DeSantis wins big, with an eye toward 2024

Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

TAMPA, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis swiftly trounced Democrat Charlie Crist on Tuesday night, a win that will shape Florida politics likely for years and sets the Republican governor up for a probable 2024 presidential run.

DeSantis defeated Crist by a nearly 20 percent margin — 59 to 40 — a stunning margin that was the widest margin in a Florida gubernatorial race since Jeb Bush won by nearly 13 points in 2002. DeSantis also won the Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County, another first for Republicans since Bush did it that same year.

DeSantis was greeted with thunderous applause by a huge, raucous crowd at his election night party at the Tampa Convention Center that advisers say was designed less for a reelection party and more as a preview of what’s to come: a 2024 presidential run.

“Now thanks to the overwhelming support of the people of Florida, we not only won the election, we have rewritten the political map,” DeSantis said. “Thank you for honoring us for a win for the ages.”

DeSantis also gave what could be a preview for his next race, contending the state had a become a “promised land” that had served as a counterbalance to Democratic-led cities and counties.

“Now while our country flounders due to failed leadership in Washington, Florida is on the right track,” DeSantis said.

On the other side of Tampa Bay, Crist’s campaign huddled in St. Petersburg with a much more somber tone, even as they expected the outcome. DeSantis outraised Crist roughly 7 to 1, and the former GOP governor-turned-Democratic congressman could never build general election momentum or break through the over $70 million in ads DeSantis and his aligned entities flooded the airwaves with.

“I wish the best to my fellow Floridians because I love this state, I love her with all my heart,” Crist said. “You are great, good, decent, kind people, and you deserve nothing better than the very best God has to offer. We have so much to be thankful for … I’m a happy man, and I am at peace.”

DeSantis’ decisive win, coupled with a strong showing from other Florida Republicans including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), put the state further out of reach for Democrats moving into the 2024 presidential cycle. National Democratic groups too appear to be abandoning the state after decades of losses.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz on Tuesday sent a memo to local party leaders outlining that during the 2018 midterms, a collection of seven national groups spent nearly $60 million in Florida, a number that dropped to $1.3 million this cycle. Diaz became chairman after a terrible 2020 election cycle for Democrats, in part, on the heels of an endorsement from former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire who many in the party expected to follow up his endorsement with waves of cash they could use to rebuild the party. Bloomberg contributed very little to Florida Democrats this cycle.

Headed into Election Day, there were clear signs that Republicans would sweep many races. But DeSantis’ win was epic in its scope as he not only took Miami-Dade County — long the firewall for Democrats — but he also won relatively reliable Democratic-leaning counties such as Palm Beach and Osceola. Osceola County is especially notable since it contains a huge contingent of Puerto Rican voters.

Republicans already have a 320,000-voter registration advantage in Florida — the first time in Florida political history there are more Republicans than Democrats in the state — and Democrats now fear that DeSantis will have a bigger mandate to push for controversial policies as he continues to build his national profile. DeSantis, for example, won by less than 1 percent after a recount in 2018.

“This is really an exclamation point, a culmination of four years of execution,” said Christian Ziegler, the vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “This is a big win. No one can dispute that Floridians support this governor, but maybe more so this governor’s agenda.”

DeSantis started his tenure as a governor as a moderate but shifted dramatically during the pandemic, where his hands-off approach to mandates like required masking and vaccine passports helped him build a reputation with Republicans across the country.

From there, DeSantis placed Florida on the vanguard of many of the nation’s most polarizing culture war fights. It has made him a star with Republicans, and increasingly a national-level political boogeyman for Democrats, who during the 2022 midterms failed to get national Democratic organizations to spend in Florida like they have in previous cycles.

During his first term, DeSantis loudly opposed critical race theory — an analytical framework originally developed by legal scholars that most public school officials say isn’t taught in K-12 schools — and became the public face of the GOP-led Legislature’s parental rights law, labeled “Don’t Say Gay” by its opponents, that restricts teachers from leading classroom instructions on sexual orientation and gender identity for students in kindergarten through third grade.

His support of the legislation led to a very public fight with Walt Disney Co., whose CEO was initially silent on the law but later became a vocal opponent. DeSantis also convinced the Republican Legislature to later strip Disney, one of the state’s largest employers, of its special operating status in Florida.

More recently, his flight of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard enraged Democrats, who accused of Florida governor of human trafficking and using vulnerable migrants to further his political agenda.

“Once DeSantis is reelected, nothing will be able to stop him from enacting even more extreme policies than he has in the past,” said Sean Shaw, a former Democratic Florida House member from Tampa. “Floridians can count on seeing more radical proposals that restrict access to voting, ban abortion and keep costs high by helping out big insurance companies while leaving Floridians to foot the bill.”

But the policies that most concern Democrats are the ones that have propelled DeSantis to a huge victory, made him a presidential contender and functionally rewired how the state operates politically.

During his first term in office, DeSantis spent $5 million through the Republican Party of Florida on voter registration efforts, which fueled the massive increase in registered Republicans. The results were overwhelming. Republicans easily won each of the five statewide races and swept a handful of key Florida Senate seats, capturing a supermajority in that chamber.

“Governor DeSantis invested early in registration and swung Republicans to a 300,000-voter advantage,” said Evan Power, the Florida GOP’s chair of chairs. “Now, with big Republican wins he has dramatically shifted Florida red. This will be a giant political victory that will define Governor DeSantis here in Florida and on the national stage.”

Yet DeSantis’ national ambitions will meet head-on with former President Donald Trump, who is widely expected to announce a 2024 White House run in mid-November if not sooner.

Tension between the possible 2024 rivals are already rising. Trump didn’t invite DeSantis to a rally in Miami over the weekend for Rubio while the governor separately held his own reelection rallies throughout the state. But most directly, Trump chided DeSantis with a disparaging nickname: "DeSanctimonious."