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DeSantis tailors ‘free state’ messaging to wider audience in 2nd inauguration address

By contrasting Florida with the rest of the country, DeSantis was able to pivot from a roll call of his accomplishments to an indictment against other states.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, first lady Casey DeSantis and their children, Mason, left, Mamie and Madison, wave to the crowd during the inauguration ceremony Tuesday at the historic Florida Capitol in Tallahassee.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, first lady Casey DeSantis and their children, Mason, left, Mamie and Madison, wave to the crowd during the inauguration ceremony Tuesday at the historic Florida Capitol in Tallahassee. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]
Published Jan. 3|Updated Jan. 3

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis used his inaugural speech Tuesday to straddle both statewide and national political worlds as he takes on a second term leading Florida while eyeing a potential 2024 White House run.

He recounted his first term protecting the “free state of Florida” while proclaiming it as a model for a nation hamstrung by liberal ideology and a federal government that “looms over us and imposes its will.”

“When other states consigned their people’s freedom to the dustbin, Florida stood strongly as freedom’s linchpin,” said DeSantis, 44, awash in 2024 presidential buzz but who has not yet declared whether he will run.

By contrasting Florida with the rest of the country, DeSantis was able to pivot from a roll call of his accomplishments to an indictment against other states that “embraced faddish ideology at the expense of enduring principles.”

His 16-minute address echoed his political themes of combating “woke” ideology that won him a landslide reelection, but also notable were his omissions. He made no mention of his one-time mentor and likely presidential rival, former President Donald Trump. And he said nothing about some of the major challenges facing the state he is elected to lead: the rising cost of housing, utilities and property insurance, a vulnerable health insurance climate and the emerging influx of Cuban and Haitian migrants fleeing to Florida’s shores.

“Those issues are not on Fox News,” said John Thomas, head of the “Ron to the Rescue” Super PAC that was launched to promote a DeSantis 2024 presidential campaign.

DeSantis stayed focused on the issues that resonate most with the voters he needs to capture a Republican nomination for president in 2024, Thomas told the Times/Herald.

Although the governor will have to “address those issues in the next few months,” Thomas said, for a national audience, voter “perceptions are the realities, and unless they believe Florida is overpriced and expensive, it almost doesn’t matter.”

Adam Goodman, a longtime Republican strategist whose expertise includes speech-writing and performance coaching, called DeSantis’ speech “presidential” and its lack of specificity a strength.

Rather than a list of promises that can sometimes be difficult for politicians to keep, Goodman said that DeSantis used this moment to introduce the core of his messaging to a national audience — and pledge his commitment to broader “values, principles and vision.”

“This wasn’t rhetoric, but a rallying cry for a nation that’s desperately seeking reasons to believe again,” Goodman said.

As several reporters from national news outlets trekked to Tallahassee to cover the rising Republican star, the governor’s performance was not covered by the one media outlet he needs to keep his name in a Republican primary spotlight: Fox News. Overshadowing the DeSantis speech was coverage of whether U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy had the votes to become speaker of the House of Representatives.

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But for the more than 3,000 supporters and campaign donors assembled in the grandstands in front of Florida’s Historic Capitol, the issues facing Florida were less important than the promise of its future with DeSantis.

“The speech was not so much about what’s ahead, but more of what he’s done in the past — to show people that his word is meaningful,” said Rep. Daniel Perez, a Republican from Miami and future state House speaker. “Moving forward, we’re gonna see a lot of bold policies for the entire state of Florida that the rest of the country will envy and eventually want to do.”

Just four years since the young governor placed his hand on a Bible as a relatively unknown political figure, he has practically become a household name.

Donors, politicos and Republican voters wait to see whether he will challenge Trump for the GOP nomination.

Immediately following the speech, the Democratic National Committee sent out a news release bashing DeSantis’ “desperate chase for the MAGA base,” a level of attention not granted to most governors’ inaugurations. Commenters on the live Facebook video feed voiced support from Pennsylvania, California and Iowa.

Maddy Clark, 21, took time out of her visit to Florida from Missouri to drive to Tallahassee to hear DeSantis speak.

The governor is “just not afraid to say things other politicians won’t say,” she said.

As the pandemic made remote work more acceptable and people flocked to Florida for its mild climate and lack of income tax, DeSantis took credit. He touted how in 2022 Florida became the nation’s fastest-growing state — a statistic confirmed by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The resulting pressure on housing has sent the median sales price of single-family homes soaring from about $267,000 in November 2019 to $400,000 in November 2022, according to Florida Realtors data.

Although legislators convened a special session last month to enact policies intended to attract more property insurance companies to Florida, the governor made no mention of those reforms, which are not expected to lower the cost to most homeowners.

Although four years ago the governor promised to lower health care costs, the topic and how to address it got barely a mention this year.

Since the onset of the pandemic, more than 1.7 million Floridians have been added to the state’s Medicaid rolls and thousands are expected to be removed from the program when the federal government lifts the public health emergency sometime this year.

Among those left without insurance when the federal government is expected to end expanded Medicaid coverage put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic will be hundreds of thousands of Florida’s poorest children.

DeSantis also did not mention the high-profile issues of abortion restrictions or permitless carry of guns, sought by conservatives in his own party. But he did earn enthusiastic applause and a standing ovation when he proclaimed: “We will defend our children against those who seek to rob them of their innocence.”

DeSantis attracted a piercing national spotlight when the state passed a law barring instruction on gender and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade. He also signed a bill banning transgender women and girls from participating in female scholastic sports and his administration has restricted treatment options for transgender youth.

DeSantis’ omissions, however, were noted by Democrats.

“This is probably the first Florida governor to give an inaugural speech not speaking to the people of our great state and the challenges we all face, but directed at GOP primary voters and billionaire donors,” said state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the Democratic minority leader from Tampa. “He creates a new fake ‘woke’ boogeyman to battle but doesn’t really address real issues Floridians are struggling with, like housing affordability and health care that doesn’t bankrupt families.”

DeSantis touted his administration’s “massive mobilization” response to Hurricane Ian but his only reference to climate change was to ridicule “jet-setters in Davos,” the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland where climate change is a persistent focus.

He offered few details about what’s ahead for the next four years of his administration and made one policy promise: to deliver tax relief.

“Florida has accumulated a record budget surplus, and we need to enact a record amount of tax relief, particularly for Florida families who are grappling with inflation,’’ he said.

The governor spent more than half his speech chastising unnamed cities and states that he said “have harmed public safety by coddling criminals and attacking law enforcement,” financed “unfathomable levels of public spending,” harmed education “by subordinating the interests of students and parents to partisan interest groups” and “imposed medical authoritarianism in the guise of pandemic mandates and restrictions that lack a scientific basis.”

Then, he repeated the refrain from the campaign trail: “Florida is where woke goes to die.”

The governor also skewered what he called the federal government’s “inflationary spending binge that has left our nation weaker and our citizens poorer.”

He said that the federal government’s pandemic restrictions were “based more on ideology and politics than on sound science” and that the federal government’s immigration policy has made “a mockery of the rule of law.”

Those are exactly the themes that will resonate with primary voters, said Thomas, the head of the DeSantis super PAC.

“The governor needs to stay relevant and top of mind to the electorate that is not Florida,’’ Thomas said. “He’s got to keep his poll numbers either beating Trump or matching him.”

DeSantis, a former member of Congress, may have also previewed how he is going to contrast himself with the federal government in a future presidential run, said Goodman, the GOP consultant.

“He has basically planted the flag as an outsider to the system,” he said.

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.