Editor’s Note: Ilene Prusher is a journalist and author who spent two decades covering the Middle East. She teaches journalism at Florida Atlantic University, where she is the digital director of MediaLab@FAU. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
From the New York Post cover that questioned whether we were looking at “DeFuture” to the more high-brow Financial Times dubbing him “Donald Trump with brains and without the drama,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was touted as a rising star with a clear path leading to the Republican nomination in 2024 and possibly into the White House itself.
Indeed, Florida’s governor boasted a long list of things Americans have often admired in a candidate: a modest background, accolades as a baseball player and a war veteran, degrees from Harvard Law School and Yale University. Add to that a beautiful wife and three young children photogenic enough to elicit allusions to Camelot, and it seemed almost easy to imagine a DeSantis administration entering the Oval Office next January.
DeSantis also championed the policies that Trump voters claimed to want more of, like a hard line on abortion, expanded gun access and removing progressive prosecutors. But the prediction of success essentially rested on the belief that people care about concrete qualities, credentials and legislation.
The thing that DeSantis didn’t have over the billionaire reality TV star-turned-president – Trump’s personality – turned out to be a fatal flaw.
DeSantis had at one point led Trump in polls matching either candidate up against President Joe Biden before the former president’s string of indictments correlated with skyrocketing polls beginning in April. After failing to catch on in the state where he bet the biggest – Iowa – DeSantis was forced to drop out of the Republican nomination contest two days before the New Hampshire primary last week.
“The more he campaigned, the less people liked him — namely members of his own party. He was awkward, entitled and angry,” wrote columnist Scott Maxwell in the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday. “Anger is actually a quality some people crave in their politicians. But DeSantis was angry about weird things — like Disney World.”
In short, not only did DeSantis have a difficult time connecting to voters and letting loose a natural smile, but he doubled down on fanciful “culture war” issues such as Disney being too “woke” that not only left too many voters unimpressed, but made Florida the butt of more jokes than the usual late-night fare.
Many voters here in his home state seem less than surprised by their governor’s flop on the campaign trail. More than a few say that picking a fight with Disney was a mistake, or as one headline in Business Insider put it, “Ron DeSantis’ campaign was over when he decided to have a popularity contest against Mickey Mouse.”
Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, a Miami-based Republican and frequent commentator on CNN, put it this way on Instagram: “Drag Brunches and Disney are alive, and the DeSantis presidential campaign is DEAD. Hallelujah!” POLITICO Florida writer Gary Fineout found that many in Tallahassee wondered if DeSantis would take vengeance on Florida Republicans who did not support his campaign for president.
It didn’t help that DeSantis oversaw a disastrous campaign operation, hemorrhaged money and was toyed with by Trump, who had put the young and largely unknown politician on the national map by endorsing his 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Trump has never stopped reminding him of the favor, insisting at rallies that DeSantis shed tears as he begged for help and deriding him with mean MAGA monikers like “Tiny D” and “Ron DeSanctimonious.”
Now DeSantis returns to a state where, after easily winning reelection with 59% of the vote in 2022, the electorate is evenly split over their support for DeSantis. In November 48% of the state viewed him unfavorably and 47% viewed him favorably. That doesn’t bode particularly well for his political future.
DeSantis will now serve until the end of 2026, when his term as governor ends. Florida doesn’t have a lifetime limit on how many times someone can run for governor, but it does bar someone from serving as governor for more than two consecutive terms. He could get around that if he convinces state lawmakers to change the state constitution – which they did in order to allow him to run for the White House while still occupying the governor’s mansion – but he would need more support than many Floridians are likely to muster for him, according to the Pensacola News Journal’s Brandon Girod. Three-fifths of the representatives of both houses would have to vote to change the constitution, he noted.
It’s important to keep in mind that DeSantis once had much more appeal to the more liberal-leaning part of Florida, which is alive and kicking. Many saw DeSantis as a moderate Republican when he began to register as a political up-and-comer in 2018, following his victory over Democrat Andrew Gillum. Some of my best Florida friends who vote on environmental concerns, for instance, believed he could genuinely be good on issues like climate change and Everglades restoration.
They didn’t sign up for a governor who would try to turn Florida into a laboratory of ultra-conservative values, book bans and anti-science conspiracy theories. (See under Dr. Joseph Ladapo, Florida’s surgeon general handpicked by DeSantis, who is actively trying to convince residents of the Sunshine state to halt all use of Covid vaccines.)
From DeSantis’ relentless attacks on the LGBTQ community to higher education to Disney, not to mention his signature on a new ban on abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy, the governor has managed to alienate and enrage large sections of the electorate who could have been helpful in his current and future presidential prospects.
Even more troubling for any of DeSantis’ future hopes is the question mark about how conservatives see him. A bad sign is that the two most senior Republican officials in the state – Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott – were unwilling to lend their support to DeSantis’ flailing campaign, endorsing Trump instead.
When Hillary Clinton tried but failed to get the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 – eventually ceding to a then-young senator named Barack Obama – she said in her concession speech that there were now about 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, referring to everyone who had voted for her.
So, like Clinton in 2016, perhaps DeSantis will be back to run another race and get another chance at the Oval Office. After all, at 45 he is more than 30 years younger than Trump and has plenty of time to run again. The question is whether the electorate – and the donors who help sway the electorate about what to think and whom to support – will ever see him as a more plausible choice than he was this time, and give him a second chance.
On paper, DeSantis should have been a perfect Republican candidate. One could blame some deadly mix of campaign incompetence and the impenetrability of Trump’s appeal. Or one could look at DeSantis’ charmless offensive and conclude that his presidential ambitions will never be more than that – ambitions.
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