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DeSantis was their guy. Now that he’s out, how do Florida voters feel?

The governor’s failed presidential bid left Tampa Bay supporters disappointed. Some aren’t ready to move on.
 
Supporters of Gov. Ron DeSantis attend a rally for him on Jan. 13 at the Never Back Down super PAC headquarters in West Des Moines, Iowa. In Tampa Bay and across Florida, voters who'd pinned their hopes on DeSantis winning the Republican nomination for president are feeling dejected and frustrated by the governor's decision to drop out of the race.
Supporters of Gov. Ron DeSantis attend a rally for him on Jan. 13 at the Never Back Down super PAC headquarters in West Des Moines, Iowa. In Tampa Bay and across Florida, voters who'd pinned their hopes on DeSantis winning the Republican nomination for president are feeling dejected and frustrated by the governor's decision to drop out of the race. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 25|Updated Jan. 27

Brittany Lyssy lucked out and beat the snowstorms when she flew to Iowa this month to campaign for Ron DeSantis. But once she was on the ground, she said, “it was too cold for this Floridian.”

Lyssy, the president of the Tampa Bay Young Republicans, made calls and went door to door in negative-degree weather during the final, snowy stretch of DeSantis’ Iowa campaign for president. The day before the Jan. 15 caucuses, she drove more than three hours from Des Moines to stump for the Florida governor at a caucus site in Sioux City.

Less than a week later, after placing a distant second to former President Donald Trump in Iowa, DeSantis was out of the race. And back in Tampa, Lyssy, 29, had to confront moving on.

“Donald Trump is great, and he has great policies, but I feel — and I know a lot of people feel this way — that DeSantis was a once-in-a-generation, true conservative candidate that could have brought the party back into a different direction,” she said. “And now we’re not going to get a chance to do that.”

Brittany Lyssy of Tampa, president of the Tampa Bay Young Republicans, campaigns for Gov. Ron DeSantis in Sioux City, Iowa, on Jan. 14.
Brittany Lyssy of Tampa, president of the Tampa Bay Young Republicans, campaigns for Gov. Ron DeSantis in Sioux City, Iowa, on Jan. 14. [ Courtesy of Brittany Lyssy ]

In the days after DeSantis suspended his rocky, costly bid for the presidency, his Republican backers in Florida had to untangle feelings of dejection and frustration they never saw coming a year ago, when DeSantis led Trump in many polls.

Joshua Steinhauer, 45, of Apollo Beach wishes DeSantis had stayed in the race a little longer, at least until a batch of delegate-heavy states vote on Super Tuesday, March 5. Dropping out even before the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, he said, shut voters there out of the process.

“My frustration with that is he didn’t give all of his supporters, and the American people, the chance to express our frustration, our votes, and give us a chance to say, ‘Hey, we like your message, we like your plans, we want to support you,’” Steinhauer said. “But we were denied that. We had a certain percentage of people in Iowa vote, and they basically decided the entire race for us.”

Steinhauer is an Air Force veteran who served in the Iraq War at the same time as DeSantis, a former judge advocate general, or JAG, officer in the Navy. Steinhauer saw this election as a chance to put a veteran back into the White House for the first time in more than a generation, giving the United States more experienced leadership when it came to foreign conflicts.

“JAGs like that, they’re the ones who are helping commanders understand the rules of engagement — what kind of attacks and operations you can conduct, who you’re legally allowed to engage and not engage,” he said. “He was over in Ramadi and Fallujah. I was there during those periods. It was a tough fight. That was a real slugfest during that time period. And that was a pivotal role he played over there.”

Josh Heer, the pastor at Living Hope Largo, moved from Kansas to Florida in 2020 and was impressed with how DeSantis handled businesses and churches reopening during the pandemic. He had reservations about supporting Trump in 2024 — “how he talks, how he treats people,” he said — but ultimately just decided DeSantis was the right man for the job.

Heer, 32, wasn’t surprised by DeSantis’ decision to drop out, and embraced as a silver lining his return to the governor’s mansion. As for Trump, he said he’ll keep an open mind.

“As a pastor, you make sure you pray for these people, even the ones we don’t like, and understand that just because someone disagrees with us politically doesn’t mean that we can’t be friends,” he said. “Try to give each other grace during this political season. The world doesn’t revolve around one man or one woman, and hope isn’t found there.”

Most Republicans supported both DeSantis and Trump in some fashion, said Jake Hoffman, a DeSantis supporter who ran a bid for the Florida House in 2022. Hoffman thinks the state and federal indictments Trump has faced over voting interference, tax fraud and other issues actually increased support for him over the past few months — at DeSantis’ expense.

“When that stuff started to happen, that was when I kind of knew that DeSantis isn’t probably going to win this,” said Hoffman, 33, of Tampa. “They had all their chips in Iowa, so even a second-place finish there was not what they needed to continue the campaign. I personally thought he was going to stay in through New Hampshire and into Super Tuesday, but it wasn’t going to happen.”

Some DeSantis backers already see this election as a lost opportunity.

“Did I want him to stay my governor? Yeah, that was important to me. But I felt like the country needed him more,” said Ramona Richey, 64, of Tampa. “He did all the things that this country needs right now. And he’s young. My God, I don’t want two 80-year-olds running this country anymore.”

Richey described herself as an independent-minded, “free-thinking” person. Until this presidential cycle, she was a registered Democrat. But she changed her party affiliation just so she could vote for DeSantis in Florida’s presidential primary on March 19.

Richey was disappointed that DeSantis seemed “controlled by advisers who told him to smile, to not go after Trump.” She wasn’t bothered that DeSantis immediately endorsed Trump, because he’d pledged to support the GOP nominee, and she saw him as a man of his word. But she’s not following suit.

“I’m over the drama, the chaos,” she said of Trump. “We need leadership, and I don’t want to relive 2020. I’m done. He lost. And I just don’t want to relive it.”

Hoffman thinks a small percentage of DeSantis backers in Florida, maybe 3% or less, will turn to another candidate for president, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. But that number could grow, Lyssy said, if Trump doesn’t take their concerns seriously.

“I don’t think he feels like he needs to earn anybody’s votes. I think he thinks he deserves them,” she said of Trump. “That’s where we could see a problem, because he needs every Republican, and a lot of independents, to win. You can’t alienate certain sectors of the party just because they didn’t support you in the primary.”

For some, there is no replacing DeSantis, full stop. Richey said that if Trump is the nominee this fall, she may vote Republican down-ballot, but she’ll leave the box for president blank.

As for Florida’s primary? Even though he’s out of the race, DeSantis is still her guy.

“His name is on the ballot in Florida, and I’m voting for him,” she said. “I will vote for him in the primary, and then I’m going independent.”