How to Beat Ron DeSantis
He's more appealing than Democrats want to admit, and he won Florida by almost 20 points. But he has vulnerabilities.
Donald Trump thinks Ron DeSantis’s political Achilles heel is that he’s not likable.
"He says DeSantis has no personal charisma and has a dull personality," was how a source who’s spoken privately with Trump about the Florida governor put it to Axios’ Jonathan Swan back in January. This would seem to be one of the areas where Trump and Democrats agree: Ron DeSantis is off-putting.
And yet. He just got re-elected by more than a 19-point margin. Florida has trended rightward in recent years, but it’s not that deep red of a state. Trump only won it by four points two years ago. This time, DeSantis carried usual Democratic strongholds, including Palm Beach County, Hillsborough County (Tampa), and heavily Puerto Rican Osceola County, south of Orlando. Not only is DeSantis leading some polls for the 2024 nomination, he’s shown in Florida that he can appeal across party lines, win swing voters, and make deep inroads in blue areas. Democrats should be concerned that if he is nominated he may find a way to appeal to swing voters and win — his personality certainly wasn’t enough to tank him in Florida.
People love to compare DeSantis to Trump, but I actually think the best parallel for understanding him is Chris Christie. For years, Democrats underestimated Christie’s appeal. They complained that he was mean. They said he yelled at teachers — how could anyone like that? With politicians like this, what national news consumers see is mostly the yelling and the culture warring. But from ground level, these things can look very different. Christie cruised to a landslide re-election as governor in 2013 because he combined a combative personality with policy choices designed to appeal to voters in the middle, and his fighting came off as “fighting for you.” He also, like DeSantis, benefitted politically from a hurricane response that voters perceived as orderly and competent.
What has DeSantis done as governor? National coverage has focused on his COVID policies and the law he signed that restricts how schools may instruct on matters related to sexual orientation and gender identity, prohibiting such instruction outright in grades 3 and lower. On that latter issue, he’s more in line with public opinion than a lot of the national discourse would have you believe. But there’s less national attention on the fact that DeSantis has repeatedly raised teacher pay, or that he has championed initiatives to make Florida more resilient against climate change and rising sea levels. He has also (so far) hewed to the median of public opinion by signing a law to prohibit abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy while continuing to widely permit it in the first trimester.1 To some extent, DeSantis’s culture-warrior persona has created space for him to put together a relatively moderate policy record as governor, so it’s not surprising to me that he outperformed Florida’s partisan baseline, and outran even Marco Rubio’s strong performance in his Senate race. That the Biden administration unwisely threw hundreds of billions of dollars of aid at already-flush state governments — handing DeSantis money he could throw around to bolster his popularity — didn’t hurt.
All that said, I think there are good reasons to think that DeSantis won’t be able to replicate that performance nationally — especially if Democrats act in the right ways to exploit his political weaknesses. Here are some weak spots I think Democrats can focus on: