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As election nears, DeSantis’ eyes stay on conservative base

He’s generally declined to modulate his message for moderates as he moves into the general election race for governor.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd of supporters during the Keep Florida Free Tour on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in Tampa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd of supporters during the Keep Florida Free Tour on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Sep. 2, 2022|Updated Sep. 2, 2022

In the last month alone, Ron DeSantis has released a much-discussed ad mimicking “Top Gun,” left Florida to campaign in a quartet of far-away swing states and talked about throwing Anthony Fauci across a river.

It’s not exactly been a traditional reelection campaign for the governor.

With little more than two months before Election Day, the Florida Republican has taken an unconventional approach to winning a second term in office, regularly making headlines with a message sure to please conservatives — including those who live beyond the state’s borders — even if it holds less appeal to the type of moderate voters reelection efforts normally target.

He’s praised a controversial justice, attended out-of-state rallies, and generally declined to modulate a message even after Democrats picked his general election opponent, Charlie Crist, in last month’s primary.

The unusual effort hasn’t gone unnoticed by Republicans, even if most remain confident he’ll win in November. And it’s stirred yet more speculation that the governor is intent on growing his national reputation even while seeking reelection.

“It’s consistent with the candidate he’s always been,” said David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida who has become a frequent GOP critic. “He keeps his own counsel and that of his wife. He eschews traditional strategies. And much like (former President Donald) Trump, if you’ve been successful at that, you’re going to repeat that formula.”

DeSantis has insisted he is focused on only 2022, and those close to the governor and his campaign say they have never heard him or his aides ever mention a future presidential run.

In a statement, a DeSantis official denied the campaign was taking an unusual approach and defended his decision to campaign on behalf of other Republicans outside Florida this close to Election Day.

“Democrats are actively working to destroy the foundation of our country, and Governor DeSantis is happy to support bold leaders who are fighting for freedom in the same way he has in Florida,” said Lindsey Curnutte, a DeSantis campaign spokesperson. “That’s not unconventional — that’s leadership.”

Related: What awaits Crist in battle against DeSantis for Florida governor

The governor, of course, is doing some traditionally tailored political outreach, touring the state to tout infrastructure investments or the state’s economy and releasing ads that highlight his record as governor.

“I mean, if you think about what we’ve been able to do over the last four years in the state of Florida, we have been the focal point of freedom in this country,” he said during an interview with Fox News last week. “We have people that want to visit here, people that have moved here. We have a lower unemployment rate now than we did prior to COVID, which no one thought would have been possible.”

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But those efforts sit side-by-side with the more incendiary material, which often commands more attention. And it’s left some Republicans waiting for a more concerted effort from the governor to more forcefully and consistently expand beyond the red-meat appeals meant for the party’s base.

‘Little elf’ Fauci

DeSantis begins the general election against Crist with a few distinct advantages, including a massive financial edge. The incumbent controlled a political war chest of more than $130 million in mid-August, according to Open Secrets, compared to Crist’s sum of roughly $1.5 million. Republicans in Florida also recently seized a voter registration edge in the state.

The former congressman claimed a narrow victory in 2018 to become governor, overcoming a difficult national political climate for GOP candidates to win by fewer than 40,000 votes.

This year, DeSantis’ strategic approach is drawing extra attention, Republicans say, because even if he wins in November, his ultimate margin of victory could boost — or harm — any future bids for higher office.

Trump won the state by about 3.4 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election, and GOP strategists speculate that the governor is seeking an even bigger victory: Jolly said several sources close to the campaign have told him that beating Trump’s 2020 margin is the campaign’s explicit goal.

So far in his race, at least, he’s attempting to do so without tamping down any of the rhetorical flourishes that have marked his tenure in office. Last week, DeSantis called Dr. Anthony Fauci — director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — a “little elf,” urging somebody to “chuck him across the Potomac.” (The remark earned enough attention that it received a rebuke from the White House days later.)

The same week, he went on conservative Hugh Hewitt’s radio show to praise Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, after the conservative jurist urged the nation’s highest court to reconsider legal rights to same-sex marriage and contraception — positions that are unpopular with large majorities of Americans.

“We want people like Justice Thomas who will just stand strong and never, never bend to any of those pressures,” the governor told Hewitt last week.

The DeSantis campaign last week also released an ad designed to look like the movie “Top Gun,” with the governor dressed as a naval aviator while he outlines how to deal with a hostile “corporate media.”

The anti-media stance could resonate with a broad swath of the public: Polls show that trust in the mainstream media is near record lows.

But that line of criticism — much like the governor’s continued focus on culture war issues like transgender youths or the attention he’s paid to cases of alleged voter fraud — is typically seen as less effective at persuading ideologically moderate swing voters than messages rooted in the economy, education or health care.

Most conspicuous of all of DeSantis’ efforts, however, was a four-state tour he undertook in August, leaving the state to campaign for GOP gubernatorial candidates in Arizona, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Longtime political operatives said they struggled to remember the last time a major candidate in a competitive reelection race so publicly campaigned elsewhere this close to Election Day.

“It’s extremely rare,” said Colin Reed, a veteran national Republican strategist. “And it speaks to his confidence.”

Related: From Disney to Andrew Warren, DeSantis shows taste for power — and a fight

Mastriano

Some of the candidates he campaigned for at the rallies, organized by Turning Point Action, have embraced the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, including Ohio Senate nominee J.D. Vance, Arizona GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano. Mastriano, in fact, was near the Capitol when a mob attacked it on Jan. 6, 2021, though he has said he did not enter the building.

If Mastriano’s presence at the Capitol bothered DeSantis, he didn’t show it: During his appearance in Pittsburgh, the governor said “Pennsylvania’s now the most important swing state in the country” because his own state of Florida has become “redder.” Campaigning with those candidates sent a clear message about his political ambitions, say political strategists.

“Florida is a red state, but it’s not Doug Mastriano red,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime political strategist in Florida and frequent DeSantis critic. “It’s not J.D. Vance red. He’s trying to win the Fox primary, and the MAGA primary, well ahead of time. And it’s working for him.”

Some DeSantis allies insist that the governor’s approach is a product of a politician with a strong set of beliefs that align with the public’s own values. Other Republicans quietly muse that an abrupt about-face in voter outreach from the oft-pugilistic governor wouldn’t pass the smell test with voters, even moderates, who are too used to seeing his combative side.

And with the calendar about to reach Labor Day, when the general public is thought to start paying closer attention to the election, some strategists think the campaign might yet adjust its approach.

But still others think the effort is part of a rational strategy from DeSantis, one focused on turning out the conservative base and overwhelming his Democratic foe Charlie Crist.

“He looks at this election with an eye to, if I run up my score with the base, I don’t have to compete against Charlie,” Wilson said.

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