The biggest surprise in Monday night’s debate between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Democratic challenger Charlie Crist might have been that DeSantis was unprepared to answer an obvious question: whether he’ll promise to complete his four-year term if he’s reelected.
DeSantis’s trajectory toward a presidential bid reveals something beyond his own personality, or even the internal dynamics of the GOP: The way we think about governors of both parties running for president has changed.
For decades, conventional wisdom held that governors made the strongest presidential candidates. They could be untainted by whatever people didn’t like about Washington, and their jobs made them plausible in the Oval Office: Like presidents, governors deal with legislatures, they make decisions, they can be judged on results, and they’re the most important figures in their capitals.
Senators, on the other hand, mostly give speeches, which is one reason that relatively few of them get elected president unless they’ve worked in some other executive position. Only three in all of American history — Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama — went straight from the Senate to the White House.
But that’s not all governors have had to offer in the past. For many years, governors running for president made the argument, “Things are going great in my state, and it’s because I’ve brought people together, no matter their party, to solve problems and get things done.”
That was George W. Bush’s message in 2000; he was “a different kind of Republican,” he would say again and again, touting his work with Democrats in Texas. In 1992, Bill Clinton said he was “a new kind of Democrat,” more moderate than what voters were familiar with. Even Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter could tout accomplishments that transcended party.
The harbinger of change might have been Mitt Romney, who had been a governor in the traditional mold: a Republican in a liberal state who found success with moderate views and bipartisan achievements, most notably a health-insurance reform plan that would eventually provide a model for the Affordable Care Act. But when he ran for president, Romney had to disavow much of his record as a governor (especially that health-care plan).
Nevertheless, he got his party’s nomination on his second try. Today a few GOP governors still resemble what Romney was then, including Larry Hogan in Maryland, Chris Sununu in New Hampshire and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts.
But here’s what’s different: None of them could win the Republican presidential nomination. And it’s not just because they’re more moderate than someone such as DeSantis on the issues. It’s also because their success at state governing has made them anathema to the party base.
The way DeSantis became a national figure shows why. Why has he become the most frequently mentioned presidential contender? It’s not because his state has done so well, or even because he has staked out far-right positions; as conservative as he is, he’s hardly an outlier in the party.
It’s because he has been more aggressive than any other governor in using state power to punish the right’s enemies, staging high-profile fights that target immigrants, LGBTQ Floridians and companies such as Disney. That’s what thrills the GOP base, and what they now want to see from any governor.
DeSantis also has a media strategy aimed at conservatives. Early in his term, he became a fixture on Fox News, as the network promoted him as the next Republican star. Records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show that the network asked DeSantis to appear 113 times from the week of the 2020 election through February 2021 — almost daily. This turned him into a star on the right and convinced mainstream media that he’s worth watching, even as he treats reporters with hostility and contempt.
On the other side, the governors Democrats most often mention as potential presidents are Gavin Newsom of California and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. Newsom has gone out of his way to start fights with Republicans in other states. Whitmer has been embroiled in intense controversies with her own state’s Republicans over abortion and other issues. In contrast, Democratic governors who run red states, including Laura Kelly in Kansas, Andy Beshear in Kentucky and John Bel Edwards in Louisiana, have garnered little national attention.
If anything, governors might now need to become more partisan if they want to run for president. The days of the “different kind” of Republican or Democrat, touting bipartisan success at the state level, are behind us.