Republicans and conservatives dismayed at the happenings on Capitol Hill may want to look southward. On January 3, as the race for speaker of the House went to multiple ballots for the first time in a century, Ron DeSantis began his second term as governor of Florida. As I watched the dual proceedings on a split screen, there was no doubt that the Floridians were having a lot more fun than the Washingtonians.
DeSantis’s inaugural address reaffirmed Florida’s centrality in Republican politics and the state’s pivotal role in the future of the GOP. Florida is home to the two leaders in the horserace for the 2024 Republican nomination—Governor DeSantis and former president Donald Trump.
If DeSantis launches a presidential bid, the debate between these two men will frame the early stages of this election cycle. It will reveal where the Republican Party, as well as the country, is headed. Both DeSantis and Trump are conservative populists. The question is what flavor of conservative populism will dominate the GOP in the years to come.
Florida is a fitting base for a Republican comeback. It’s a textbook case of the explosive growth in the Sunbelt since World War II that fueled the American economy and revived the GOP as a majority party. As DeSantis noted in his speech Tuesday, Florida continues to benefit from nationwide in-migration as families, workers, and businesses flee inhospitable climes and living conditions for a friendlier environment.
The culmination of Florida’s political realignment arrived last November. DeSantis followed up on Trump’s single-point margin in 2016 and 3-point margin in 2020 with a 19-point reelection victory of more than a million votes. DeSantis won Hispanic voters and the Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County. The success extended across the ballot. No Democrat was elected to statewide office. Republicans picked up four U.S. House seats. Senator Marco Rubio won reelection by 17 points.
“Florida shows that results matter,” DeSantis said. “We lead not by mere words, but by deeds.” DeSantis also emphasized competence. He pointed to the rapid reconstruction—less than three days—of the Pine Island bridge in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian last September.
The implied contrast is with Trump, whose achievements on taxes, deregulation, energy production, foreign policy, Operation Warp Speed, and the judiciary were often obscured by many, many words, and tweets. DeSantis’s reference to infrastructure was telling as well. Trump, of course, promised to build a wall on the southern border. It remains incomplete.
DeSantis mentioned his record of job creation but spent the bulk of his inaugural address discussing cultural issues. He blamed Democrats for embracing a “faddish ideology at the expense of enduring principles.” He declared, “We reject this woke ideology. We seek normalcy, not philosophical lunacy!”
DeSantis went after COVID-era lockdowns and school closures. He made an oblique reference to Florida’s controversial Parental Rights in Education bill, which prohibits teaching sexual orientation and gender identity to kindergartners through third graders. “We will defend our children against those who seek to rob them of their innocence,” DeSantis said. The line drew his largest round of applause.
Trump covered somewhat similar ground in his presidential announcement last November. Unlike DeSantis, he used the word “woke” just once. DeSantis said it four times at his inaugural, including in a line he’s used elsewhere: “Florida is where woke goes to die.”
Most of Trump’s speech last year was a defense of his presidency. Interestingly, he did not mention his creation of an originalist majority on the Supreme Court or the pro-life policies he enacted while in office.
This omission was no accident. Recently Trump got into a spat with the pro-life movement over the role abortion played in the 2022 election. “It wasn’t my fault that the Republicans didn’t live up to expectations in the midterms,” Trump posted on Truth Social on New Year’s Day. He blamed the “abortion issue” instead. Abortion undoubtedly played some role in limiting GOP gains in places like Virginia’s suburbs, but Trump did not mention the pro-life stalwarts, such as governors Mike DeWine of Ohio, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Greg Abbott of Texas, and DeSantis, who won huge victories on election night.
Just as he did in the early days of the 2016 campaign, Trump is playing up immigration. He links the border crisis to rising crime and the ongoing epidemic of fentanyl and methamphetamine overdoses. For months, he has been promising to impose the death penalty on drug dealers. On January 5, he released a plan to deploy the U.S. military against Mexican drug cartels. “We will show no mercy to the cartels,” Trump said in a video released online. Tough, visceral talk energizes Trump’s base of support. And it’s geared toward an issue—immigration—that is near the top of Republican minds.
DeSantis faces an immigration challenge of his own. In the past week, hundreds of Cubans and Haitians have arrived in the Florida Keys, overwhelming the humanitarian capacity of frontline communities. Senator Rubio has called on the Department of Homeland Security to respond to the emergency.
Last fall, DeSantis made headlines and earned additional conservative support by arranging for Venezuelan asylum-seekers in Texas to be sent to the liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard. Now the border crisis has come home to Florida. It’s another chance for DeSantis to demonstrate leadership ability and executive competence.
You can be sure that plenty of people will be studying how the governor responds to this latest development. I can think of one DeSantis constituent in West Palm Beach who will be watching closely indeed.