Ron DeSantis wasn’t ignoring Florida before his glitchy presidential announcement on Twitter last month.
The governor found time to dash back from campaign forays to sign bills that target Florida’s transgender community. They include the outlawing of “permanent mutilating surgical procedures and experimental puberty blockers for minors,” exempting Florida’s teachers and students from having to use pronouns “not based on their biological sex,” and protecting children from “sexually explicit adult performances” that include drag shows and strip clubs. After all, DeSantis’s one-man crusade against “woke corporatism” is his signature issue, and so enacting laws that limit the healthcare options of trans youth and continuing his legal battle against the state’s second-largest employer, The Walt Disney Company, means that everything he does in the Sunshine State reverberates in the early primary states.
What’s easy to forget, and what few outside Florida know, is that DeSantis sang from a startlingly different political hymnbook during the first year of his governorship. Elected by just 32,000 votes in 2018, the co-founder of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus softened his discourse during his initial months in office. DeSantis did this despite having largely owed his nomination to Donald Trump’s tweeted endorsement as someone “who will be a great governor for Florida.” This was DeSantis’s odd moderate interlude—bookended by his conservative raging. An important story is how his sane centrism played out and what it suggests about his strengths as a general election candidate or even president.
In 2019, DeSantis was not the cultural jihadist he is today. The then 41-year-old governor raised the salaries of public school teachers, and he included eight African Americans among his judicial nominees. The monomaniacal obsession of making “Florida the place where woke goes to die” had yet to become a mantra. Instead, he lobbied the federal government to fund the restoration of the Everglades. He issued a proclamation honoring the victims of the 2016 mass shooting that killed 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. He met with survivors of the slaughter without using the occasion to become agitated about drag shows. He seemed content to let the pre-Dobbs status quo on abortion go undisturbed despite his pro-life stance. Now, unsatisfied with Florida’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks, which went into effect when Roe v. Wade was struck down, he’s signed a six-week ban—barely time enough for many women to know they’re pregnant.
“When he started out, he was actively trying to be a governor for everyone in Florida,” says Charles Zelden, a professor of history and politics at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. “There were worries about him to begin with, but he wanted to do popular things, and that was sort of pleasant to see. And then things changed.”
Before moving into the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee in 2019, nothing in DeSantis’s six-year track record as a congressman would have foreshadowed his moderate sabbatical, his subtle drift to the center-right of the Republican Party. He arrived on Capitol Hill in the winter of 2013 with a familiar vow not to become part of a ruling class. “I may have been serving in Washington, but I would never become of Washington,” wrote DeSantis of his resolve to stay out “of the swamp in ways large and small” in his recently published book, The Courage To Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.
He soon adopted libertarian stances that earned him glowing report cards from The Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity. During Obama’s second term, DeSantis rejected the conventional wisdom within the Republican establishment that the party needed to court Latino voters by signing off on a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers, as the Republican National Committee’s famed come-to-Jesus report intimated the party should.
However, DeSantis had a different agenda as governor of Florida. In his 2019 inauguration speech, he included the protection of Florida’s waterways among his top 10 priorities. He issued an executive order just days later that appointed independent members to the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District. He proposed historic funding to support water quality, infrastructure, and restoration.
“Most people across the political spectrum in Florida were thrilled,” wrote DeSantis in his book, adding that the state’s powerful sugar industry “did not like it.” Skeptics argue that behind DeSantis’s championing of environmental issues at the time loomed payback as his real motive. A political action committee funded by the South Florida-based U.S. Sugar Corporation had flooded the airwaves with ads boosting Adam Putnam, a former congressman and state agriculture commissioner who also sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2018.
The more centrist, even green, approach to at least some issues carried into his second year as governor, even regarding public education, where today’s DeSantis seems determined to slash and burn conventional norms. In July 2020, he held a press conference in Daytona Beach to highlight provisions in the recently approved state government budget that allocated more than $123 million for Florida’s historically black colleges and universities. Those funds included a $17 million bailout for financially troubled Bethune-Cookman University, much to the delight of some prominent members of the state capital’s African American community. There was no agita about critical race theory.
“I liked a governor who appreciated the value of an education and the importance of paying teachers better,” says the Reverend R.B. Holmes Jr., the pastor of the Bethany Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee and a onetime card-carrying Republican who gave the benediction at DeSantis’s first inauguration. “When he started his first term, he was very upbeat and positive.”
Later that same year, Florida’s Board of Governors instructed the state’s public universities and colleges to adopt diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies and programs in keeping with broad trends in higher education nationwide. Most of the board’s members had been appointed by DeSantis and his predecessor and fellow Republican Rick Scott, who is now a U.S. Senator. That DeSantis appointees approved a DEI mandate did not elicit any opposition from the governor at the time.
That abruptly changed last February when DeSantis announced a sweeping overhaul of the state’s tertiary education sector that would include, among other proposals, the abolition of all DEI programs and funding established under his watch. When I asked the governor at a press conference later that month why it had taken him more than two years to reverse the decision of his own Board of Governors on the DEI issue, he replied, “I didn’t know what DEI was a couple of years ago as this had taken hold. I thought maybe diversity of ideas…(but) that’s not what it is. It is trying to enforce a political agenda and a political orthodoxy. And that is not in the best interests of this state.” It’s hard to believe that the Harvard- and Yale-educated former Naval Judge Advocate General corps officer hadn’t paid attention to the basics of a policy he inaugurated. DeSantis prides himself on being a good manager.
One veteran Florida lobbyist and political strategist sees DeSantis’s evolution over the past five years in three distinct phases. In the first act, he cast himself as a fawning apostle of Trump in the 2018 campaign, invoking the president’s signature line “You’re fired!” from the TV show The Apprentice in one ad that also showed him playing blocks with his daughter Madison as he urged the toddler to “build the wall.” “He had no positions of his own on issues,” says Mac Stipanovich, a chief of staff under Republican governor Bob Martinez who worked on Jeb Bush’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign. “There really wasn’t much there there before he won that election.”
A longtime Republican who opposed Trump from the start of his run for the White House and would later resign his party membership, Stipanovich was heartened by the DeSantis he observed in 2019. “He took on a semblance of substance as governor, somewhat to my surprise, and he didn’t say anything particularly offensive or right-wing,” he says. “It seemed he was the guy for whom conservatives had been waiting—a center-right conservative who acted like he had good sense and wasn’t an extremist.”
But that phase would be brief, and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought down the curtain on Act Two: Ron the Moderate. The same politician who ordered schools and most retail businesses to close their doors in March 2020 did an about-face weeks later and started lifting the lockdown. DeSantis soon discovered that raising questions about mask mandates and bashing virus expert Dr. Anthony Fauci on Fox News could yield big-time political dividends.
“As he moved to the right, he was rewarded,” notes Stipanovich. “Like Pavlov’s dogs, once he learned how to ring the bell and realized how the MAGA base would salivate, DeSantis found red meat to throw to the right-wing rubes, whether it be trans issues, immigration, or the teaching of critical race theory. And that’s been his modus operandi ever since.”
For some of his erstwhile supporters, the transformation of DeSantis reinforces the impression of a power-hungry arriviste with vaulting ambition. In their eyes, he has left Florida fractious and divided for his own purposes.
DeSantis’s pivot to the center suggests that he may well be able to show some flexibility in a general presidential campaign should he win the Republican nomination next year. He’s veered to the middle before, so why not again? It also suggests that, as president and faced with a closely divided Congress, not the overwhelmingly Republican Florida statehouse, he might be willing to find issues that aren’t just more red meat for the MAGA crowd. Either way, the DeSantis of 2019-20 reveals a man who can govern inclusively when he wishes to and drop all pretense of comity when divisiveness and targeting enemies are more to his liking.
That’s what worries Floridians who know him.
“He’s my governor, and I pray for him every day,” says Holmes of the Bethany Missionary Baptist Church. “But his policies are very troubling, and he can be very punitive with constituents who disagree with him. I’m not sure that’s the person you want to become president.”