EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a five-part series called “How Florida got so conservative.”
It was just more than two months before the 2018 Florida gubernatorial primary, and Ron DeSantis was in trouble.
Polls showed him running well behind then-Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam for the GOP nomination, and a long list of influential Florida Republicans had lined up against him, choosing to back an establishment favorite over a relatively unknown yet staunchly conservative congressman.
Then lightning struck. President Donald Trump doubled down on his endorsement of DeSantis, the polls swung wildly in his favor and Florida Republican voters handed him a staggering 20-point victory in the primary.
“I’d never even heard of him honestly until he started running,” former Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said. “And I, like so many others, was supporting Adam Putnam. And then Donald Trump waved the magic wand. He went from 20 percent down to 20 percent up, and won the primary.”
A meteoric rise
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Since then, DeSantis has experienced a remarkable political rise that has transformed him into one of the most powerful Florida governors in decades and propelled him to the top rungs of Republican politics nationally.
His ascent is the result of and a driving force for a rightward march that has been underway in Florida for years but has accelerated under DeSantis’s leadership.
“Ron DeSantis understands a counterintuitive principle in politics, which is that it’s more important to be decisive in your decision-making than to have the decision be popular,” said Justin Sayfie, a veteran Florida Republican consultant who served as a spokesperson and top adviser for former Gov. Jeb Bush.
“People will respect a governor who is decisive more so than a governor who puts his or her finger in the wind to figure out where they’re going next.”
For those who knew DeSantis during his tenure in Congress, that approach isn’t surprising. Multiple Republican House members recalled DeSantis as a firm executive with a keen sense for policy making.
Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said that he got to know DeSantis because he was on his whip card throughout his tenure as a congressman.
“The guy is incredibly disciplined. He reads, he studies,” Díaz-Balart said. “So usually when you go whip somebody and it’s like, ‘Hey, this is this issue,’ and they go, ‘Yeah, you know I’m not sure. What does that do there?’”
“With Ron, I would literally go to him and he wouldn’t interrupt me but it was basically well ‘Yeah I’m okay with this.’ Or he would say ‘I kind of have an issue with this paragraph because it deals with that,’ and I’m like: ‘OK I have no idea about that but let me find out,’ because he really is a machine in that sense.”
Diaz-Balart acknowledged DeSantis isn’t “a guy who’s out there back-slapping, socializing,” but described him “as a legislator, incredibly competent, obviously is exceedingly smart and disciplined.” As governor, Diaz-Balart said, DeSantis has shown his strengths.
“He’s kind of made for that, right?” Diaz-Balart said. “He’s an executive. He makes decisions, he prepares, he studies, he’s principled and he’s courageous. And I think literally, this is what he was made for.”
More stories on Florida’s conservative shift:
‘A good governor’
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), one of three House Republicans who have endorsed DeSantis’s 2024 presidential ambitions, said he became friends with DeSantis during the roughly six years they spent together in the House and have stayed in touch throughout DeSantis’s time in the governor’s mansion.
Massie said that despite fierce pushback to DeSantis’s laissez-faire — and often combative — handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the governor stood his ground, believing that he would eventually come out of the battle on top.
“The summer of COVID…he let me know that he was going to lean into this even though the media and public opinion were against him because he thought in a couple years, people would acknowledge that he was right,” Massie recalled.
Despite his reputation as a hard-right firebrand, DeSantis’s first year in the governor’s mansion was seen by many in Florida — including some Democrats — as at least somewhat consensus-driven.
He pushed to raise the minimum starting teachers’ salary, signed an executive order to bolster spending on Everglades restoration and cleaning up Florida’s waterways, and helped ease the path for a voter-approved medical marijuana program to be implemented.
“In his first six months in office, I was rather impressed because I thought he had really developed a pretty … certainly a consensus view that he was a good governor, he was doing a good job,” Martinez said. “I think there was a general sense of competence and doing well and that kind of thing, which I think he rode for the first months.”
The national spotlight
(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
It wasn’t until 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, that DeSantis appeared on the radar of Republicans nationally. While he ordered a lockdown relatively early on, he was quick to lift those restrictions, openly — and aggressively — defying the advice and warnings of public health experts, like Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whom DeSantis regularly used as a political foil.
That, in turn, fueled Florida’s rightward lurch and allowed DeSantis to flex his political muscles in a way that few governors have been able to.
“Whether you like the governor or you don’t, on COVID, the majority of Floridians like what he did,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.), who served as the director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management under DeSantis, in an interview.
“They agreed with reopening businesses. They agreed with reopening schools. They talked to their friends whose kids didn’t go back to school for eight more months and their kids went back. I think that was a dramatic factor.”
DeSantis’s grip on Florida and its politics is difficult to ignore. After winning his first term in the governor’s mansion by less than half a percentage point in 2018, DeSantis notched a 19-point reelection victory in 2022 that underscored the extent to which his COVID-19 policies had reshaped the state’s political landscape.
“Sometimes you bet the right number and you win,” Moskowitz said. “On COVID, the majority of Floridians think the governor got it right. But let me say this: Does the governor win his reelection by 19 points if he got COVID wrong?”
Even DeSantis’s detractors acknowledge just how much his COVID-19 response bolstered his political standing. Nikki Fried, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party and former state Agriculture Commissioner, said DeSantis’s 19-point win in 2022 is owed to both the popularity of his pandemic-era policies and a failure by state Democrats to effectively counter him.
“COVID definitely helped him,” she told The Hill. “I don’t ever attribute his 19 points to him. The 19 points was a 19-point loss for Democrats. We failed. We did not organize. We did not show up. You can’t win a statewide election when Republicans are outvoting Democrats in Broward County by 17 percent.”
Burnishing his conservative credentials
Regardless, DeSantis has used that landslide victory — and the supermajorities Republicans gained in the state Legislature in 2022 — as a mandate to push through a long list of conservative policy priorities.
In the span of the state legislature’s 60-day annual session, the governor notched wins on everything from a bill allowing Floridians to carry firearms without a permit to a six-week abortion ban.
He’s also charged forward with a months-long battle against Disney, one of Florida’s largest private employers, stripping the company of its long-held special tax district after its former CEO criticized a state measure, the Parental Rights in Education Act, that prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten to the third grade.
The state Board of Education recently moved to expand that law at DeSantis’s request to include all grades.
But DeSantis’s standing in Florida stems from far more than his policy battles. Multiple Republicans cited the party-building efforts that have taken place under DeSantis’s tenure in the governor’s mansion as critical to the GOP’s long list of recent successes in the longtime battleground state.
In addition to luring a vast number of prominent Republicans and GOP-leaning voters to Florida in the years since the COVID-19 outbreak began, DeSantis’s political operation has poured millions of dollars into voter registration efforts. In 2021, for the first time in modern history, the number of registered Republican voters surpassed registered Democrats — an advantage that has only continued to grow since then.
“A lot of work was put in when DeSantis came into office,” Nelson Diaz, a Republican lobbyist and former Miami-Dade County GOP chair, said. “He energized the party to get moving on voter registration efforts and, quite frankly, efforts to get people to switch parties. You’re seeing the rewards of that today.”
Yet for all of DeSantis’s political wins, there are still questions about his staying power. As he moves toward a likely 2024 presidential bid, he’s facing nonstop attacks from Trump and his allies, as well as concerns that he may be pushing his power and influence too far.
“He’s starting to unravel,” Fried said. “He’s looking desperate. He’s looking unhinged. And his policies … he’s taking that 19 points and he’s thinking that is a mandate on all of his policies. And so he is shoving that down the legislators’ throats and the people. All of his policies are more extreme than the people of Florida want.”
This is the third in a five-part series called “How Florida got so conservative.”