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How DeSantis’ defeat could alter Florida politics — or not

“I don’t think that the politics of Tallahassee are going to be nationalized for the next three years like they have been,” said Justin Sayfie, a Florida-based lobbyist.
 
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens during a town hall at the LaBelle Winery last week in Derry, N.H.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens during a town hall at the LaBelle Winery last week in Derry, N.H. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]
Published Jan. 23|Updated Jan. 23

Wounded as a national figure in Republican politics, Ron DeSantis has retreated to Florida, where lawmakers and lobbyists have been waiting to see which version of the governor they’re going to get.

Will DeSantis once again dominate the policy agenda in Tallahassee? Will he be subservient to former President Donald Trump? Will the governor, who has three years left on his final term, face a less compliant Republican majority?

“The fact is, he doesn’t have a $100 million political action committee anymore to scare everyone with,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “He doesn’t have the intimidation power he used to have and, to an extent, he’s still a lame duck.”

But if there were any questions about which governor was returning to the Florida Capitol, DeSantis is already showing Floridians and legislative leaders that he intends to wield the power of his office in the time he has left.

Within 24 hours of suspending his campaign, DeSantis held back-to-back meetings and calls with legislative staff, chimed in on national border security issues and reminded Florida lawmakers — who are in the midst of the annual legislative session — that his veto powers still loom large.

On Monday, DeSantis sank a GOP-led effort to use Florida taxpayer money to pay off Trump’s legal expenses. The show of force — publicly displayed on X — was seen by some of his allies as an indication of the governor being back in Tallahassee in full force.

“Anyone who thinks that Ron DeSantis is just going to sit back and not engage in the process in the same way that he’s engaged before, a) does not know Ron DeSantis very well or b) has not been paying attention,” said Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, a close ally of the governor.

DeSantis’ past actions hover over Tallahassee

DeSantis’ political ascent can be traced to the attention he got when he leaned on the Florida Legislature to push an aggressive agenda that rewired state institutions with right-wing orthodoxy, punished critics and rallied enough support from conservatives that he was seen as best-positioned to be the heir to the MAGA movement after Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential race.

DeSantis cast Florida for years as the state where “woke goes to die,” touting his efforts to bar critical race theory from classrooms, prohibit instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida schools, and restrict abortion access.

He tried to bring the Florida blueprint to the rest of the country, promising Republicans that he would “Make America Florida.”

But after that pitch failed to resonate with voters, there’s some speculation that DeSantis might dial back the culture wars and refocus on more state-specific issues in his second act as governor.

“I don’t think that the politics of Tallahassee are going to be nationalized for the next three years like they have been,” said Justin Sayfie, a Florida-based lobbyist and fundraiser for DeSantis’ now-defunct presidential campaign.

Other allies of the governor, though, are expecting him to double down — whether it’s his war on “woke,” his response to illegal immigration or addressing water quality problems in the state.

“I think we’re going to see more of the same governor we’ve seen,” Republican Party of Florida chairperson Evan Power said in an interview. “He’s consistently delivered on a conservative agenda, and I think we’re going to see more of that.”

So what’s on the agenda?

For now, the governor’s agenda is elusive. But earlier this month, DeSantis told Florida lawmakers to “stay the course” and to “keep doing what works.” At the time, critics said the speech was written more for Iowa and New Hampshire voters than Floridians, but now it sounds more like a message about his plans for the future in Florida.

“While the campaign has ended, the mission continues,” DeSantis wrote to supporters hours after he suspended his presidential campaign on Sunday. “Down here in Florida, we will continue to show the country how to lead.”

Three weeks into the 60-day legislative session, Republican leaders have not been pushing polarizing culture war issues as aggressively. But even so, they are advancing proposals that would ban teachers and other government employees from displaying the pride flag, revamp the state’s defamation laws, require state-issued identification cards to reflect a person’s sex at birth and impose requirements for insurers who cover gender-affirming care.

“There’s plenty of time in this session,” said state Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola. “If he wanted to double down on the stuff he cares about, he can.”

Democrats, relegated to superminority status, hope that his stinging loss on the national stage will bring a different DeSantis to the Capitol. Democratic Senate Leader Lauren Book said she hopes DeSantis will no longer pursue his culture war agenda, given that it failed to persuade voters outside of Florida.

“We’re going to continue to try to unbury ourselves from his political ambitions and the things he did to our beautiful state,” Book said.

Others foresee the opposite: Florida Democratic Party chairperson Nikki Fried fears DeSantis will be returning to Florida “with vengeance.”

“He’s going to want to prove to the whole nation that what he was doing here in Florida was right. So I don’t know exactly which policy perspectives he’s going to be pushing during this legislative session, but this is a call to action for every Floridian in our state,” Fried said.

It’s all about relationships

DeSantis remains highly influential over the Legislature and has a strong relationship with House Speaker Paul Renner and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo. The two Republicans, who carry the agenda in each chamber, have said they largely agree with the governor’s priorities. They campaigned alongside the governor in Iowa.

Those power dynamics will change later this year, when Sen. Ben Albritton becomes Senate president and state Rep. Daniel Perez, R-Miami, takes over as House speaker. On Monday, both said they expect the governor to focus on the same issues as in recent years, which they say they also largely support.

“I think it is important that people focus on what we’ve accomplished over the last several years instead of just the headlines that actually are used as clickbait more often than not,” Perez said.

Albritton, R-Wauchula, cast cold water on the idea that the governor lost clout by bowing out of the presidential election.

“I believe that clout or influence is a relative term, but it is all based on relationships,” Albritton said. “I have a great relationship with him.”

Some Democrats say they fear DeSantis may try to veto funding items based on those relationships.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said it could be interesting to see if Republicans and Democrats band together to override DeSantis’ vetoes on issues important to the Legislature, including budget items. Meanwhile, Republicans who endorsed Trump over DeSantis, like Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, are trying to dispel claims that DeSantis may retaliate against them.

“He’s not that type of person,” she said.

What’s next for him?

Jamie Miller, a Republican consultant and former executive director of the Florida GOP, said DeSantis’ “bully pulpit” is fading, if not gone, but “what happens next in Florida depends on how DeSantis decides to play it.”

“He can come back and be a team player and move forward, or he can try to take out (his loss) on other people,” Miller said. “But elections change things and people. We’ll see, because this is certainly not what he expected. The hangover from that is real.”

With DeSantis out of the presidential race, the entire Republican Party in Florida — including the governor — is rallying around Trump. Still, many Florida Republicans see a path for DeSantis to run for president in 2028, and think that may influence his actions over the next three years.

Lobbyist Brian Ballard, who has supported both DeSantis and Trump in recent years, said DeSantis “needs to lean in on being the best governor he can be, and he’s a pretty darn good one.”

“If he has future national ambitions, that’s what (his agenda) is going to be based on,” Ballard said.

Andrade agrees. He thinks the governor could have a future if he stays focused on what he has been doing already.

“To quote my favorite political philosopher, Lil Wayne: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t break it,’” Andrade said.