DeSantis’s political rise has been rapid by any standard. Only 42 years old, the Yale and Harvard Law graduate served as a Navy lawyer until his honorable discharge in 2010. In less than three years, he had become a congressman from a safe, affluent congressional district in suburban Jacksonville, Fla. He was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, the staunchly conservative group that bedeviled Republican House speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan with its relentless confrontational behavior. He then won the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary by attaching himself to Trump’s coattails so thoroughly that he even ran a television ad where he read Trump’s “Art of the Deal” to his young child. You would have been in good company had you thought he would govern as a hard-right populist after he defeated Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum by less than half a percentage point.
Instead, DeSantis has been a conventional conservative in office. He’s focused on increasing education spending and has approved only minor tax cuts. He has quietly supported conservative efforts on religious liberty without stoking the culture-war flames. He has avoided public controversy while signing bills requiring public employers and their contractors to use E-Verify to ensure that all employees are legally able to work and banning “sanctuary cities” that would refuse to work with federal law officers enforcing immigration laws. Before the pandemic hit, DeSantis would have been seen as an effective, but generic, Republican governor.
The media’s focus on his approach to controlling the coronavirus gave him his opening. Establishment journalists excoriated him for his early refusal to close his state as much as Democratic governors, and the pressure continued to mount as a summer surge hit Florida and other Southern states. DeSantis nonetheless persisted in keeping the Sunshine State more open for business than others, saying that “fear is our enemy.” He has belittled journalists who have tried to attack him, making him a hero in a party that largely believes the mainstream media is merely an arm of the Democratic Party. He defended his record on handling the pandemic in his CPAC speech, noting that deaths per capita are lower in Florida than in more than half the states while unemployment is also lower than the national average. His statement that “Florida got it right and the lockdown states got it wrong” is music to conservative ears.
DeSantis’s strong position in Florida also boosts his presidential hopes. A recent Florida poll showed him getting 64 percent in a hypothetical three-way race against Florida GOP Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott in a 2024 presidential primary. That would matter because Florida sent the third-largest delegation to the 2020 Republican convention (122, compared to California’s 172 and Texas’s 155) and traditionally awards all its delegates to the winner of its statewide primary. That alone would be about 10 percent of the total needed to win the nomination, a strong base on which to build.
Building on that, though, will require DeSantis to run on more than his covid-19 record. Hopefully, that will be old news by the time the 2024 race begins in earnest. He will need to craft a stronger record than he currently has to cement his status as a top-tier candidate.
Such a record should include a strong economic component. He should increase the size and scope of his tax cuts as Florida’s economy recovers, perhaps by increasing the amount of the homestead exemption for property taxes. He could tout and expand Florida’s apprenticeship programs to encourage non-college-bound youths to pursue on-the-job training. He could also work to establish a state program to make state universities free for students whose parents did not graduate from college. These ideas would give him a clear platform to attract the party’s new base: working-class voters of all races and ethnicities.
He should also carefully wade into the culture wars. Republicans want to ensure cancel culture ends and the United States’ historical virtues are preserved. DeSantis could propose legislation that would protect free speech in Florida universities and public schools or devise a uniform history and civics curriculum that presents a positive view of America while acknowledging the pernicious legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Such achievements would attract national attention and show Republicans that where others talked, DeSantis acted.
Presidential politics are notoriously difficult to forecast. It’s nonetheless a safe bet to keep an eye on DeSantis as the GOP’s jockeying intensifies.