The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DeSantis plays on America’s divisions as he readies 2024 campaign

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs books in Des Moines on March 10. (Rachel Mummey/For The Washington Post)
8 min

In his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama famously said, “There is not a liberal America or a conservative America. There is the United States of America.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) disagrees.

Preparing for a potential 2024 presidential campaign, DeSantis has delivered three notable speeches this year: his second inaugural address; a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum; and, most recently, his State of the State address.

What has emerged is a message of red-state (mostly Floridian) primacy and blue-state inferiority, of what he describes as Florida’s culture of freedom and anti-wokeness contrasted with failing leftist governance in blue states and the threat to freedom from a “biomedical security state” imposed by Washington.

If Obama’s rhetoric was at best aspirational (the country was already polarized and became even more so during his presidency), DeSantis’s message is confrontational, framed as a conflict that demands to be won outright. Talk of national unity, the currency of many successful presidential candidates, is fleeting to nonexistent. He revels in the country’s left-right divisions rather than offering a path out of them.

DeSantis is former president Donald Trump’s most serious challenger for the 2024 Republican nomination, but as he travels to states with early 2024 contests, he is still getting his footing as a national candidate. His views on foreign policy, for example, are not well known. Last week he created a stir when, in a statement to Fox News, he described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” in which American involvement was not in this country’s national security interests.

The statement, which contrasted with more hawkish views about Ukraine and Russia in the past, moved him into the Trumpian camp on U.S.-Russia relations (Trump being notoriously soft toward Russian President Vladimir Putin). Some fellow Republicans sharply criticized DeSantis. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, whose editors prefer that Trump not be the 2024 GOP nominee, called the statement DeSantis’s “first big mistake.”

DeSantis doesn’t want to talk about what he doesn’t want to talk about. He gives few media interviews. When he was pressed recently by The Times of London, a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, to elaborate on his views on Ukraine, he was quoted as saying, “Perhaps you should cover some other ground? I think I’ve said enough.”

He has made himself a force in Republican politics by the way he has governed in Florida. He won plaudits for managing the destruction caused by Hurricane Ian. During the pandemic, he stood against recommendations coming from the federal government during the Trump presidency by resisting lengthy business and school lockdowns and opposing mask and vaccine mandates.

“When the world went mad, when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue, Florida stood as a refuge of sanity, a citadel of freedom for people throughout the United States and, indeed, throughout the world,” he said at the Reagan library. “We refused to let our state descend into some type of Faucian dystopia [referring to Anthony Fauci, the now-retired infectious-disease specialist], where people’s rights were curtailed, and their livelihoods were destroyed.”

He has become more aggressive on pandemic-related issues over time, including a posture of vaccine skepticism.

He is perhaps best known for wading into culture-war issues, including on what is taught or not taught in schools and colleges about race in U.S. history and on LGBTQ issues. He has wielded the power of state government to affect the conduct of private businesses in ways few free-market conservatives have done. In the most celebrated case, he took on the Walt Disney Company, which had challenged him on legislation prohibiting the teaching of gender and identity issues to young schoolchildren.

On immigration, he sent two planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard to highlight his contempt for the Biden administration’s border policies. In Florida, he is seeking to end a policy that allows resident students who are undocumented, many of whom were brought by their parents to the United States as children, to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. That policy was signed by his predecessor, Republican Rick Scott, now a member of the Senate. DeSantis says the proposed change is an inflation-fighting move.

DeSantis is enormously popular in his home state, having won reelection by 19 percentage points. Republicans elsewhere are eager to take his measure. In his State of the State address, he said of his style of governance: “We defied the experts. We bucked the elites, we ignored the chatter, we did it our way, the Florida way. … We don’t make excuses, we don’t complain, we just produce results.”

Disdain for the blue states courses through his rhetoric. Other states “grinded their citizens down” while Florida lifted them up, he said in his inaugural. Other states “consigned their people’s freedom to the dustbin” while Florida “stood strongly as freedom’s linchpin.”

He points to Florida’s population growth and credits his leadership during the pandemic as a catalyst for the shift. “I think the pandemic caused people to reevaluate who was in charge of their state governments more than any other event in my lifetime,” he said.

Population movement to the Sun Belt is a decades-old story, but Florida’s recent growth is nonetheless noteworthy. Over the past three years, Florida has gained more residents through domestic migration than any other state, according to figures compiled by the demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution. California, New York and Illinois — favorite targets of the governor’s — led the nation in population losses.

“This is a result of better governance in states like Florida, and it was a result of poor governance in these left-wing states,” DeSantis said at the Reagan library.

Although the states he cited have lost population, it should be noted that California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) won his reelection by 18 points and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker by 13 points. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) won her election by a narrower six points.

In the next two months, DeSantis will try to add to his résumé with legislative achievements that he can take into a presidential campaign. The agenda includes a focus on infrastructure and housing to support the growing population, more money for teachers and efforts to weaken the power of the teachers union, efforts to lower drug prices and a focus on environmental conservation. He also wants a big tax cut. The Florida legislature will consider banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. DeSantis says he welcomes such legislation.

In Florida, DeSantis has been able to chart his course without serious opposition. The Democratic Party there is weak, and Republicans firmly control the legislature. If he becomes president, DeSantis would be confronted by a divided Congress and a more challenging political culture — one that has frustrated presidents of both parties who believed their experience as governors gave them the knowledge and tools to deal with the legislative branch.

Successful presidential candidates often calibrate a general election message at the very start of a candidacy. They may adjust that message as they navigate the ideological contours of the nominating contest, but they keep an eye on the broader electorate. DeSantis in these early days seems to have calibrated his message primarily to the base of his party, and perhaps most significant, the Trumpian base. Whether he has a more unifying or uplifting message remains in question. Perhaps he does not see a need for one.

None of this is to say that DeSantis cannot become president. Trump proved that divisive rhetoric is not a barrier to winning a general election (although he lost the popular vote in both his winning and losing campaigns). DeSantis is anathema to many Democrats, but a DeSantis-Biden campaign would set up both as an ideological difference (characterized by the opposing camps as the woke left vs. the MAGA right), and as a generational contrast between a president in his early 80s and a governor in his mid-40s.

To get to that contest, however, DeSantis must first defeat Trump for the Republican nomination. What he is doing and saying now appears to be constructed fully with that competition in mind. There is great interest in his potential candidacy, and his message plays well with these Republican audiences, which is why Trump has been attacking him. But he is still making the transition from state to national politics, and his us-vs.-them rhetoric seems a recipe for conflict and division, should he end up as the next president.