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Opinion For Republicans, Ron DeSantis offers the best of two worlds

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks during the Florida Family Policy Council's annual dinner gala in Orlando on Saturday. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
5 min

The conventional wisdom about Republicans after the disastrous 2022 midterms is that they need to choose between two different types of candidates: forward-looking, reform-minded governors who won overwhelmingly by appealing to swing voters, and populist rabble-rousers who made the conservative base swoon but could not win over independents.

Or maybe they don’t: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is both.

DeSantis is a conservative populist who takes on Disney, sends migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and fights the left’s woke agenda. “The woke mind virus is basically a form of cultural Marxism,” DeSantis said Wednesday in announcing his presidential campaign. “And because it’s a war on truth, I think we have no choice but to wage a war on woke.”

But DeSantis is also a conservative reformer who delivers concrete results. During the pandemic, he kept Florida open and running, banning vaccine passports, suspending local emergency orders that forced businesses to shut down and opening schools. When storms hit, he was the model of a chief executive in action, getting the bridge to Pine Island rebuilt in less than three days, reopening the Sanibel Causeway in 15 days and cleaning up thousands of miles of debris. And he has pushed a raft of conservative reforms through the Florida legislature: He signed one of the most comprehensive school choice laws in the country while also raising teacher salaries in traditional public schools. He cracked down on predatory lawsuits that steal the livelihoods of honest business owners. He passed “constitutional-carry” legislation, made child rape eligible for the death penalty and cracked down on left-wing “bail reform.” And he barred “environmental, social and governance" investing of state assets, saying he wants to make sure investment decisions are made only on the basis of what will deliver the best return for Floridians.

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In other words, DeSantis offers the best of both worlds: He delivers hard punches to the left, and results for the right. That mix seems to have appeal. More than 3 million people have listened to or viewed his Twitter Spaces campaign announcement, Twitter shows. So many tuned in at 6 p.m. Wednesday that the system temporarily crashed.

Alexandra Petri

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It also seems to work at the polls. DeSantis won reelection by nearly 20 percentage points, with the support of the majority of independents, Hispanics and women — and carrying several Democratic-leaning counties that went for Joe Biden in 2020. “We’ve shown in Florida that we’re able to win voters who don’t always vote Republican,” DeSantis said in a conference call with conservative writers Wednesday night. In 2024, he said, “we need to win those independent voters that we were able to win overwhelmingly in Florida … who want to move on from Biden [and] … just want to have a vehicle that they’re comfortable with.”

That should be an appealing message to Republicans, because it means they can take on the left’s assault on our culture and values without sacrificing the votes of independent swing voters who abandoned the GOP in 2020. By passing pragmatic measures aimed at improving the lives of Florida residents, DeSantis appeals to nonideological voters. By delivering win after win on issues conservatives care about, he energizes the right while dispiriting the left. “In Florida, we demoralized the Democrats,” he said. “They did not have a good turnout running against me as governor, and I think it would be more similar to that nationally if I was running against Biden.”

But to take on Biden, DeSantis first has to beat Donald Trump. And right now, Trump is leading him by a 3-to-1 margin, according to an Emerson College poll released Thursday. But the race is not nearly as locked in as some suspect. A recent CBS News poll found that just 24 percent of Republicans said they will consider only Trump, 27 percent said they won’t vote for Trump at all, and 49 percent said they were deciding between Trump and other candidates. That means 76 percent of the GOP electorate appears either ready or open to supporting someone other than the former president.

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Trump is ahead, but he is vulnerable — and he knows it. That is why he has spent $15.3 million on ads attacking DeSantis as insufficiently MAGA — more than he spent supporting all the candidates he endorsed in last year’s midterms combined. Meanwhile, former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has released an ad attacking DeSantis as a Trump clone, and declaring that Americans want “a choice, not an echo.” This isn’t a very effective line of attack. Trump has a 77 percent approval rating among Republicans. Many GOP voters would love a candidate who echoes the best of Trump while shedding his worst instincts. “Trump without the baggage” isn’t an attack — it’s an endorsement.

The fact that DeSantis is getting hit from both sides shows how appealing his message is. He poses a threat to Trump and his non-Trump rivals because he is, for now, the only declared candidate who delivers the best of both sides. He is a disrupter who isn’t self-destructive, a populist policy wonk who loves the minutiae of legislating as much as he loves taking on the woke left.

We’ll soon see whether that is a combination that sells in Republican primaries.