By Myra Adams – The Hill contributor
Conventional wisdom among Florida Republicans (and party loyalists across the nation) holds that Gov. Ron DeSantis will cruise to reelection on Nov. 8, 2022. Then with mission accomplished, he will ascend to the virtual 2024 presidential nomination podium a step below former President Trump, the GOP’s strongman and undisputed leader.
More conventional wisdom has Trump running again “provided he is in good health,” reportedly what he told associates back in May. If Trump bows out, DeSantis will be positioned to win the GOP’s “gold medal.”
But conventional wisdom 16 months before Election Day is often proven wrong. Even more so in a volatile swing state such as Florida, where anything can and does happen. Although it is unlikely that DeSantis will lose reelection, it is well within the realm of plausibility. Moreover, it is not hyperbole to state that there has never been a modern gubernatorial reelection with such far-reaching national consequences.
Therefore, let’s explore some variables, circumstances, election data, prevailing political winds, wild cards and unique “category five” Florida factors that could derail the current trajectory of this 42-year-old rising star often called “America’s governor” by Republicans across the land.
Mirroring Trump, DeSantis’s high national media profile among the GOP base was cultivated by frequent primetime appearances on Fox News’s most popular shows. Those appearances are also why a blinking neon target is glued to the governor’s back. Thus, when the need arose to chronicle and respond to attacks, a “DeSantis Derangement Syndrome”-named Twitter account was started and reported by Fox News.
DeSantis syndrome is expected and somewhat relished by the always-fighting governor, representing the future post-Trump Republican Party whenever Trump is dethroned, willingly steps down or passes away.
Well-established as a Trump acolyte in GOP circles, DeSantis is “Trump without the baggage.” With their futures linked together, Trump recently boasted that in 2018 when DeSantis “came out as a congressman” — running for governor while unknown statewide — “I was the first one to endorse him.”
Trump is also teasing DeSantis as a possible running mate, resulting in Trump-DeSantis 2024 merchandise delighting the MAGA base. DeSantis’s reelection, win or lose, would signal smooth sailing or rough seas for both men. Still, no credible political analyst believes DeSantis will join Trump’s 2024 ticket, even if he loses reelection.
Presidentially, and especially for the GOP, Florida is the must-win mother of all swing states, boasting 30 electoral votes after the 2020 census. As with all states, the governor’s party can help impact whether those votes land in the red or blue column. In 2020 Trump credited DeSantis with helping him win Florida, and losing the governor’s office could be devastating for 2024.
With so much at stake, Democrats are aching to defeat DeSantis. But who can do the deed? Currently, Rep. Charlie Crist, the former one-term Florida Republican governor, serving between 2007 and 2011, is emerging as the strongest in a field of weak Democratic primary candidates.
Crist is striking at the heart of DeSantis’s identity — COVID leadership. And given that DeSantis rose to fame as a COVID contrarian, the Delta variant could be his strongest opponent. This week, a spate of unfavorable national headlines, such as “Florida Leads U.S. in Covid-19 Cases as Hospitalizations Surge,” will test DeSantis’s 2020 reputation as the governor who “kept Florida open for business.”
But when early voting begins next fall, COVID might be contained. Then DeSantis could potentially win reelection with the messages merchandised at his campaign store: “Keep Florida Free” and “Don’t Fauci My Florida.” Most notable are can-coolers quoting the famous DeSant-ism: “How the hell am I going to be able to drink a beer with a mask on?”
COVID may fade, but DeSantis’s 2024 presidential aura grows stronger, providing fodder for Democrats. During a campaign rally last week, Crist said, “This current governor is running for president. He’s treating Florida like she’s a stepping stone.”
Echoing Crist is Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida, who said DeSantis is “running for president, not for governor. He’s much more interested in fundraising and shallow and destructive appeals to the MAGA base.”
How DeSantis’s White House ambition and national reputation will impact his reelection prospects could be the issue to watch.
Despite constant downplaying, DeSantis acts like a presidential candidate. He traipses around the nation attending high-profile fundraising events with his PAC, which has raised $36.7 million thus far in 2021 ($17 million from out-of-state donors), a presidentially encouraging amount.
Appealing to his national base, DeSantis recently toured the Texas border after deploying Florida law enforcement members to help patrol. Always on Fox News, DeSantis walks a tightrope between 2022 and 2024. He could risk falling since he was barely elected in 2018, winning by only 0.4 percent — mandating a machine recount.
Here is why Florida is the definition of a purple toss-up state:
As of September 2020, Florida had 13.5 million registered voters. Democrats accounted for 36.8 percent, Republicans 35.2 percent, unaffiliated with 26.9 percent and minority party 1.1 percent. Hence, DeSantis’s reelection hinges on appealing to a wide swath of voters while he increasingly panders to his GOP base, signing court-contested voting restrictions and anti-riot laws.
DeSantis’s response to disasters, such as the recent Surfside condo collapse, hurricanes and tragic events that always seem to befall Florida, will either help or hurt him. All are wild cards, but Donald Trump is the most unpredictable. How much the former president will impact and participate in DeSantis’s reelection is unknown. And if Trump were to help the governor win big, DeSantis could still emerge more formidable.
My only prediction is that DeSantis will have a brutal campaign since outside the GOP, he is considered to be a polarizing Trump stand-in, yet feared by Democrats who must take him out before he becomes a 2024 contender.
The governor will have untold millions in campaign money, continuously appear in the media and be tested like a presidential candidate since Florida in 2022 is a 2024 Republican harbinger, putting Trumpism to another test.
Myra Adams writes about politics and religion for numerous publications. She is a RealClearPolitics contributor and served on the creative team of two GOP presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008. Follow her on Twitter @MyraKAdams.