TALLAHASSEE — It was the debate question Gov. Ron DeSantis squarely avoided: “Why don’t you look in the eyes of the people of the State of Florida and say to them, if you’re reelected, you will serve a full four-year term as governor?” Democratic rival Charlie Crist asked Monday evening. “Yes or no, Ron?”
After a long pause, DeSantis turned to his notes and quipped: “The only worn-out, old donkey I’m looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist.”
The response during the only debate in Florida race for governor was not an answer, but the issue raises questions of its own.
DeSantis has done little to tamp down speculation that he plans to run for president, polls show he is a party favorite, and his campaign has steered more than $61 million to the Republican Party of Florida, which could return it to a federal DeSantis campaign in the future.
So, if DeSantis wins reelection and pursues a campaign for president in 2024, will he have to resign his governorship to run?
By all indications, the answer is yes, said Jon Mills, a constitutional law professor at the University of Florida.
Florida law requires elected officials seeking a federal, state or local office while serving in a current one to resign. The resignation must occur no later than 10 days before qualifying for the federal office, and failure to resign by that date would result in automatic resignation effective immediately.
“The statute in text does say federal,” Mills said, but applying the law to a presidential contest is more complicated. “The question is when? What does qualification mean in terms of running for president? Does it mean you are the final nominee or is it when you qualify for the first primary state?”
The statute reads: “Any officer who qualifies for federal public office must resign from the office he or she presently holds if the terms, or any part thereof, run concurrently with each other.”
Could the governor be a candidate for president on Florida’s Republican primary ballot?
“That would seem to be hard to get around,’’ Mills said.
No sitting Florida governor has run for president
Florida has had several former governors run for president, but never a sitting governor. (Only one, Andrew Jackson, Florida’s very brief territorial governor in 1821, has ever been elected to the nation’s top job.)
In 2007, when Crist was governor — and a Republican at the time — he was being courted as a running mate by Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate for president. To make it possible for Crist to be selected and not have to resign from office, the Florida Legislature lifted the resign-to-run law regarding federal officials.
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Crist was not chosen so the law was not triggered. But, when then-Gov. Rick Scott came into office in 2010, lawmakers restored the requirement, arguing that by requiring candidates to resign if they were seeking higher office, they would reduce the number of special elections that had to be held to replace them.
The law does not apply to state officials whose terms expire in the same election cycle as the federal office they are seeking — a provision that allowed Scott to run for U.S. Senate at the same time he was governor.
If DeSantis is required to resign to run for president, the Florida Constitution authorizes the lieutenant governor to replace him. That would make Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez of Miami the first woman to be Florida governor.
There is also another interpretation of the current law, as outlined on the website of Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus. It states that a candidate for federal office does not need to resign a state job to run “as long as the officer is not also seeking to qualify for re-election to his or her present office.” If elected, DeSantis is not eligible to seek a third consecutive term.
Mills added that to clear up any confusion, and if a reelected DeSantis wants to stay in the office while seeking the presidential nomination, the Republican-controlled Legislature could come to his aide.
“One could imagine that the Legislature would come into session, if DeSantis wins, and change the law again,” he said.
The GOP’s rising star
Meanwhile, DeSantis has encouraged speculation that he is preparing to mount a bid for the 2024 Republican nomination for president.
He has accepted dozens of fundraising invitations from Republican candidates across the country who are attracted to DeSantis’ pugilistic message as a culture warrior.
Several recent national polls show Florida’s first-term governor may be the party’s favored nominee, especially if Donald Trump does not run or is indicted. And DeSantis rarely mentions Crist in campaign speeches.
Instead, DeSantis has tailored both his agenda and his message to focus on nationally charged issues on race, gender and immigration.
Public records show his large communications staff is focused primarily on attracting national media attention. His staff compiles daily reports on each of the governor’s culture-war initiatives, listing media mentions in the conservative media and national press.
The Republican Party of Florida has even been sending pro-DeSantis mailers to voters in other states.
For example, a grandmother in Wisconsin received a card in the mail that featured on one side a photo of the governor seated with his wife and three children and a note on the other side from DeSantis. He described the athletic skills of his children, ages 5, 3 and 1, and read: “These children deserve a government that doesn’t diminish their freedom, but protects and celebrates it. Your children and grandchildren deserve the exact same.”
A former resident of Florida, who hasn’t voted in Florida since 2019, posted on Twitter copies of three mailers he has received in Texas. A South Carolina resident also showed a picture of “an interesting mailer” about DeSantis sent to her home in that state. All of the mailers came from the Republican Party of Florida.
Republican Party of Florida chairperson Joe Gruters, a state senator from Sarasota, said he was not aware of the mailers sent to other states, and speculated that most of those receiving them had been culled from a list of Florida voters.
Was the party sending pro-DeSantis mailers in advance of the 2024 campaign?
“I would say that’s definitely not the case,” Gruters said. “But you never know. I’d have to check.”
According to the Florida Division of Elections records, the governor’s political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, gave nearly $61.35 million this year to the Republican Party of Florida, plus $600,000 for fundraising, transportation and digital and political consulting expenses.
If DeSantis were to seek federal office, his political committee would be barred from spending money on the race, but the Republican Party of Florida would not.
During Monday’s debate between Crist and DeSantis, Crist didn’t mention his attempt to change the law to benefit his potential federal candidacy in 2008. He did taunt DeSantis once more in an attempt to get him to commit to an answer.
“It’s a fair question. He won’t tell you,” Crist concluded.
McClatchy Washington Reporter Ben Wieder contributed to this report.
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