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Business News/ Politics / The rise of Ron DeSanctimonious

Florida’s governor is the Republicans’ big midterm winner

Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis at a campaign event in Rochester, New Hampshire, on June 1 (Photo: AP)Premium
Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis at a campaign event in Rochester, New Hampshire, on June 1 (Photo: AP)

Explore our midterm results page to track who’s in and who’s out in the House and the Senate, and visit our dedicated hub for wider coverage of the elections.

Ever since he lost his re-election bid in 2020 Donald Trump has been waiting to unload on Ron DeSantis. Mr Trump wants to reclaim the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. Florida’s popular Republican governor is by far his biggest rival for it, and Mr Trump cannot stomach a rival of any kind. Yet the former president held his fire, hoping his former protégé could be persuaded to back down—right until the eve of the midterms. “If he runs he could hurt himself very badly", he told Fox News, as Floridians were queuing up to vote. “I would tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering."

As so often, Mr Trump’s political intuition appears to have been spot-on. If the bullocking 44-year-old Floridian was a pre-midterms annoyance to him, he now looks like a daunting rival. Republican candidates underperformed expectations almost everywhere and, even as the early results trickled in, Mr Trump was named as a big reason why. Independent voters, who stuck with the president’s party to an unusual degree, do not like his obsessive lying about his electoral defeat in 2020 or, it turned out, the many oddball and extremist candidates he endorsed. Yet there was a stark exception to this pattern. In Florida, a state that Mr Trump won by three percentage points in 2020, Mr DeSantis was re-elected by a crushing 19-point margin.

In the process he became the first Republican to win populous Miami-Dade county in two decades. He also won two other former Democratic bastions, Palm Beach and Osceola. And his popularity appears to have helped lift dozens of other Republicans to victory. Once considered an archetypal swing—or “purple"—state, Florida’s political map now shows a few scattered Democratic blue islands in a sea of Republican red. Republicans won 20 of the state’s 28 House races, four more than in 2020, in part thanks to a redistricting effort that Mr DeSantis engineered. “We not only won the election, we have rewritten the political map," he crowed in his victory speech.

“Two more years," his supporters chanted back. They meant that Mr DeSantis should serve only half his next gubernatorial term before relocating to the White House. Having previously refused to say that he would stick it out in Tallahassee for another four years, the governor smiled back.

Sadly for Mr Trump, his results-watch party, which was scheduled to be held at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, had to be moved to a mandatory safe-zone because of a looming tropical storm. Mr Trump congratulated a few of his endorsees, mocked a few losing Republican candidates who had dared question his stolen-election lie (including Senate candidates in Colorado and New Hampshire) and was otherwise downbeat. “There are some races that are hot and heavy," he said enigmatically.

The Republican rivals are in several ways similar. Both are Floridian, Mr Trump having formally relocated from New York after his defeat. Both received elite educations—Mr Trump at the University of Pennsylvania; Mr DeSantis at Yale and Harvard. Both are accomplished grievance-mongers. They owe their popularity on the right far more to their skill at denouncing enemies, real and imagined, than to their ideas or governing record.

Mr DeSantis does have some ideas and, early in his gubernatorial term, put a few of them to good use. He raised teachers’ salaries, launched a scheme to protect the Everglades and quietly supported the cause of medical marijuana. Yet he rose to prominence on the right thanks to his grandstanding against public-health guidance during the covid-19 pandemic. How damaging that was is contested. Florida had avoidable deadly surges of the disease, but ended up in the middle of the pack of affected states. In any event, many Republicans seemed less interested in his argument for, in effect, letting covid-19 rip than in the sneering tone with which he delivered it.

It matched the note of seething defiance that has energised the party’s base since before Mr Trump took it over. And the governor has since maintained it in successive campaigns against alleged wokedom in all its forms—including critical race theory, ESG investing, discussing sexual orientation in the classroom and, after it dared speak out against that last campaign, the Walt Disney Company. “We fight the woke in the legislature, we fight the woke in the schools, we fight the woke in the corporations," Mr DeSantis, a low-key public speaker, intoned at his victory romp.

Despite his undoubted smarts, he does not represent a different strain of conservatism from Mr Trump. He offers the same aggrieved, populist strain, acquired from the former president, but without his strangeness and, fingers crossed, his extremism. Mr DeSantis campaigned for zealous spreaders of Mr Trump’s electoral lie such as Doug Mastriano, a losing Republican gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania, for example. But he has refused to give his own view of the lie.

His success in Florida points to what a winning formula his more disciplined populism might be. This should not be surprising. Mr Trump came awfully close to winning re-election—despite suggesting Americans should inject themselves with disinfectant as a defence against covid-19.

For the many conservative power brokers who fear a repeat Trump failure, Mr DeSantis also offers other attractions. His opportunism suggests pragmatism. The conservative majority he has built in Florida includes—especially in Miami-Dade and Osceola—a high number of middle-class Hispanics, a group his party covets especially. And lest there was previously any doubt, Mr Trump’s attacks on him have confirmed Mr DeSantis as the likeliest alternative on the right. The former president has suggested he will announce next week his intention to run again for president. If he attacks Mr DeSanctimonious (as he has lately branded him) in the meantime, it is because he is scared of him.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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Updated: 02 Jun 2023, 02:19 PM IST
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