In the red: How Florida got to be the center of the Republican universe

But, as Gov. Ron DeSantis racks up solidly conservative policy wins, is the rest of America ready?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responds to a question from Hillsdale College President Dr. Larry Arnn during an appearance at Hillsdale College on April 6, 2023 in Hillsdale, Michigan.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responds to a question from Hillsdale College President Dr. Larry Arnn during an appearance at Hillsdale College on April 6, 2023 in Hillsdale, Michigan. Photo by Chris duMond/Getty Images

Like King Midas and gold, it seems everything Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans touch turns to red. Their success has turned Florida into the promised land of American conservative politics and a wasteland for Democrats’ electoral hopes. 

For now, the leading contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential primary – Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump – call the state home. Republicans in the professional political class and those among everyday voters have flocked to the Sunshine State. The Republican-dominated state Legislature has pushed the envelope in strengthening or remaking policy, using their muscle to reshape the state in education and health. 

Republican Party of Florida chair Christian Ziegler told City & State he is regularly contacted by Republican leaders and voters in other states praising the success in Florida that got them a 19-percentage point victory in DeSantis’ reelection and GOP supermajorities in both legislative chambers. “They’re basically admitting that Florida is leading the way in the country, and expressing almost jealousy (in) that they wish their state would go the same direction,” Ziegler said.

Do general election voters, in fact, want to see the Florida model replicated nationwide? Trump has had the national Republican Party orbit around him for almost eight years. Amid his 2020 election loss, a lackluster record in midterm endorsements, and multiple legal issues now including a criminal indictment, DeSantis has been able to capture the spotlight. 

Florida-based Republican political consultant Anthony Pedicini believes that what has made the two popular is that their policy priorities speak to voters. He said it was DeSantis’ stay-open stance on COVID-19, as well as a focus on education, that placed him at the center of the Republican political world, next to Trump. “Florida is the incubator for freedom in Republican circles. I credit that more to the policies than the personalities,” Pedicini said.

Ziegler added that while COVID-19 lit the spark for DeSantis’ rocketing popularity, his focus on education is what has become the envy of national Republicans, such as the conservative takeover of the New College of Florida board and support of GOP candidates in school board races. 

Ziegler’s wife, Bridget Ziegler, is a Sarasota County School Board member and one of the founders of Moms for Liberty, a national conservative parental rights group. “As a young family, if you want to be able to run your business, don't have it shut down during COVID, and you want to make sure that your kids are getting a good education and not being indoctrinated or sexualized, Florida is really the destination for you,” Christian Ziegler said.

DeSantis’ conservative education push has earned him the attention not only of those in conservative circles, but also national news media and ideological rivals across the country. 

The trend of a rising political star blazing a trail on certain policy priorities to boost their profile is not a new concept in politics, according to Charles Zelden, a professor of history and political science at Nova Southeastern University. He said there is always competition among Republican leaders in various states. Texas also has passed policy in recent years that other Republican legislatures are implementing, like allowing the concealed or even open carry of a firearm without a license, and a six-week abortion ban. This session, the Florida Legislature has already passed a gun bill and is about to pass the abortion bill. 

“In most cases, ambitious politicians like DeSantis want to use policy in their state as a calling card for future elective office, i.e., a presidential run,” Zelden said.

Aggressively pursuing those policies at the state level also allows political parties to field trial runs on them, according to Democratic political consultant Reggie Cardozo. “I don't believe that the elected officials in the Legislature are enacting policies that are good for Floridians, but moreso policies that are testing grounds for these larger national policies,” said Cardozo, a deputy state director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. 

In a few months' time, when DeSantis is expected to publicly announce his presidential candidacy instead of just signaling it, his accomplishments over the past few legislative sessions will likely play heavily into his campaign messaging.

He’s already laid the groundwork for this strategy. He has answered several questions about whether he is going to run for president by saying he must finish his legislative agenda before making a decision. Leaning into the session hints the fruits his party gets from it will be ripe by the time he is in the primary field.

At the same time, polling suggests a large swath of Americans don’t support abortion restrictions like the one likely to be signed by DeSantis this session. Permitless handgun carry also is unpopular, with most voters in support of stricter gun control policies. Polling in Florida also suggests his higher education policy doesn’t find favor with the majority of Floridians.

Cardozo doesn’t doubt that Florida’s policy lean will allow DeSantis to run to the right of Donald Trump in a Republican primary and could be successful there. But he said it’s unlikely to resonate with most voters in America in the middle. He views this legislative session as a way for DeSantis to separate himself from Trump, not a way for helpful policy to be enacted to help Floridians.

“They're not out there trying to solve just your sort of everyday kitchen table issues that Floridians are facing. They're up there pushing special interest bills and policies that will help Ron DeSantis win a Republican primary for president,” Cardozo said.

Contact Tristan Wood at twood@cityandstatefl.com. Follow him on Twitter: @TristanDWood. And sound off on this story by writing to editor@cityandstatefl.com

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