TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis won reelection to a second term Tuesday in a victory over Democrat Charlie Crist, bolstering his rise as a prominent GOP star with potential White House ambitions.
DeSantis’ win continues a rightward shift for what was once the nation’s largest swing state, as voters embraced a governor who reveled in culture war politics and framed his candidacy as a battle against the “woke agenda” of liberals.
In the lead-up to the election, DeSantis harnessed the power of incumbency to assemble media, often on short notice and far outside major markets, for news conferences where he would spend significant time honing critiques of Democratic President Joe Biden, liberal policies and the mainstream media, delivered before cheering crowds.
He gained significant national attention during the start of the coronavirus pandemic through his outspoken opposition to continued lockdowns and to mask and vaccine mandates, and eventually displayed an eagerness to wade into nearly any cultural divide, including immigration, gender, education and more.
His ceaseless combative posture, and ability to leverage the power of state government to his will, endeared DeSantis to major GOP donors and built him into a natural heir to former President Donald Trump in the minds of some Republican voters.
Weeks before the election, DeSantis directed the state to fly groups of migrants from Texas to the upscale liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, as a protest over the federal government’s immigration policies at the southern border. DeSantis said the move was a way to make immigration a “front-burner issue” before the midterms, with his critics questioning the legality of the flights as they accused officials of lying to the passengers.
Election Day came as Florida continued to recover from the Category 4 Hurricane Ian, which slammed into the state in late September and killed more than 100 people and caused widespread damage.
Politically, the storm provided DeSantis a platform to project a unifying tone in the final stretch of the campaign, displaying his ability to set aside the culture warrior role and shift into a competent crisis manager. The response brought DeSantis and Biden together in southwest Florida as the pair surveyed damage, met with locals and briefed reporters, with DeSantis at one point saying “we appreciate the team effort.”
The victory is certain to further speculation of a potential DeSantis presidential run. DeSantis has so far dodged questions on his possible Washington aspirations, skirting the subject repeatedly during his only gubernatorial debate with Crist in late October. Trump, who credits himself for propelling DeSantis to a first term in the governor’s office, has grown frustrated with DeSantis’ refusal to rule out a 2024 run, according to people familiar with Trump’s thinking.
The governor was able to raise substantially more money than Crist, a 66-year-old Democrat who had previously served as a Republican governor of Florida from 2007 to 2011. Crist aimed his candidacy at moderate voters in Florida, criticizing DeSantis as a bully, as he sought to reverse a losing streak for Democrats in the state. Crist resigned a congressional seat to run for governor this year.
Democrats, the minority party in the state government, faced considerable challenges in a state recently considered to be a perennial political battleground but that has drifted rightward. Trump won the state twice and Republicans have been aggressive in organizing at the local level and made a sustained push on voter registration.
Last year, in a significant milestone, the GOP notched more registered voters in the state than Democrats for the first time in modern history, and then continued to widen the gap into November.
Some Democrats have admitted previous organizing and registration efforts in Florida had mostly centered around presidential races, and there were concerns that big donors and the national wing of the party might cede the state after recent losses and DeSantis’ growing popularity.
The Democratic Governors Association has bristled at that characterization and said it considers Florida a competitive battleground. The organization has spent $685,000 to help elect Crist, a spokesperson said.