Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis easily won reelection Tuesday, defeating former Republican governor turned Democrat Charlie Crist in a closely watched contest.
"We made promises to the people, and we have delivered on those promises. So today, after four years, the people have delivered their verdict. Freedom is here to stay," DeSantis said at his victory party. "Thank you for honoring us with a win for the ages."
For his second term in the governor’s office, the controversial Republican promised he would further expand school vouchers, cut taxes and continue to fight against “woke” issues, like anti-racism and transgender support.
"If everything gets infected by wokeness, it will destroy this country," DeSantis said last Sunday at a campaign rally in St. Lucie, Fla. "We will never surrender to the woke mob. The state of Florida is where woke goes to die."
Nationally, all eyes are on DeSantis as he decides whether to run for president in 2024, a decision that Republicans do not expect to be announced until after he finishes the Florida legislative session next spring. Asked by Crist at their lone debate if he would commit to serving four years as governor (in other words, not to run for president in 2024), DeSantis fired back that Crist and President Biden were “old donkeys.”
If he jumps in for the 2024 race, DeSantis will be set on a path for a showdown with former President Donald Trump, who has all but formally declared he’s running for office a third time.
DeSantis's first term
Not long into his first term in office, DeSantis was catapulted into the national spotlight for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The relatively young former congressman excelled at picking his battles and claiming victory afterward.
Former state COVID-19 data specialist Rebekah Jones became a hero of the left for critiquing DeSantis’s handling of data related to COVID deaths in 2020, but she was pushed out by DeSantis and later dinged by a conservative journalist, Christina Pushaw, who went on to become one of DeSantis’s top aides.
Veterans of Florida government and politics noted that DeSantis’s strong performance during his first term as governor was bolstered by a mix of lockdowns enacted by Democrats running some of the state’s most populous cities and major missteps from his critics.
His stock on the right rose even higher after a “60 Minutes” segment implied he gave special treatment to one of his top campaign donors, the heiress to the Publix fortune, by allowing the supermarket to distribute COVID-19 vaccines. But the long-running journalism institution failed to show an explicit “pay for play” scheme between DeSantis and the supermarket chain and helped burnish the governor’s credentials in the process for his ability to fight with mainstream media.
DeSantis also built his name on the national stage as a modern culture warrior on the right. When Disney, arguably the most powerful employer in Florida, opposed the governor’s measure to bar what can be taught about sexuality and gender identity in elementary schools, DeSantis retaliated by shutting down a special tax break for Disney that had been in place for decades.
The mixture of attacking major institutions from the hard right and governing based on the culture wars helped earn DeSantis a regular spot on top cable-talker Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, which further endeared him with the GOP’s hard right base and catapulted him into contention for the Republican nomination in 2024.
And as DeSantis’s star on the right rose, so too did the simmering anger from Trump, who has rarely faced a challenge to his grip on the GOP since 2015.
DeSantis vs Trump
In 2018’s Republican primary for governor, DeSantis won an upset victory over party favorite Adam Putnam. As a third-term congressman in the early months of Trump’s presidency, DeSantis flocked to the Fox News cameras stationed around the Capitol and made himself a regular presence defending Trump as the president watched on TV.
That on-air performance, plus Putnam’s history of never fully supporting Trump, resulted in the then president’s endorsement of DeSantis for the Republican nomination, and ultimately helped propel DeSantis to the governor’s office, narrowly squeaking out a win over Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum.
But as in all things Republican politics in the Trump era, the more that DeSantis’s national profile rose, the more Trump groused about the young firebrand he had helped bring to victory.
And, like most elected Republicans in Washington and throughout the states, DeSantis responded to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection with a narrow indictment of political violence but declined to go any further. On the first anniversary of the historic attack on the Capitol, DeSantis accused the media of equating Jan. 6 with Christmas by paying too much attention to it.
But, notably, DeSantis didn’t lean into the defense of Trump offered by more extreme Republicans.
Meanwhile, early polling of the possible 2024 contenders showed a large bloc of support gelling around DeSantis, as increasing numbers of Republicans said they would like to see someone other than Trump as the nominee.
Heading into his reelection campaign, DeSantis did not seek Trump’s endorsement a second time, and Trump did not offer it. Instead, Florida’s two most powerful politicians carefully circled each other in the proverbial arena, waiting to strike.
After Hurricane Ian devastated Florida this fall, DeSantis stayed in close touch with President Biden and toured the damage with the Delaware Democrat, despite the fact that previous Republican governors (including Crist himself) had taken a hit politically for accepting the support of Democrats in the White House.
On the day of DeSantis’s tour with Biden, Trump headlined a conference in Florida and teased the idea that he might strike at his archrival publicly. But instead he only said, “God bless our governor.”
The intensity ratcheted up again a little more than a week later after Trump and DeSantis split over supporting Colorado’s Republican Senate nominee, Joe O’Dea. Trump inched out further and reposted a video of former Fox News star Megyn Kelly saying he would easily beat DeSantis in 2024.
Then, just days before the 2022 general election, Trump rolled out the surest sign yet that the fight was now in full public view — he tagged DeSantis with one of the trademark insults he used to take down opponents, calling him “Ron DeSanctimonious.” But Trump, relying on a tactic he used throughout his 2016 campaign, pulled back from the attack the next day.
DeSantis didn’t hit back with any insults of his own.
Republicans tracking the prospective field of 2024 candidates don’t expect DeSantis to make a decision until after the legislative session at the Statehouse in Tallahassee wraps up in May. But Trump himself could attempt to force the issue by launching his third bid earlier than any serious contender in modern times.
DeSantis, who turned 44 earlier this year, will have to decide whether it’s worth it to take on Trump now and risk a crippling loss, or wait until 2028 and hope that Trump isn’t running again and that the hard-right base of the party is still enamored with him.
The smart move for DeSantis, said longtime Trump adviser and pollster Kellyanne Conway, would be to wait.
“I hear this a lot from donors: ‘What if we could have so-and-so? What if we could have all the accomplishments without Trump?’” Conway said last week at the Christian Science Monitor Breakfast in Washington. “You could try, but I think many people would say, ‘Why would I take a chance on an heir to Trump when I could have the real thing?’”