On a disappointing night for Republicans, Governor Ron DeSantis crushed it in the free state of Florida, lapping his challenger, Congressman Charlie Crist, by close to 20 points. Before DeSantis’s emergence, Florida used to keep us wondering whether it would turn blue or red until the wee hours on Election Night or, in the case of the 2000 election, for weeks thereafter. But it was clear well before midnight on Tuesday that Florida had turned solid red. From Portsmouth to Puget Sound, Republicans interested in replicating DeSantis’s “win for the ages” should learn from these eight rules.
Stay on offense. Given the mainstream media’s leftward tilt, Republicans are often stuck playing defense. As president, Donald Trump called the media the “enemy of the people” but also seemed to crave their approval. DeSantis, by contrast, rewrote the Republican playbook by staying on offense virtually nonstop for four years. He refused to bend or apologize for anything he said or did, even when the media called him “DeathSantis” for keeping the state open during Covid or mischaracterized his Parental Rights in Education law (falsely smeared as “Don’t Say Gay”). As he said in his victory speech on Tuesday night, “We took the hits, we weathered the storms, but we stood our ground, we did not back down.”
Every week, or so it seemed, the governor took the fight to a new target: woke corporations like Disney, intransigent teachers’ unions, Big Tech, liberal judges and prosecutors who refused to follow the law, or “sanctuary-city” leaders who “embraced” illegal immigrants—as long as they didn’t settle in places like Martha’s Vineyard.
You can create your own majority with the right approach. When DeSantis took office, Democrats enjoyed a small voter-registration edge statewide, but now Republicans hold a commanding 300,000-voter lead. He undoubtedly won over some native Floridians, but probably the much bigger factor here was his effort to inspire like-minded conservatives to move to Florida from blue states. (And perhaps this helps explain, in part, why Gretchen Whitmer, Kathy Hochul, and other embattled liberal governors survived.) I moved to Florida from Oregon in 2019 to some degree because I admire DeSantis and his approach to governance, so I count myself a member of this movement.
Conservatives in Florida feared that blue-state pandemic refugees would “vote as they did up north,” but that doesn’t seem to have happened. As DeSantis put it last night, “the woke agenda has caused millions to leave these [blue-state] jurisdictions for greener pastures. Florida has, for so many of them, served as the promised land.” While other Republicans shied away from making the pandemic an issue in their campaigns, DeSantis leaned into it, reminding us at every opportunity how he kept the state free.
Competence matters. Florida is a low-tax state with a healthy budget surplus and government that is well-run by almost any measure. It counted its votes faster and more efficiently than almost any other state in the last two elections. Most Floridians regard the DeSantis administration’s response to Hurricane Ian as excellent. I live in Pinellas County, which was under evacuation orders, and I’ll never forget how, as we left town driving north along I-75, legions of emergency relief vehicles streamed past us to the south. As it turned out, we never lost power. Others weren’t as lucky, but the speed with which power was restored and bridges and other infrastructure were reopened was remarkable. The election results provided proof of locals’ satisfaction: in the hardest-hit counties in southwest Florida, DeSantis won about 70 percent of the vote.
You don’t necessarily have to move to the center to win over independents. Republicans may have a nearly 300,000 voter advantage in the state, but DeSantis won by more than 1.5 million votes. The ordinary school of thought is that politicians must tack to the center to win independents. DeSantis never did. Instead, he crafted a bold, unapologetically conservative agenda and traveled around the state tirelessly promoting it. As Ronald Reagan proved, you can build a broad coalition with a conservative platform, but you have to be an effective communicator and a great salesman. DeSantis has been both.
You can redraw the political map without pandering. DeSantis scored a double-digit win in Miami-Dade County, which is 70 percent Hispanic—“rewriting the political map,” as he put it, without the kind of ethnic pandering that strategists have claimed is necessary to win the Hispanic vote. Hispanics generally have the same priorities as other Americans, and most reject woke ideology. For years, these same strategists have insisted that Republicans need to embrace amnesty for illegal immigrants and soft immigration enforcement to win the Latino vote. But the polls refute this advice. In fact, according to a recent Telemundo poll, Latino immigrants backed DeSantis’s migrant transfer to Martha’s Vineyard even more strongly than U.S.-born Hispanics.
Create a culture where wokeness cannot thrive. Save for the far Left, Americans of all stripes and colors are fed up with wokeness, and Ron DeSantis made fighting the woke a guiding principle in office. Here’s what he said in his victory speech: “We have embraced freedom, we have maintained law and order, we have protected the rights of parents, we have respected our taxpayers, and we reject woke ideology. We fight the woke in the legislature, we fight the woke in the schools, we fight the woke corporations, we will never ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.”
Compare that rhetoric to the clichés used by Republican leaders in Washington. On Tuesday night, for example, GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy said that Republicans would “offer a new direction that would put our country back on track.” “Republicans are ready to deliver,” he continued. “It’s a new direction toward an economy that is strong, where you can fill up your tank, feed your family, where your paychecks grow and not shrink.” It was a bog-standard stump speech; voters have heard it all before. DeSantis’s energetic delivery and on-point messaging, in contrast, speak to an angry, unsettled electorate.
Deliver a policy-driven approach that works. Beyond the headlines, how much do you know about Ron DeSantis? You’ve probably heard that he was on a Little League World Series team in 1991, that he served with distinction in the Navy, that he has degrees from Yale and Harvard, but probably not much else—and that’s by design. DeSantis can relate to the common man—at a St. Patrick’s Day party this year in Dunedin, he chugged a beer in seven seconds to chants of “USA! USA!”—but he doesn’t go on The View to tell us what kind of underwear he prefers or what he ate for breakfast yesterday. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood and still has college loans but doesn’t flaunt his humble roots. Unlike a certain other politician he could face in the 2024 presidential primary, DeSantis focuses on policy rather than himself. In an era of influencers and extreme narcissism, voters seem to appreciate this as a breath of fresh air.
Court the moms. Republicans have fared poorly in recent years in seeking the female vote, but DeSantis has sagely won over moms by focusing on education. He boosted teacher pay significantly, dramatically expanded school choice options over loud objections from the teachers’ unions, and fought to prevent schools from engaging in woke indoctrination in the classrooms. Most importantly, he was arguably the nation’s loudest advocate for keeping schools open during the pandemic. Almost every mom in Florida has friends and relatives in blue states who had to juggle their schedules to deal with school closures and irritating hybrid re-openings, so they appreciated the fact that our schools were closed for only three months. We don’t have exit polls showing the exact share of the female vote DeSantis got, but you don’t win by 20 points while performing poorly with half the electorate.
Add it all up, and Florida voters liked what they saw. Surely other Republicans will seek to replicate the way he’s been able to fight the culture wars and govern effectively at the same time.
Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images