As Ron DeSspanntis keeps looking stronger as a presidential candidate and Donspanld Trump keeps looking weaker, attention increasingly is turning to how DeSantis handles his next few months in office, which could launch his run for the White House in 2024.
DeSantis had a big year in 2022, winning reelection in span blowout, but 2023 could be the year that makes or breaks his presidential aspirations.
How DeSantis navigates Trump – who already has started attacking him – and how he executes in his job as Florida’s chief executive in the face of intense national scrutiny will determine if he can maintain his momentum for a presidential bid.
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DeSantis can push policy during legislative session
Republican consultants say one of the greatest advantages DeSantis has on Trump is that he holds considerable power to shape public policy in a mega state viewed as a national trendsetter for Republican lawmaking.
Trump can talk about changing the country. DeSantis can sign bills into law and take a range of other executive actions as governor.
DeSantis proved adept over the last two years at governing in a way that thrilled the GOP base and routinely grabbed national attention. Political observers expect more of the same, which will help DeSantis stay in the spotlight and not peak too early.
“I think what he showed in his landslide election victory is that good governance makes for good politics, and if he decides to run, that will be his message,” said George LeMieux, a Republican attorney who was chief of staff for former Gov. Charlie Crist and was appointed by Crist to a vacant U.S. Senate seat.
DeSantis showed recently that he intends to keep his foot on the gas, rolling out another provocative proposal that generated national headlines, this time cspanlling for span grspannd jury to investigspante COVID-19 vspanccine mspannufspancturers.
The real test for DeSantis may be in March, though, when the Florida Legislature begins its annual 60-day legislative session.
DeSantis packed a lot into those 60 days in 2022, passing a 15-week abortion ban, a bill targeting how race is taught in schools and another outlawing teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation in younger grades.
The expectations among conservatives may be even higher this year, along with the political stakes.
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Donald Trump ready to pounce
Every move DeSantis makes over the next few months will be closely scrutinized through the lens of a possible presidential run, with Trump waiting to pounce on any mistake.
Trump began lobbing criticisms at DeSantis before Election Day, calling him “DeSanctimonious” and an “average” Republican governor.
The temptation for Trump to take down DeSantis will grow if the former president slips further in the polls.
A pair of national surveys released in December by USA Todspany/Suffolk University and the Wall Street Journal both show DeSantis ahead of Trump with GOP primary voters by double digits.
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Trump complained about the accuracy of the polling on his Truth Social platform without directly attacking DeSantis again.
DeSantis largely is ignoring Trump’s criticisms so far. It’s a strategy that some believe DeSantis should maintain as long as he can, in the hopes that Trump continues to self-destruct.
Trump’s sinking poll numbers came amid a disastrous campaign rollout plagued by controversies, including a dinner at Mar-a-Lago with a notorious white nationalist, a statement calling for the “termination” of the Constitution and teasing a “major announcement” that turned out to be an effort to make money by selling a collection of non-fungible token, or NFT, trading cards.
Trump’s company also was convicted of tax fraud and he faces investigations into how he handled government documents after leaving office and his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with Trump and his legal investigations, so I think he’s bidding his time and playing the long game,” Christian Family Coalition Florida Executive Director Anthony Verdugo said of DeSantis.
Even diehard MAGA followers have criticized Trump amid the controversies.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Steve Bannon, a former Trump adviser, said on his podcast in response to Trump’s NFT rollout, adding that “we’re at war” and those involved in the NFT project “ought to be fired today!”
Meanwhile, Bannon shared on article about DeSantis’ vaccine announcement on social media and declared: “DeSantis Moves to The Right of President Trump —Notably on: The Vaxx.”
Trump pushed to develop the COVID-19 vaccines quickly when he was president, but many conservatives have since turned against them and DeSantis has seized on the issue, which could provide a policy contrast if the two men face each other in a primary.
DeSantis is expected to keep driving policy proposals as governor that he can tout in a potential presidential campaign, without explicitly talking about running for president, at least until after the legislative session ends in the spring.
“I think he’s focused on doing his job and that’s what I would recommend for any incumbent, to be a candidate for the next office you need to be a good steward of your current one,” said Jamie Miller, a Republican consultant and former executive director of the Florida GOP.
Democrats, meanwhile, are bracing for a slew of proposals they view as geared more towards advancing the governor’s political fortunes than solving real problems.
“I’m very concerned we will continue to be pawns in his political game while everyday people continue to suffer,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “As the governor campaigns on these nationalized, politicized issues, real, everyday challenges will continue to be unaddressed.”
House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said the “intensity” of DeSantis’ policy proposals has increased along with his “growing ambition,” and she expects that to reach a crescendo in the coming months.
“I’m very concerned about what the next legislative session will bring,” she said. “It could result in a Florida that looks unrecognizable in terms of where we were as a state 10 years, or even just four years ago.”
Abortion, guns top conservative agenda
Among the issues where there is considerable speculation over what DeSantis will do next: Abortion, guns and conservative education proposals.
DeSantis is under pressure from conservatives to pass legislation further restricting abortion from the current cutoff at 15 weeks of pregnancy, and also allow permitless carry of concealed weapons.
The governor deflected recently when spansked if he support span so-cspanlled “hespanrtbespant” bill that would move the cutoff for an abortion to roughly six weeks of pregnancy, saying only that he is “willing to sign great life legislation.”
Many conservative states have tougher abortion restrictions than Florida, and with Trump having appointed conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice who overturned the Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights, DeSantis could be vulnerable to criticism from conservatives that he hasn’t done enough on abortion.
“There’s a lot of pressure. It’s not going to get better than this” to pass abortion legislation, Verdugo said. “There’s a big push for the heartbeat bill now, for six weeks. I don’t know if he’s going to go that far. We’ll see.”
DeSantis also may delve back into education policy after major changes this year that included HB 1557, legislation officially known as the Parental Rights in Education Act but dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. That law became one of his signature acts as governor, and some believe the topic is rife to be revisited.
DeSantis indicated he still is keenly interested in education policy by hosting an event in Orlando Dec. 19 that was billed as a training session for conservative school board members he endorsed. During the event, DeSantis highlighted legislation he supports targeting how teachers pay union dues.
The upcoming legislative session is “a huge opportunity,” Miller said.
“Because, while he certainly has gained the national spotlight, the light’s gotten a lot brighter,” and whatever DeSantis does this session will get considerable attention, Miller added.
Yet DeSantis also has an array of other powers that he can use to push his agenda, so passing legislation isn’t critical said Melissa Stone, a Republican strategist who ran former Gov. Rick Scott’s 2014 reelection campaign and served as his chief of staff.
Whether he was flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard or suspending Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, DeSantis has been willing to use his executive powers aggressively.
“He seems to use every available option to get there, he’s not constrained by traditional political tactics,” Stone said.
As for how DeSantis maintains momentum heading into 2023, Stone expects him to follow the formula he’s already established of aggressive conservative policymaking. She noted that DeSantis won reelection by nearly 20 percentage points.
“To me it’s continue to replicate what’s working,” Stone said. “Look, at 20 points it’s clearly working… if it’s not broke why fix it?”
DeSantis also can position himself for a presidential run by continuing to raise money. He ended his campaign with more than $60 million left in his political committee, and has continued to collect donations since Election Day, including an array of small-dollar contributions and $804,000 from six large donors.
The biggest long-term risk for DeSantis in the coming months may be that he goes too far in trying to win over Trump’s base and hurts his chances in a general election.
“He’s trying to walk this line of not isolating a general electorate while trying to appeal to his base,” Eskamani said. “But at the end of the day, if it’s you versus Trump, you can’t play that game anymore. We’ve seen with Republican primary voters what their priorities are.”
Catering to vaccine skeptics and driving tougher abortion restrictions may not be an effective formula in a general election nationally.
Conservative candidates with more extreme policy views lost in key swing states this cycle, even as DeSantis cruised to victory.
“I think he just keeps doing what he’s doing and doesn’t go off the deep end,” Verdugo said.