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DeSantis emerges as the Trump alternative after Florida landslide

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Wednesday night told his viewers that Florida was the “biggest piece of good news” for Republicans.
Ron DeSantis waves to a crowd of supporters during his election night party at the Tampa Convention Center on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Tampa, Florida.
Ron DeSantis waves to a crowd of supporters during his election night party at the Tampa Convention Center on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Tampa, Florida. [ LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Nov. 10, 2022|Updated Nov. 11, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decisive victory and Republicans’ lackluster performance elsewhere in the country have become fodder for conservatives, who are increasingly casting doubt over former President Donald Trump’s influence over the party and wondering if DeSantis may have a more effective playbook.

DeSantis’ commanding win in Florida — where he led Republican gains in every county, including reliably Democratic counties — gave the governor a lonely but national platform as a potential party leader.

In the aftermath of the election, conservative media outlets declared Trump the party’s “biggest loser” on Election Night and characterized DeSantis as “DeFUTURE” — reaction that Trump did not appreciate.

In a news release Thursday night, Trump said conservative media outlets were “all in for Governor Ron DeSanctimonious,” who he called “an average REPUBLICAN Governor with great Public Relations.” The former president also criticized him for not ruling out a presidential run against him in 2024.

As DeSantis works to raise his influence at the national level, back in Florida, he is likely to double down on his conservative policy agenda. Republican legislative leaders have signaled they intend to keep moving Florida forward under his vision.

Florida is viewed as the “crown jewel of conservative governance,” said Matt Gorman, a national GOP strategist who worked for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and then the national Republican congressional committee. And conservatives are taking notice.

“I believe all eyes are on our state, and other states have emulated what we’ve done in a wide number of areas — healthcare reform, education reform, you name it — and that will continue,’’ incoming House Speaker Paul Renner said in an interview with the Times/Herald on Wednesday.

After Florida’s quick Tuesday night results showed the scope of DeSantis’ power, and as other Republican candidates around the country failed to deliver on what many expected would be an outright repudiation of the White House’s policies, the state soon emerged as an anomaly.

“Do I think Florida’s going to be an outlier? Yeah, I do, it always is,” said Rob Schmidt, vice president of the national GOP polling firm McLaughlin & Associates, as nationwide results started to come out on Election Night.

Moving forward, Gorman predicted the governor would have an “outsized” presence within the national party after this week’s results — a boost to DeSantis’ political career.

“The DeSantis win has certainly elevated him because it was one of the few areas where we beat expectations,” Gorman said. “And over the last several election cycles, Republicans have pulled Florida away from being a swing state, with quality candidates and reaching out to constituencies across the board.”

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Looking for changes within GOP

Influential conservative commentators, like Ben Shapiro, have started making the case that maybe DeSantis’ playbook should be the party’s national model.

“If Republicans wish to actually win broad victories over the course of the next decade or so, they are going to need to put away the childish playthings with which they have been preoccupied. I am talking about the House leadership. I am talking about the presidential leadership — that means that discipline needs to be in order here,” Shapiro, who recently relocated to South Florida, said during his show on Wednesday.

“Here is the bottom line,” he said. “When it comes to Florida, Florida broke the Democrats. It broke them.”

DeSantis’ commanding double-digit margin was enhanced by the fact that Republicans turned out in strong numbers, while Democrats largely stayed home, some observers have pointed out.

“In a large number of counties, GOP turnout was over 15 points higher than Democrats,” said Matthew Isbell, a Democratic data analyst in Florida, in a Tweet.

DeSantis’ red state legacy

DeSantis’ comes into a second-term in office with a Republican super-majority in both chambers of the Legislature and an all-Republican Cabinet.

He is expected to move forward full steam on his conservative agenda — including fighting the “woke left” and disempowering detractors — and increasing numbers of influential conservatives are starting to publicly suggest that Tuesday’s election results show he may be a more disciplined and less chaotic messenger of the MAGA agenda than Trump.

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Wednesday night told his viewers that Florida was the “biggest piece of good news” for Republicans.

“As disappointed as you may have been by the results last night,” Carlson told viewers, “what happened in Florida is legitimately a big deal. It will probably be a while before we know exactly what it means, but we know for certain that it was out of the ordinary, unexpected and profound.”

Other conservative outlets appeared more eager to move from Trump to DeSantis. The New York Post, for example, unveiled cover stories that depicted Trump as “Trumpty Dumpty,” a play on words that referenced the nursery rhyme character Humpty Dumpty, and praised DeSantis as “DeFUTURE.”

Former President Donald Trump, right, and Florida's governor Ron DeSantis held a COVID-19 and storm preparedness roundtable in Belleair on July 31, 2020.
Former President Donald Trump, right, and Florida's governor Ron DeSantis held a COVID-19 and storm preparedness roundtable in Belleair on July 31, 2020. [ SAUL LOEB | GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA ]

The looming conflict between DeSantis and Trump hasn’t gone unnoticed, even in the White House.

“It’d be fun watching them take on each other,” President Joe Biden quipped Wednesday at a post-election press conference when asked about the potential matchup in a GOP presidential primary.

GOP leaders see victories as ‘approbation’

For decades, Florida Republicans have controlled the governor’s mansion, the Legislature and a majority of the state’s Cabinet positions. To those in leadership, the sweeping GOP victories on Tuesday are simply an endorsement of what the party has been doing in the state all that time.

“I don’t look at the election as voters telling us what to do. I look at it as the voters are confirming what we have been doing in the last several years and we’ll continue to do that,” incoming Republican Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said in an interview with the Times/Herald on Wednesday.

“It is not a mandate to do something,” she said. “It’s an approbation of what we have been doing.”

Renner said he looks forward to “more bold reforms” from DeSantis, and he expects the state will continue to serve as a “proving ground” for conservative policies.

He said he expects the nation to continue to be watching “to see what Florida is going to do next. And I can tell you, I am very excited to have a partner in Gov. Ron DeSantis because we see the world very, very much alike.”

Republican legislative leaders have been meeting with the governor’s staff over the summer to talk about future initiatives, Passidomo said.

“I don’t look at this as either the governor telling us what to do or us telling him what to do. I look at it as we’re going to have a collaborative two years,” she said.

Passidomo, of Naples, said she is open to considering further restrictions on abortion in Florida. Earlier this year, DeSantis approved a 15-week abortion ban with no exceptions for rape and incest but during the campaign refused to say what he more he would like to see done on the issue.

Renner, however, said that it is too early to know exactly what kind of restrictions will be considered by the new Republican super-majority during the legislative sessions.

The Republican-led Legislature could also expand the Parental Rights in Education law, which currently prohibits the instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, and possibly older grades if the lesson is not “age appropriate.” Critics dubbed the law, “don’t say gay.”

“We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said during this Election Night victory speech. “Our state is where woke goes to die.”

What that means for Florida in terms of policy, however, is unclear.

“That’s a good question. I don’t really know the answer to that,” Passidomo said. “That term is kind of nebulous.”