TALLAHASSEE — Ron DeSantis will be sworn in Tuesday to his second term as Florida’s 46th governor, and it is already being seen as the start of his audition for the presidency.
DeSantis has positioned himself on the national stage as a likely front-runner for the Republican nomination for president in 2024, but that requires him to launch a campaign for a new job while barely into his second four-year term for his current one. The potential political prospects have many watching how he will use his newfound stature.
Will he continue to lean into the culture wars agenda or will he broaden his message and moderate what has been a combative posture by reviving some of the unifying themes of his first inauguration in 2019?
“People are excited about not just this inaugural but what it signifies — and that is a governor that believes in a free market and letting business and people freely conduct their lives without intrusion,” said Brian Ballard of Ballard Partners, a co-chairperson of the inaugural events, along with Nick Iarossi of Capital City Consulting, Bill Rubin of Rubin Turnbull & Associates and Jeff Hartley of Smith, Bryan & Myers. They are among the largest lobbying firms in the state capital.
A speech of significance
After the swearing-in, DeSantis will deliver his first speech to a broad audience since his election night address, when he declared that Florida would be the state “where woke goes to die.” For many, it may provide a blueprint for his future.
“Like many others, I will be looking to see if there are signs of outreach to more national audiences or if the speech focuses more on Florida issues,” said Kevin Wagner, a Florida Atlantic University political scientist. “If it has more of a national reach, the speech may give us some early clues as to what kind of campaign Gov. DeSantis would run if he enters the presidential primaries, and to which groups and potential donors he will focus on in the early campaign.”
Among the questions: Does he continue his rhetoric against diversity training in corporations and government? Does he call for immigration reform, as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has advocated, or entitlement reform, as U.S. Sen. Rick Scott has sought? Does he bring up his request for an investigation into mRNA vaccines?
Does he mention the war in Ukraine or show any proposals for grappling with inflation and the national economy? Does he talk about balancing the budget and tackling the national deficit? Does he focus on Florida’s pressing problems — the rising costs of insurance, housing and health care? Or does he stay focused on his last four years?
“People will be looking for clues in the speech as to what the future plans will be,” Wagner said. “I suspect, though, that we will not get many answers.”
Four years ago
In his first inaugural address, DeSantis spoke to a crowd of about 3,000 for 20 minutes and pledged to “overcome the tribalism that has dominated our politics.” He said he would promote a “virtuous cycle” that included trimming the excesses of government with a focus on “low taxes, a reasonable regulatory climate, a sensible legal system and a healthy environment (to) attract jobs, business and investment.” And he touted an agenda that would prioritize education and the environment.
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But as the pandemic savaged Florida’s tourism-dependent economy in the midst of a bitter reelection campaign for Trump, DeSantis’ onetime political mentor, the governor moved away from the centrist appeals of his first inaugural address and launched a 30-month strategy that appealed to public frustration over COVID-19 lockdowns and the evolving public health messaging over the novel coronavirus.
COVID became DeSantis’ launchpad for a new kind of Republican messaging, one that embraced big government to expand power over institutions disliked by the political right.
For example, he used his executive authority and a compliant Legislature to enact laws that barred cruise ships from requiring masks and employers from requiring vaccines and training that promotes concepts related to race, sex or national origin. He also worked to withhold state pension investments in companies that use “environmental, social and governance” standards to encourage economic equality and environmentally sustainable policies.
Those and other messages helped DeSantis greatly expand his political standing from four years ago — when he won election by the narrowest margin in Florida history — to winning reelection in November by the largest margin in 40 years.
“Unlike any other governor’s inaugural that I’ve attended, I think it’s the continuation of a governor who is changing the country, and that’s a rare thing,” Ballard said. “He gives voice to so many Americans who are tired of political correctness, tired of having to kowtow to what the ‘woke’ community says we must all believe.”
Ballard expects DeSantis to elaborate on those themes and “talk about the model that Florida has become for the country.”
The view from the political left
Anders Croy, a spokesperson for DeSantis Watch, a joint accountability project of left-leaning Progress Florida and Florida Watch, said he expects DeSantis to use his speech “to move further to the right.”
“It’s going to be a focus on divisive issues that appeal to far-right voters outside the state and not the issues that actually matter to Floridians,” Croy said.
He predicted DeSantis’ speech will focus on his “essential Iowa checklist” that includes seeking further bans on abortion, support for permitless carry of guns without background checks and vaccine safety.
“Here in Florida, we have an affordability crisis when it comes to housing, an affordability crisis in property insurance, an affordability crisis in health care, but you don’t hear those things from the governor,” Croy said. “What you hear is more red meat for the voters of New Hampshire and Iowa that he believes will help him take the next step up the political ladder.”
Hans Hassell, executive director of the Institute of Politics at Florida State University, said DeSantis’ speech will also be a signal to Republican Party officials for how far to go to back DeSantis in the face of a likely primary against former President Donald Trump, who single-handedly elevated DeSantis in 2018 by endorsing him in the Republican primary over front-runner Adam Putnam.
The party is likely grappling with “trying to understand what they need to do to win the presidency in 2024 and not underperform like they did in the 2022 midterms,” Hassell said. “Party elites begin shaping the race a long time before voters start voting, and the actions of Gov. DeSantis now can go a long way to show that he is the type of candidate they can trust and will champion their ideas.”
In many ways, the governor’s inaugural address is a tryout for the national stage, he said, because it “can affect the willingness of party elites to provide the resources, both the money as well as the political expertise and media connections, that are crucial to parlaying his current position into a successful run for the Republican nomination.”
Ballard, who has worked on the inaugurations of former Govs. Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott, doesn’t expect DeSantis to announce his political aspirations Tuesday but he sees DeSantis’ profile as unique.
“Other than Ronald Reagan, I know of no American governor that’s been able to capture the attention of America the way Gov. DeSantis has done,” he said.