Nobody in America had a better election night in 2022 than Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. With a nearly 20-point margin of victory over Charlie Crist, he far exceeded even the boldest pollster prediction of a 13-point win, and did so in sharp contrast with the fortunes of many other Republicans around the country who were expected to cruise to easy wins, but didn’t.
The result caught the attention of Republicans across the country who might otherwise not have taken note of the Florida governor’s performance. That’s not to say that DeSantis wasn’t already under consideration by many forward-thinking Republicans around the country surveying the national scene for a 2024 presidential contender, but the 2022 election results put a spotlight on DeSantis in a way most presidential hopefuls can only dream of.
DeSantis is rightly coy about his plans for 2024, but there will likely never be another opportunity quite as golden as the one that lies before him right now. Assuming he and his family are willing to embark on a grueling White House campaign, the 2024 election is his best shot.
Few presidential contenders ever catch the kind of wave that propels them toward the White House quite the way DeSantis has. Those that do, usually wind up there. In 2008, Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton, after having caught the attention of Democrats around the country looking for a fresh face and inspirational leadership. Only four years prior, Obama was an unknown Illinois state senator, but he managed to score an impressive win in the 2004 U.S. Senate race that earned him national attention that he was able to parlay into a winning bid for the White House.
In 1994, George W. Bush defeated a popular incumbent Democrat governor, Ann Richards, and later won re-election in 1998 in a landslide that put him on the path to the presidency when Republicans around the country were looking for contenders.
Both cases have similarities to DeSantis: a meteoric rise to national prominence built on a foundation of star power and impressive political performance at the state level.
For DeSantis, there will never be another opportunity quite like the 2024 election cycle where he’s got star power, momentum, the power of incumbency, strong financial backing, an open GOP nomination contest, and very little competition. And, with a little help from his GOP friends in the Florida legislature who are expected to alter the state’s resign-to-run law, he’ll have the ability to campaign from the safety of his governorship, a job he can fall back on if he comes up short in either the GOP primary or the 2024 general election, giving him two more years in Florida to regroup for another run in 2028.
There is also the fact that there are no strong arguments for DeSantis to delay until after he completes his second term. The unknowns are simply too great. Over that much time, other stars could emerge that diminish his own appeal, or circumstances could simply shift in a way that undercuts his case for the White House. In American culture, star power only glows for so long before it requires new accomplishments as fuel to keep it burning bright. A successful White House run would do the trick. Little else will suffice.
Whatever disadvantages may exist for DeSantis now, whatever obstacles that may lie in his path, they are fewer and less formidable now than they will ever be in the distant future.
The First Half of 2023: Legislative Session
Getting to the White House obviously requires Ron DeSantis to navigate the Republican presidential nomination process, systematically outperforming every other Republican presidential contender in the country over the long haul. And there could be plenty of other Republicans willing to embark on the same path. The biggest contender of them all, Donald J. Trump, is already in and waiting.
But long before DeSantis actually jumps in, he first must navigate some potentially perilous Florida issues, in a climate that some might consider an advantage, but comes with its own challenges: Republican supermajorities in the Florida House and Florida Senate.
Florida currently faces a property insurance crisis that threatens to swamp an already perilous housing market. Lawmakers are scheduled to convene in December to make another attempt to stabilize the industry, and DeSantis will presumably sign whatever they throw on his desk. But whatever emerges will need to work, or it will be DeSantis who pays the price.
Another hot-button issue: abortion. Florida’s recently passed 15-week ban seemed to be on solid conservative footing until the Dobbs v. Jackson case overturned Roe v. Wade. Today, with Alabama’s total abortion ban and Georgia’s restrictions set at just six weeks, Florida has become an abortion mecca of sorts. And that’s not the sort of thing that Republican challengers for the White House are likely to let slide. And regardless of DeSantis’s ultimate decision to run, there could be more than a few Florida lawmakers who won’t let it slide, either.
That’s why the interplay and cooperation between incoming House Speaker Paul Renner, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, and DeSantis will be crucial to DeSantis’s success in the coming months. DeSantis needs to look like he’s driving the agenda, not the other way around. But opportunities for political gain abound in an environment where everyone knows what DeSantis needs to succeed.
Chances are, Florida Republicans will fall into line behind DeSantis and deliver exactly what he wants, even if that means some of them engage in what NBC reporter Marc Caputo refers to as “kabuki theater,” a heavily-stylized political dance designed to appease a GOP audience, but in fact is delivering exactly what DeSantis needs to navigate the political minefields of 2024:
DeSantis has hogged the headlines and the spotlight, starting with his management of the Covid pandemic in 2020. But he wouldn’t be such a GOP juggernaut this year without his hand-in-glove relationship with the Legislature, which moved with such dispatch that Republican governors in other states such as Texas and South Dakota often have to play catch-up to him.
DeSantis obviously wants to look like a leader, so his gubernatorial priorities for the 2023 session will be very interesting to see when they are inevitably released. Expect more of what got DeSantis to this point in the first place. That includes aggressive pushback against left-wing narratives wherever they can be found, be they in corporate boardrooms or elementary classrooms. It also likely includes a healthy dose of conservative fiscal policy on taxation, business regulation, and other economic initiatives designed to help Florida outcompete the rest of the country. Or at the very least, designed to give DeSantis a laundry list of talking points for his announcement speech.
The Second Half of 2023: Timing His Entrance
With the 2023 Session slated to run from March 7th through May 5th, that leaves roughly six months before the states start holding caucuses and primaries to choose the GOP nominee. In fact, this coming weekend, December 1st-3rd, 2022, Democrats are slated to make a decision about the presidential primary and caucus schedule, with Iowa’s traditional role as the first caucus state hanging in the balance.
Whatever the Democrats decide, Iowa Republicans aren’t required to follow suit. In fact, the chairman of the Iowa GOP has threatened to move Iowa’s GOP caucuses to Halloween “if that’s what it takes” to ensure Iowa’s role as first-in-the-nation to vote on the nomination of candidates.
Neither DeSantis nor any other presidential contender necessarily needs to win Iowa in order to be the eventual nominee of the party, but no serious candidate wants to give free delegates and free momentum to a competitor. And so it appears that Iowa’s caucus dates will likely play a role in the timing of an announcement decision from DeSantis.
Beyond that, there’s little to gain by jumping into the contest too early. With Trump already in, the question of DeSantis’s entry will build expectations while allowing the governor to perform the duties of his day job while carefully plotting his opening moves.
“Good things come to those who wait,” says Dr. Ed Moore, a political commentator and partner at All Things Florida Consulting. “His best position is to continue to do a great job managing a highly complex and very diverse state like Florida.”
The Bottom Line
A lot can happen over the course of a year. Is Donald Trump truly the Republican juggernaut that some think? Will the Democrats who are hell-bent on taking him down find any success with the barrage of civil litigation and rumored criminal charges? Will some other Republican jump into the contest and catch lightning-in-a-bottle?
“Trump has evolved into being more of a pesky fly at a barbecue,” argues Moore. “He is there and can be annoying if you let him be, but best to focus on the great food and company and eventually the fly gets ignored.”
Ignoring Trump is the obvious DeSantis strategy, and one that could prove highly effective if executed well. Trump will likely ratchet up the rhetoric as the pressure builds. If DeSantis can execute that strategy well, it will undercut Trump’s antics and create a sharp contrast between them.
But whether or not the DeSantis “presidential barbecue” will include great food and company will depend heavily on how he navigates the first six months of 2023, and how well he times his entrance against a full-blown verbal assault from Donald Trump.