early and often

The Prophet From Florida

Photo: Scott McIntyre/The New York Times

In a speech celebrating his landslide reelection at the Tampa Convention Center on Tuesday night, Florida governor Ron DeSantis compared his first term as governor to some pivotal moments in world history.

Thanks to his stand against government overreach and vaccine mandates, Florida is both the new city on a hill from Colonial days and an Old Testament vision of Canaan. “We stood as a citadel of freedom for people across this country and indeed across the world,” DeSantis told the crowd, adding that Florida has been a “promised land” for a “great exodus” of Americans fleeing liberal states. In a final metaphor, he likened the battle over the “Don’t Say Gay” law to the British stand against Nazi Germany. “We fight the woke in the legislature, we fight the woke in the schools, we fight the woke in the corporations,” he said, echoing Winston Churchill. “We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.”

DeSantis, 44, certainly had something to celebrate. On a night in which Democrats performed unusually well nationwide, Florida turned a deeper shade of red. DeSantis crushed his opponent, Charlie Crist, by nearly 20 points — the biggest margin for a Republican governor in two decades. He won Miami-Dade County by 11 points; six years ago, Hillary Clinton took the heart of Florida’s Hispanic community by almost 30 points. The state is now considered a virtual Republican lock in the next presidential election, where he is being set up as the single Republican who has a shot at beating Donald Trump and perhaps ridding the party of Trump’s control after so many have tried at the cost of their political futures.

In his messianic speech, DeSantis lauded Florida as a “refuge of sanity when the world went mad.” He was speaking of the early end of coronavirus lockdowns in the state, but the comment could easily be applied to the GOP over the past two years. Trump was not on the ballot, and yet his constant media presence, mediocre endorsements, and personal obsession with his 2020 loss may have cost Republicans winnable races in 2022. Meanwhile, in Florida, DeSantis buttressed his scant win in 2018 by using the pandemic and culture war issues to elevate himself as the only post-Trump option his party has. He came into office with a 30,000 vote margin. On Tuesday night, he won by more than 1.5 million. Building his voting base while he’s continuing to move to the right on the issues that define conservatism today — law and order, a hostility to migrants, a rejection of transgender acceptance — has shown a real path for him to take on Trump.

Conservative media was in thrall. The Wall Street Journal editorial board described his win as the “DeSantis Florida Tsunami.” Steve Doocy gushed on Fox & Friends on Wednesday morning that “people love him, they just love him in Florida,” The New York Post crowned him king:

As if these examples of media coverage by properties owned by Rupert Murdoch — maybe the most powerful anti-Trump figure in the world of conservatism — weren’t persuasive enough, networks friendlier to Trump were also looking to DeSantis as a way for the party to move forward. “Trans-ing the kids, and keeping them out of school, and wearing masks, and the jab for 2-year-olds — people just said, ‘Enough of this intrusive government,’” Rick Santorum said on Newsmax. “And DeSantis was really the oasis at the very beginning of this.” In the Breitbart comments — a noisy bastion of Trump support — the mood appears to be turning in DeSantis’s favor.

Trump is most definitely feeling the shift. At a rally days before the midterm, he referred to his emerging rival as “Ron Sanctimonious.” The pun was a dud. Far worse were his losers on Tuesday night: Eleven Trump-endorsed candidates had lost by Wednesday afternoon, including high-profile also-rans Mehmet Oz, Doug Mastriano, and Tudor Dixon. By Wednesday morning, he was reportedly furious, lashing out at everyone around him, including Melania Trump, for letting him endorse Oz. Jason Miller, one of his most loyal aides, advised him on television to “hold off” on his presidential announcement until after the Georgia Senate runoff.

Contrast that private low with the very public high of Ron DeSantis on Tuesday night. Laughing at a podium that read “Freedom Lives Here,” he basked in the attention of his supporters. They were chanting “two more years.”

DeSantis Talks Like He’s the Republican Prophet