The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DeSantis cannonballs into America’s deep blue states for war on ‘woke’ ahead of 2024

The Florida governor has used his trips to highlight his state’s accomplishments — citing statistics that sometimes mask far more complicated debates

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to police officers in the Staten Island borough of New York City on Feb. 20. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
10 min

LOS ANGELES — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has found a comfort zone as he moves closer to launching a campaign for president: America’s bluest states, where he is brawling with liberal governors and mingling with donors as he tiptoes around a direct conflict with Donald Trump.

DeSantis will travel this weekend to California, where the Republican has already drawn the renewed ire of Gov. Gavin Newsom, a frequent critic taunting him ahead of his visit. “Welcome to the real freedom state,” Newsom, a Democrat, said in a statement to The Washington Post, predicting his GOP counterpart is “going to get smoked by Trump” in the Republican primary. DeSantis aides did not respond to a request for comment.

DeSantis has used his blue state trips to contrast them with Florida — using statistics that sometimes mask far more complicated debates — and present himself as a combatant against the “woke” left. The arguments he has advanced serve as a foundation for the presidential campaign many expect him to launch later this year, though DeSantis has not said publicly if he is running.

As he has sought to sharpen the contrast between Florida and blue states, DeSantis has been eager to highlight his state’s crime rate, to cast his economic policies as a magnet drawing people to Florida, and to highlight his state’s decision to keep children in school during the pandemic as a critical driver for student success. But those comparisons are often more nuanced than he would make them appear.

On the heels of addressing law enforcement groups late last month in Staten Island and the suburbs of Philadelphia and Chicago, DeSantis will deliver remarks Sunday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. The event sold out in 17 hours and Democratic groups here are already primed for DeSantis’s visit and his subsequent appearance in Orange County on Sunday evening, where he will speak at a dinner to raise money for the local Republican Party.

As an indication of the level of interest in DeSantis, the chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County said the dinner that he is headlining Sunday night will draw just under 900 people and will raise more than $740,000 for the party. “It’s the largest attendance and largest one night fundraiser in the OC GOP history,” Chairman Fred Whitaker said.

Meanwhile, the Florida governor is forgoing this week’s glad-handing with activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland — where Trump, who is waging a third run for president as polls show DeSantis poses a major threat to him, is the headliner. Instead, he addressed potential financial backers Thursday night at a private donor retreat in Palm Beach, Fla., hosted by the anti-tax Club for Growth.

On Friday, DeSantis is expected to attend an intimate donor gathering in Houston before helping raise money for local Republican parties, including through a “fireside chat” in Dallas on Saturday, which has been closed to reporters. DeSantis has ramped up his travel as he promotes his new book, “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.

After several years sparring with Newsom over covid-19 restrictions and Florida’s bans on certain school curriculum on race and LGBTQ issues, DeSantis will renew their rivalry this weekend, with his allies expecting him to sharpen the contrast at the Reagan Library, building on the explicit comparisons he makes in his book to his policies with those of blue state governors such as Newsom.

Beyond such speeches and the importance of getting in front of potential donors as he quietly builds out a campaign operation — with an appearance in Iowa slated for March 10 — California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson said DeSantis is also wisely seizing an opportunity to drive his message to the state’s GOP voters who could play an outsize role in helping select the party’s nominee in next year’s presidential primary, which will fall early in the calendar on March 5.

The Golden State primary will be winner-take-all by congressional district, creating a daunting challenge for all of the 2024 GOP contenders in a state where the cost of advertising is exorbitant across more than a dozen media markets. In an acknowledgment of the arduous work ahead, Millan Patterson said the teams of Trump and Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations who recently announced her White House bid, have already reached out to the state party as they begin building their state operations.

“We are going to play a pivotal role here — not only is our primary much earlier than it normally is, but we are such a delegate-rich state and it’s not a winner-take-all state,” Millan Patterson said. “So even if, in a statewide poll, you do extremely well, you have to do well in each one of the congressional seats in order to pick up those three delegates.”

While Trump remains popular within the GOP base, DeSantis has become a familiar figure in Republican circles in California. DeSantis argues that his refusal to bow to the “oppressive biomedical security state” during the pandemic played a role in encouraging more Americans to move to Florida and he contends that his approach will ultimately produce better outcomes in student achievement than in states such as California, Illinois and New York, where schools were closed longer.

DeSantis refers to those states in his book as “lockdown jurisdictions that destroyed jobs and businesses and failed to ensure that all students could be in school,” adding that “the costs in these states reverberated across all segments of society, as they struggled to recover from the lockdowns while Florida flourished.”

Newsom, in turn, is relishing the chance to debate. “Just look at the data — California residents are safer, healthier … than those unfortunate enough to have you as their Governor,” he said in his statement.

Newsom’s office pointed to data comparing California’s mortality rate during covid to that of Florida to bolster their case that California’s approach saved lives. The comparisons of crime rates is more complicated, in part because the FBI recently transitioned to a new data collection system.

Fred Piccolo, a former communications director for DeSantis, said Democrats’ pushback will only boost the GOP governor’s standing among conservatives: “You’re feeding the beast,” he said. “And if I were still with the DeSantis camp, I would love it.”

Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, agreed that Democratic pushback makes “great headlines for him in Iowa, and New Hampshire and everywhere else” — and said that if DeSantis had spoken at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), “the conversation is Trump versus DeSantis.”

DeSantis has continued to avoid direct criticism of Trump in events and interviews this week. “He can say what he wants about me,” DeSantis told Fox’s Brian Kilmeade. “I will also give him credit for the things that he did that were positive. I’m appreciative of a lot of things he did. It doesn’t mean I agree with everything he’s doing lately.”

Gil Duran, who served as spokesman for former California governor Jerry Brown, said Democratic leaders should continually turn the focus back to what DeSantis does not want to talk about: the division within the GOP and Trump. “What he wants to show is, I’m every bit as outrageous to these Democrats, but I’m not the loser that Trump is,” Duran said.

He noted the political upsides for Newsom and fellow Democratic leaders to engage the Florida governor: “They also get attention by being in a war with him.”

DeSantis gave them an opening last month by drawing contrasts with Democrats on crime during his visits to New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania: “Why is crime a big issue in New York or Chicago and all these other places?” he asked a crowd of law enforcement officers in Staten Island. His answer: the calls within a sector of the left to reduce police budgets and the choice by liberals to place “woke ideology ahead of your safety as New Yorkers or people from Illinois.”

The Florida governor has also been eager in recent weeks to highlight the fact that Florida’s crime rate is at a 50-year low, crediting strong support for law enforcement. But DeSantis’s critics are quick to note that state-to-state contrasts often mask the dynamics in individual cities or even within specific categories of crime.

Illinois Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said DeSantis’s “dangerous and hateful agenda has no place in Illinois” and that “every candidate hoping to hold public office in the land of Lincoln should condemn this event.” New York Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat and former police officer, tweeted: “Welcome to NYC, a place where we don’t ban books, discriminate against our LGBTQ+ neighbors, use asylum seekers as props, or let the government stand between a woman and health care.”

DeSantis argued during his swing through New York that Americans fled states with stricter coronavirus restrictions and shutdowns — and several Democrat-led states that enforced stricter measures did see an exodus. But analysts often point to affordability as a key driver of pandemic migration, as more people gained the ability to work remotely and sought less expensive housing.

Florida had the fastest-growing population in the nation last year, according to the Census Bureau — the first time since 1957 that it ranked No. 1. New York, meanwhile, saw the greatest percentage decline in population in 2022. California had one of the biggest raw decreases in population but the 10th-largest, percentage-wise.

Overall, the migration patterns between states are “not a new trend,” said Nadia Evangelou, director of real estate research at the National Association of Realtors, whose Florida political arm backed DeSantis’s reelection last year. “The pandemic — specifically the flexibility to work remotely — boosted this trend.”

Evangelou also said people gravitated last year toward metro areas where jobs have rebounded especially strongly since the beginning of the pandemic. And the Miami metro area saw the biggest increase in migration compared to pre-pandemic, NAR found. But the runners-up are geographically diverse — with Scranton, Pa., Minneapolis and Colorado Springs coming next.

DeSantis is also frequently arguing that his decisions during the pandemic, particularly when it came to keeping children in school when other states turned to remote instruction, will ultimately drive better achievement outcomes. But experts note that the impact on student achievement and how that was balanced against the health risks to children and their families still bears further study.

Knowles reported from Washington.

2024 presidential candidates

Several major Republican candidates and three Democrats have officially declared they are running for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination, and plenty of others are making moves. We’re tracking 2024 presidential candidates here.

Republicans: Top contenders for the GOP 2024 nomination include former president Donald Trump, who announced in November, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Republican presidential candidates for 2024.

Democrats: President Biden has officially announced he is running for reelection in 2024. Author Marianne Williamson and anti-vaccine advocate Robert Kennedy Jr., both long-shot candidates, are also seeking the Democratic nomination. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates for 2024.