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Was Ron DeSantis overrated?

It’s not hard to be a Republican in Florida. Maybe that didn’t help when DeSantis went national.
 
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets supporters at his Iowa caucuses watch party on Jan. 15 at the Sheraton West Des Moines Hotel in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets supporters at his Iowa caucuses watch party on Jan. 15 at the Sheraton West Des Moines Hotel in West Des Moines, Iowa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 27

A year ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis was ready to remake America in Florida’s image.

The Florida Legislature had handed him major conservative policy wins on abortion, education, immigration and taxes. He was just two months removed from a historic trouncing of Charlie Crist, the ex-governor rolled out by Democrats to face DeSantis in 2022.

DeSantis had control of the Florida governor’s mansion. To many, the presidency seemed like the next logical step.

But today, with his 2024 campaign in ruins, DeSantis’ political resume might look a bit different in hindsight.

The GOP has controlled nearly every lever of state government for more than a quarter century and has held a strong majority for much of his time in office. Other governors, with help from compliant state lawmakers, have pushed for abortion restrictions; made their mark on education; suspended Democratic elected officials. Other Republicans have beaten Charlie Crist.

How impressive were these DeSantis victories, really?

As the dust settles around the DeSantis presidential campaign-shaped crater, the Times asked activists, Republican officials and political experts a question: By virtue of living the relatively frictionless life of a Florida Republican, was DeSantis overrated?

Many who follow the governor closely — supporters and detractors alike — said, emphatically, no. Those who’ve seen DeSantis in action described him as a man who gets results.

But while effective, DeSantis’ go-it-alone style of governing has made him a poor fit for the national political environment, said Nadine Smith, the co-founder and chief executive of the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Florida.

It may never have been possible to win over the GOP voters devoted to former President Donald Trump. But because Tallahassee is such a favorable political environment, DeSantis didn’t come into the race with much experience persuading those skeptical of his ideas, Smith said.

“He was operating in a nice comfortable bubble where no one challenged him. Everyone acquiesces to him in Tallahassee,” said Smith, whose group has opposed numerous DeSantis priorities. “He doesn’t know how to have honest communication with people.”

For years, DeSantis only rarely strayed from the conservative media bubble. He made the news media a foil, largely refusing sit-down interviews with any but the most fawning outlets. (DeSantis said in an interview last week that, in hindsight, he regrets this strategy.)

Other detractors took some time to dance on the grave of his national ambitions.

“DeSantis is extremely overrated. We just watched him choke on the national stage,” said Andrea Mercado, the executive director of the progressive organizing group Florida Rising. “His policy platform was the same as Trump’s. It’s a regurgitation of extreme MAGA far-right policies. Ultimately, Republican voters didn’t see any difference.”

It’s possible to view DeSantis as a product of the broader national conservative project. Many of his legislative victories — cracking down on critical race theory in classrooms; banning transgender athletes from women’s and girls’ scholastic sports; abortion bans — have been taken up by other states.

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But others interviewed by the Times described DeSantis as a singular figure in Florida’s history. Some pointed to his pushes to crack down on transgender health care and illegal immigration as markedly more extreme than the policies of even his Republican predecessors.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has fought DeSantis’ policies in court numerous times, perhaps most notably against his administration’s stance on abortion.

“I spent … years as the director of the ACLU fighting the policies of Jeb Bush and Rick Scott,” said Howard Simon, who’s serving now as an interim executive director of the ACLU of Florida while the group looks for a permanent leader. “This is a far more comprehensive assault on civil rights advancement.”

DeSantis ran on this record of conservative governing, spending much of his time on the presidential trail arguing that his policies went further in key areas than Trump’s. He criticized the former president for his stance on keeping businesses closed during the coronavirus pandemic, and his team taunted the president online for being too LGBTQ-friendly.

His record wasn’t exaggerated, former Republican lawmakers said. In terms of enacting his policy vision, they said, DeSantis is far from overrated.

DeSantis called a special session to pass a slate of bills punishing The Walt Disney Co. for its opposition to the 2022 Parental Rights in Education Bill, which critics called Don’t Say Gay. He vetoed the congressional maps proposed by Republicans in the Legislature in 2022, and his office essentially pushed through its own map. He pressed for a ban on most abortions after six weeks, a position his predecessor, Rick Scott, said was out of step with public opinion.

“We can’t understate his strength and prominence and the changes that have occurred under the DeSantis administration,” said Jeff Brandes, a former Republican state senator from St. Petersburg who at times butted heads with the governor.

Kelli Stargel, a former Republican state senator from Lakeland who worked closely with DeSantis’ team to pass abortion restrictions and other socially conservative policies, argued that DeSantis has a record of fighting for controversial issues that other governors might have abandoned.

Take 2022′s Parental Rights in Education bill. DeSantis and the Republican Legislature were getting national heat for the legislation, with critics arguing it was part of a broader conservative gay panic. Some leaders might have figured the bill wasn’t worth the trouble, Stargel said.

Not DeSantis. Not only did he sign the bill, he held a defiant ceremony when he did, blasting news outlets for misrepresenting the bill.

“Having the strength of Gov. DeSantis pushing an agenda, encouraging an agenda, not shying away from an agenda, absolutely helped to get a lot of those things done,” Stargel said.

Many of his most defining moments involved raw displays of executive power. The Legislature did not approve the specific plan DeSantis’ team hatched to spend state resources flying migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, for example.

However, DeSantis does have a long track record of bending the Legislature to his will — even if it means straying outside traditional Republican notions of small government.

“Republican conservatives are going to support and push conservative Republican policies,” said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. “He was able to even go sort of beyond that and push much more controversial policies and ideas and get Republicans to go along with it.”

But that uncontested hold on power in Florida did little to prepare him for the national stage, said Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.

Smith compared DeSantis’ political fortunes with the adage of the man born on third base who thinks he’s hit a triple.

He noted that DeSantis has always governed with friendly Republicans ruling both houses of the Legislature — as has essentially every governor since Jeb Bush. Smith cited the words of Johnnie Byrd, the former House speaker from Plant City who once likened members of the 120-person Florida House to “sheep.”

Smith argued that DeSantis learned the wrong lesson from his historic 2022 victory. His win wasn’t a validation of his most controversial policies, Smith said. Instead, it was a reflection of how bad the Democratic Party has gotten at turning out its base.

“It was a turnout election,” Smith said. “He interpreted it with a healthy dose of hubris as somehow that he was the new face of conservative politics in America.”