In the wake of the GOP’s embarrassing showing in the 2022 midterm elections, the pundit consensus was instant and virtually unanimous: Former President Donald Trump’s ubiquitous presence and disastrous endorsements of repellent MAGA candidates cost Republicans the Senate and multiple swing-state gubernatorial races. Most GOP donors and strategists are eager to immediately anoint Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis the savior of a party whose reputation and electoral fortunes have been dragged into the abyss by election deniers and forced birthers.
And while a Yahoo News–YouGov post-election poll showing DeSantis leading Trump suggests the party’s primary voters are starting to come around on the idea, too, they might want to at least sleep on it. DeSantis’ win last Tuesday was not solely the result of his political prowess, nor his natural appeal to voters; when subjected to national scrutiny, he is as likely to implode as not. He lacks what Republican voters liked about Donald Trump, and his weaknesses aren’t nearly as different from Trump’s as his boosters seem to think. In his rambling 2024 announcement speech Tuesday night, full of bizarre lies about gas prices, inflation, and crime, Trump refrained from the expected ad hominem attacks on the man he recently dubbed “Ron DeSanctimonious” and chose to completely ignore him instead. GOP primary voters may ultimately do the same.
On the surface, DeSantis’ 19-point drubbing of Democrat Charlie Crist in what was only recently a hotly contested swing state is impressive, the kind of overperformance that might solidify his status as a top-tier presidential candidate. Yet there are good reasons to be skeptical that this was a DeSantis miracle. For one thing, Republican margins in Florida have widened for reasons beyond the genius of its politicians. Long a fast-growing state, in-migration was especially dramatic earlier in the pandemic, when Florida’s comparatively loose policies attracted a mix of parents who wanted their kids schooled in person and people who resented mask-wearing and other blue state COVID policies, like beach and playground closures that, in retrospect, do look like overreach.
More than 220,000 people moved to Florida just between July 2020 and July 2021. That movement of ideologically motivated people, largely from blue states, added to the usual churn of heavily conservative New England and Upper Midwestern snowbirds seeking sunshine and lower taxes in their retirement. These demographic trends alone probably added hundreds of thousands of votes to DeSantis’ margins compared to his 2018 squeaker over Democrat Andrew Gillum.
There is really no historical precedent for this specific phenomenon. While other states with warmer winter weather and lower taxes than Illinois and New York, like Arizona, also grew quickly, it was Florida that became the national symbol of defiance against Anthony Fauci and COVID mitigation measures—thanks to DeSantis. This policy course had its costs: While Florida’s age-adjusted COVID death rate was actually better than some states that pursued more restrictive policies, it saw higher than average death rates among younger people, who were in school, out partying, and staffing bars and restaurants. But overall, the state’s population grew, mostly in one political direction.
It’s not like DeSantis was the only Florida Republican who had a great night. Incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio was reelected by a nearly 18 percent margin, and Democrats struggled all around the state, with a generous assist from a ruthless GOP gerrymander. And DeSantis didn’t win just because he set the record for gubernatorial fundraising, either. Rubio was outraised and outspent by Democrat Val Demings, and he still crushed her. Democrats, for their part, did themselves no favors by putting three-term Rep. Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor, against DeSantis. Crist, an elderly moderate, seemed designed in a laboratory to bore young voters and excite no one. He has now lost statewide elections as a Republican, a Democrat (twice), and an Independent. (To add insult to underperformance, the redrawn House seat that Crist resigned from to run for governor fell to a lunatic Republican by 8 points, a Democratic performance that an incumbent likely would have bested.)
The DeSantis machine was further boosted, artificially, by voter suppression. Remember that in 2018, Florida voters amended the state constitution to return the franchise to hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated people. Instead of abiding by the will of the electorate, DeSantis and the GOP legislature hatched a repugnant scheme to prevent as many affected people as possible from actually being able to vote by forcing them to pay off exorbitant fees. Trump appointees who dominate an appellate court did their part for the GOP by ruling preposterously that this didn’t violate the Constitution’s due process clause. As a consequence, nearly a million Florida citizens eligible to have their right to vote restored haven’t actually registered. Then, after executing this bait-and-switch, DeSantis created a divisive new culture-war apparatus masquerading as an election-crimes police force and oversaw its punitive arrests of former felons who mistakenly believed that they had the right to vote again. (The 2018 amendment did not apply to those convicted of murder or sex offenses.)
Did any of this swing the 2022 election? Not on its own. Does this kind of thing have a chilling impact on marginalized and low-information voters terrified of checking the wrong box and ending up in jail? Yes.
Taken together, 2022’s conditions call into serious question whether DeSantis’ national appeal can match that of previous Republican presidents. The governor’s ascendance doesn’t mirror Trump’s so much as that of previous rising GOP stars who went on to flop on the national stage after years of presidential whispers. Recall that there was similar hype, if not the same insider consensus, around former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie heading into the 2016 GOP presidential primaries. Christie’s star shone brightest after his impressive 22-point reelection in 2013, over Democrat Barbara Buono in deep-blue New Jersey—only to begin its long fade with the Bridgegate scandal that emerged shortly thereafter. Walker came out of the 2014 midterms looking particularly strong, defeating his Democratic opponent by 6 points in a swing state after having beat back a recall effort two years prior, and he subsequently topped some GOP primary polls in early 2015, but he dropped out before any actual votes were cast. And remember that the biggest fundraiser of the 2016 primary cycle was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a well-regarded moderate who ended up winning zero nominating contests while Trump was staging his puerile takeover of the Republican Party.
It may seem at the moment that DeSantis’ hold on a (still hypothetical) post-Trump GOP faces few serious threats. But sometimes, rising stars like Bush, Christie, and Walker don’t wilt until they are challenged directly in higher-stakes settings. Despite his many, many flaws, Trump was a television star before he entered electoral politics, and he repeatedly assumed a domineering posture before a microphone, comfortably bullying his oft-flummoxed rivals on camera. By contrast, Florida’s governor is a mediocre debater who sports an empty-storefront stare while speaking and a penchant for getting publicly owned by his opponents. When hit with a particularly sharp jab, he tends to look like someone who has just felt the ominous first pangs of the stomach flu and knows he only has minutes left. He has middle-manager charisma that will become apparent when he steps out of the Florida echo chamber.
There’s one last problem with turning the page on Trump and folding down the top corner on DeSantis: We’re talking about the guy whose most famous campaign commercial was a cringefest where he talks to his toddler about building a wall. DeSantis has been so obsequious toward his new nemesis that he even remade his mannerisms and style to look and sound like Trump.
It’s no wonder that another poll released Tuesday found Trump still leading DeSantis among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, by more than 10 percentage points. DeSantis got the bizarro hand gestures down, the ones that seem to be constantly measuring the size of something. He’s got the ill-fitting suits. He’s perfected the art of cruel and pointless stunts as a substitute for actual policymaking. He campaigned for election deniers like Pennsylvania’s hapless gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. But he still won’t say whether he thinks the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. He was silent about abortion during the campaign, though he reportedly plans to pursue a more draconian 6-week ban in Florida. In a national nominating contest, he won’t be able to dodge these issues, especially if he faces Trump. Where will he need to stand in order to win the GOP primary?
Wherever he lands, his positions will represent precisely the mix of MAGA extremism and grandstanding that voters just rejected across the country. DeSantis won’t embody a move away from Trump, but rather a passing of the baton from the MAGA founder to the ideology’s most prominent acolyte—one who lacks the former president’s cruel showmanship, his personal connection to the movement’s millions of devotees, and his talent for casually wrecking the careers of anyone who dares cross him. That package seems unlikely to make the Republican Party great again.