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The Sunshine Coalition

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The Sunshine Coalition

Can Republicans nationalize their strong performance in Florida? December 8, 2022
Politics and law

The variety of the United States makes it hard to generalize from one state to the next. What plays in Peoria, Illinois, might not in Peoria, Arizona. And it can be particularly challenging to translate a state-based political coalition to a national one. As governor, Scott Walker won plaudits for his battles over union power and the budget in Wisconsin. He won three statewide elections in a row, including a failed recall, in a crucial swing state. Yet his 2016 presidential campaign never caught fire. The gauntlet from the governor’s mansion to the White House is one of the cruelest.

These challenges bear on what Republicans could learn from last month’s election results in Florida. Despite broadly disappointing results nationally, the GOP racked up major wins in the Sunshine State. In many states, turnout from rural and exurban areas did not compensate for Republican struggles among suburban and urban voters. Not so in Florida. Ron DeSantis and Marco Rubio won Miami-Dade County and performed well in other metropolitan areas, picking up Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties, the heart of the Tampa–Saint Petersburg–Clearwater metropolitan area and a hub for technology and manufacturing. Between 2016 and 2020, Pinellas County switched from Trump to Biden, and DeSantis lost both counties in 2018. So the 2022 victories there represent a noteworthy swing. Rubio’s and DeSantis’s victories relied on a fusion that Republicans would like to emulate on a national scale: suburban, exurban, and rural, with major inroads in cities. Florida Republicans showed strength in agricultural areas, retiree havens, and nodes of the “new economy.”

What are the prospects for taking the sunshine coalition national? Part of Republicans’ success in Florida has more to do with electioneering: unlike the Republican Party in many states, the Florida GOP does not shoot itself in the foot by slighting absentee or early voting. Instead, the state party has a well-oiled machine for maximizing turnout under current election rules. State parties can learn from this, but other elements of GOP success might be harder to duplicate. (Both Rubio and DeSantis were incumbents in a year that favored incumbency.)

Nonetheless, Florida might offer policy insights that could be applied to the national stage. As Jesse Arm has argued in City Journal, DeSantis’s record offers one possible outline for a mode of “conservative popularism,” in which Republican politicians would anchor their policy agenda on positions with broad popular support. DeSantis’s interventions in public education and identity politics would exemplify this approach. Recognizing parental authority in education and challenging the excesses of identity polarization seem major political winners.

Republican success in Florida relied on a combination of pro-growth policies and the reinforcement of civic infrastructure. Transcending a dichotomy between favoring growth and favoring workers, the Florida model often combined market-oriented policies with efforts to boost working families. This synthesis provides an important context for understanding the state GOP’s political success.

Consider DeSantis’s effort to reopen the Florida economy during the coronavirus pandemic. Restarting economic activity—and blocking government efforts to impair that activity in the future—was a key component of DeSantis’s reelection campaign. A ban on vaccine passports for customers spoke to the individualist strain in American culture. And Florida offers a host of economic incentives to encourage investment and economic development (for instance, grants for semiconductor production).

Yet DeSantis also increased spending on certain government agencies, including bonuses for teachers and police officers. Though he opposed the successful 2020 referendum that will raise Florida’s minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next few years, he invested little political capital in doing so—in fact, the 2022 budget he signed boosted the minimum wage for state employees ahead of schedule.

Raising wages for police officers and teachers countered “defund the police” efforts and rebuffed charges that Republicans were indifferent to public education. Those salary bumps could also help recruit talented newcomers to those professions and keep veterans in the force and in the classroom. While DeSantis’s battles over identity politics in public education earned national headlines, this effort to hike teacher pay likely helped him build credibility in waging those cultural fights—allowing him to adopt a posture of supporting teachers while opposing their unions. Parents of varied ethnic and class backgrounds are sympathetic to robust funding for some public agencies, and possible federal parallels suggest themselves. Republicans could easily promote at the federal level efforts, say, to increase the number of police officers, especially in urban areas.

The 2022 budget that raised the pay of state employees also enacted a one-year tax holiday on diapers—a longstanding priority of the state senate’s Democratic minority leader. The budget also exempted clothing and shoes for children under the age of five from the sales tax. This attempt to reduce costs for families is one sign of the way that tax policy can help promote a family-oriented agenda with bipartisan appeal. In the Senate, Rubio has been one of the leading voices for an expanded child-tax credit. Economic subsidies and discounts for families could be a vehicle for expanding the GOP coalition.

DeSantis’s campaign emphasized his record on protecting and restoring the Everglades, and environmental issues formed a key part of the governor’s appeal to swing voters. Environmentalism often polls well in the abstract, but “green” initiatives that set radical goals for zeroing out carbon emissions may significantly impair economic growth, burden poorer families, and lead to broader social disruption. The GOP might find it politically advantageous to tilt against “net zero” policies while also pushing more targeted environmental initiatives and efforts to expand American energy infrastructure (by promoting more nuclear power, for instance). Efforts to improve environmental conditions in poorer communities (such as combating water pollution) could help those constituents while also communicating Republican seriousness about the environment. An environmental agenda that pairs support for growth with environmental protection represents another fusion of dynamism and stability.

These policy efforts suggest some overarching themes. One is that bread-and-butter issues often intertwine with cultural politics. Fulminating against wokeness is no substitute for concrete policies to improve the economic conditions of everyday Americans. But building credibility among voters on kitchen-table issues can give politicians political capital when they weigh in on social issues.

Another is that while blue-collar voters will need more than panegyrics about “job creators” in order to turn out, they have aspirations themselves. A popular economic vision should include some element of growth along with attention to economic resilience. The national GOP can take steps to put this into action. For instance, efforts to reinforce American industrial infrastructure can help provide good-paying jobs and fuel future innovation. Diversifying K-12 education pathways—including vocational education—could soothe anxieties about employment and provide a greater sense of agency and choice. Immigration policy could attempt to tighten labor markets while maintaining targeted migration paths for high-skilled workers. Growth can help ease feelings of economic precarity, but government backstops play a role, too.

Broader implications flow from this combination of growth, civic infrastructure, and economic security. While dynamism and security can stand in tension, they also present certain affinities. A baseline of economic stability can in fact encourage more growth. Because of the FDIC, for example, Americans do not have to worry that their savings can be erased in a bank run, which encourages them to put their money in banks rather than under the mattress. On the other hand, festering uncertainty can both hamper economic growth and create an appetite for more government intervention.

One of the great currencies in democratic politics is credibility. Part of the reason for the breadth of the Republican coalition in Florida may be that members of the party have credibility with a broad range of voters—from a nonagenarian in Naples to a tech worker in Tampa to a suburban mom in Seminole County. Different policies speak to different elements of that coalition, but they combined to deliver a convincing win in the November midterms. A fusion of economic vitality and civic robustness could also help bring together a national version of the sunshine coalition.

Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images

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