How will DeSantis govern Florida? Presidential run could dictate next moves

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — With a landslide victory and a Republican supermajority in the Legislature, Gov. Ron DeSantis is guaranteed the ability to continue his conservative culture wars agenda against the “woke ideology’' that helped earn him a second term.

The historic 19-point victory over Democratic challenger Charlie Crist is also being hailed as confirmation of his first-term policies, which were consumed by COVID policies to reopen the state, return children to schools and restrict the use of masks.

It also gives him a mandate going forward that, as DeSantis himself said, proves that most Floridians want more of the same.

“He is unchained, unrestrained in Florida and no one can stop him,” said Mac Stipanovich, a former Republican strategist turned independent Never-Trumper.

But Stipanovich added that whether DeSantis leans in further on conservative hot-button issues such as abortion, open carry of guns and immigration, depends largely on if runs for president in 2024. That’s because winning Florida alone won’t get you to the White House, something Trump learned in 2020.

“I am not sure that’s a winning strategy in the long run as the results across the nation Tuesday indicate,” said Stipanovich, referring to the mid-term election where many Democrats held their own against Republican rivals. “One would think he’d move somewhat closer to the center or be less extreme and engage in fewer culture war provocations.”

Nevertheless, DeSantis has said he has unfinished business on culture war issues, including passing a law allowing people to carry guns openly in public without a permit and more restrictions on abortion.

Going after public universities and schools, restricting what teachers can say about gender, sexuality and race, and attacking so-called “woke” corporations like Walt Disney World for going against him served him well in getting reelected, Stipanovich said.

Susan MacManus, a political consultant and former University of South Florida political science professor, said DeSantis is likely to be “a bit more measured in what he does and focus on quality of life and economic issues.”

“He is a very studious politician when it comes to weighing the timing of the awareness of things,” she said. “He watches things bubbling up in the public discourse and … seizes on the issue at the right moment so it looks like he’s taking the lead on it.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson overturned Roe v. Wade, DeSantis said he was proud of the 15-week ban Florida enacted and believes it is both medically and legally sound. Yet he also said he wanted to do more to “protect the unborn” in Florida, without elaborating.

Some Republican legislative leaders say they want to further reduce access to abortions to 12 weeks, the Miami Herald reported, as long as they also make exceptions for rape and incest. Others in the GOP are calling for a “heartbeat” bill that would make abortions after six weeks illegal.

“I’d be surprised if he goes for all or anything approach on abortion,” MacManus said because public opinion on the issue in Florida is split down the middle, just as it is across the nation.

“I don’t know what that does for him nationally to go so far to one side,” she said, noting that Republicans lost in states that had abortion rights on the ballot. “This election seemed to be more about coming to the center, a wakeup call that polarization has gone as far as it can go.”

But state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said she thinks DeSantis won’t be swayed by the national backlash against the Dobbs decision, despite his greater ambitions, and could push for a total ban on abortion.

“It’s clear to me that DeSantis will continue to pursue his extreme conservative agenda, and banning abortion completely will be next,” Eskamani said. “And I’ve already heard rumors from legislative leadership that they plan to pursue more restrictive abortion bans.”

Slater Bayliss, a Republican strategist who has worked on gubernatorial campaigns since 1998, said he doesn’t see DeSantis pushing for a ban on abortion, at least not before the legal challenge to the 15-week ban winding its way through the courts.

The governor is more likely to focus immediately on affordable housing and sky-rocketing property insurance — issues that need to be addressed before the regular session, Bayliss said.

“He is a pragmatic conservative,” Bayliss said. “He’s incredibly purposeful in what he does.”

Nancy Texeira, president of the bipartisan Innovative Strategy Group, said the governor “has always shaped his agenda to reflect whatever demographic of voters he’s needing to court at the time.”

His first two years in office were extremely different from the last two years, she said, when he had bipartisan support statewide with his environmental and education agenda.

His agenda took a sharp right turn after 2020, she said. His advisers knew he’d have to out-Trump Trump to court both the MAGA crowd and the big-money donors ready for someone more stable than Trump, Texeira said.

“Since the Republican elite donor class has pledged their allegiance (to DeSantis), I expect he will adopt a lot of policies that they need,” Texeira said, pushing “policies the new Republican base wants to see while conducting himself in a less erratic fashion.”

A special session planned for December is set to address issues arising in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, including housing and insurance reform, according to incoming Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples.

Eskamani said she does not expect much help for residents coming out of the special session.

“It’s going to be a continuation of giving insurance companies what they want, and not necessarily focusing on consumer issues,” Eskamani said. “There are subject matters, like property insurance, like housing affordability, that Republicans can’t keep ignoring, because it is politically dangerous to ignore.”

If he runs against Trump in the 2024 presidential primary, DeSantis would need to rely on his conservative base to win, Stipanovich said. “Any move away from the extreme and he wouldn’t do very well in the primary,” he said.

Trump took the first shot across the bow last week, giving the governor the nickname of “DeSanctimonious,” a day after running a campaign ad heralding him as a fighter appointed by God. Several conservatives pushed back hard against Trump, saying it was disrespectful of him to criticize DeSantis right before the election.

At first, Trump backed off, but he doubled down on his criticism after the New York Post, owned by conservative media titan Rupert Murdoch, christened DeSantis as the second coming of the Republican Party.

Among other things, the former president called DeSantis an “average governor” who was disloyal for not saying he would step aside if Trump sought the White House again. Trump also released a statement about a “special announcement” set for Tuesday night, where he could reveal his plan to do exactly that.

DeSantis, who is only 44, could wait until 2028 to make his national run.

If he did, he could “solidify his bona fides among the right-wing extremists, and then slide to center after the primary and become someone suburban white women don’t puke at the thought of him,” Stipanovich said.