especially if the goal is to maintain Trump’s base of support with white working class voters.  As we saw in the midterm elections, political coalitions are not transferable. The former President’s voters did not support Mehmet Oz because he told them to, for example. There is little reason to believe they would all automatically support Governor DeSantis in a simple, additive fashion. Governor DeSantis eked into office in 2018, and substantially increased his popularity based on his governance.  The more Florida voters saw, the more they liked.  On a national stage, however, he might never have the chance to eke into the nomination, much less win the election.

The national stage, of course, comes with a much harsher spotlight and more deeply entrenched special interests as well.  Florida’s coronavirus policy was a legitimate political victory against a hostile media and internal government employees, but otherwise there is an argument to be made that Governor DeSantis’ other victories might have been too clever by half as the old saying goes. I do not know the Governor personally and cannot speak to his own internal motivations, but in the case of immigration, critical race theory, the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, and the resulting battle with Disney, the victories achieved were relatively minor (some insist none of these things were really happening in Florida in the first place) and the controversy surrounding them largely a media invention.  Putting this another way, how difficult is it to argue that lessons for kindergartners shouldn’t center on sexual topics and corporations that receive special benefits shouldn’t weigh in on controversial topics?  The mainstream media and progressives might disagree, but these seem to me at least to be readily winnable battles.  The national stage is not so forgiving.  There is no winnable battle over abortion, for example.  Any attempt to appease progressives with lax restrictions will anger conservatives.  Any attempt to please conservatives will likewise anger progressives.  Governor DeSantis has been successful in Florida by largely keeping the government out of the way, whether preventing it from strangling businesses during the pandemic or from indoctrinating students in classrooms.  National politics, however, rarely work that way:  A President DeSantis will have to propose policies on everything from abortion to the defense budget.  There will be no easy way out of any of them, however compelling his argument or message.  Does he have the stomach for these prolonged, unwinnable fights?

Nobody knows.  I would say this:  If anyone does, it appears Ron DeSantis is the real deal, but the odds of someone winning the presidency are always incredibly low no matter how much promise they may have.  Everyone starts as a long shot, however good they look in theory.  I would add that many conservatives, like popular and colorful commentator Kurt Schlichter, are focused almost entirely on the election and not the governance battle that follows.  Mr. Schlicter has not endorsed anyone yet, but he seems to be in the DeSantis camp from the totality of his writings.  As he put it recently regarding the 2024 election, “We must be strategic, and we must select the candidate most likely to win in the general.”  This is true to a large extent because everything depends on winning, but I for one am not interested in installing another George W. Bush, who will only grow the government a little slower than progressives.  If his brother Jeb, for example, were guaranteed victory right now, I would prefer a real campaign with a candidate I trusted to advance conservative ideals.  We need someone that can both win and can be trusted to govern conservatively once they do so.  Therefore, an honest assessment of our options must address what the candidate plans to do in office and the likelihood of sticking to those plans under intense pressure.  Governor DeSantis is necessarily a black box in that regard, we know neither the theory nor the practice, but that’s what they have primaries for.  Either way, it seems clear that neither former President Trump nor Governor DeSantis will be coronated in a Republican primary.  They are the front runners, both for good reasons, but they will both need to make their case to Republican voters, as it should be.

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