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The Unexpected Way DeSantis Turned Florida Red and Stole the Spotlight From Trump

5 minute read

As Donald Trump launched his third presidential campaign at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday, he did so in a state that was politically unrecognizable from when he purchased the lavish resort nearly 40 years ago or even when he first became a presidential candidate 7 years earlier.

Trump bought the Palm Beach property in 1985, when Florida was known for mostly electing Democrats. By the time he launched his first presidential bid in 2015, Florida had gained a reputation as one of the nation’s quintessential swing states.

And then on Tuesday, that reputation was torn to shreds, with a Republican slate led by Gov. Ron DeSantis running the table, leaving the state with no elected statewide Democrats for the first time since Reconstruction.

Florida insiders say the state’s rightward shift has a clear source: the pandemic, which led to an influx of new voters to the state drawn by DeSantis’ controversial push to keep the state and its schools open.

“That was when it started turning, and then the gap just kept growing from that point on,” Susan A. MacManus, a veteran Florida political analyst, says. “The pandemic really changed Florida a lot.” She points to 2021 as a transformative movement in the state’s politics. That’s when registered Florida Republicans outnumbered registered Florida Democrats for the first time in modern history.

Christian Ziegler, the vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, says he knew something was happening in the state two years ago through his discussions with some of its newest transplants. For decades, when he asked new residents why they chose Florida, he would hear the same answer: “Sunshine, beaches, sunshine, beaches.”

The responses changed beginning in 2020, he says, after coronavirus cases started rising nationally. “They lead off with, ‘Because of the freedom and the leadership we have with Governor DeSantis,’” Ziegler says. “The credit goes to our chief executive, because he’s kind of our chief brand officer.”

For years, Trump was the most prominent politician in Florida, spending so much time there during his presidency that he called Mar-a-Lago his “Southern White House.” In 2019, after decades as a New Yorker, he changed his primary residence to Palm Beach.

Ziegler credits Trump with tipping Florida towards Republicans by making Southern Democrats feel like he was in their corner, unlike the two Republican presidential nominees that preceded him, Mitt Romney and John McCain.

“We had a lot of this more establishment, let’s-go-along-and-get-along-with-the-Democrats mentality, and Trump was totally different,” Ziegler says. “So that started the process.”

Florida cemented its status as a swing state amid the chaotic 2000 election, handing the presidency to George W. Bush by a margin of just a few hundred votes. Since then, nearly every presidential election there has been close. In 2012 and 2016, less than two percentage points separated the winner from the loser. WhenTrump won the state for a second time in 2020 by slightly more than three points, some began to question whether Democrats could still win in Florida.

Last week, DeSantis made those three points look like small potatoes. The governor won reelection by nearly 20 points.

DeSantis’ policy during the pandemic, Ziegler says, further transformed Florida into what he now calls a “hardcore conservative state.”

Among the types of new residents who moved into Florida, MacManus says, were older, wealthier Northerners seeking laxer COVID precautions, who naturally found a home in the Republican Party. Families with young children who didn’t want to deal with virtual learning also settled in, and, though they may not have originally been politically active, were motivated by parental rights groups who helped sway them towards the GOP.

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, has struggled to turn out the new Floridians more likely aligned with them, including younger voters who moved to the state seeking job opportunities.

“They really should have made a bigger outreach to independent voters, because the no-party folks—that’s where the growth has been in registration in Florida,” says Craig Pittman, a longtime Florida journalist and the author of Oh, Florida!: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country. “People who don’t want to be Republicans, but they’re not signing up as Democrats either.”

Between 2019 and 2022, Florida saw a net gain of almost a million voters, according to data from the Secretary of State. But while Republicans added almost half a million voters to their ranks, the number of registered Democrats actually dropped. More than 300,000 voters registered with no party affiliation.

DeSantis is now basking in the glow of a victory that many say is thanks to politically savvy decisions he has made over the past few years. Asked this week if she would endorse President Trump’s latest presidential bid, Wyoming Senator Cynthia Lummis replied that DeSantis was the leader of the party. A poll conducted over the weekend found the governor leading Trump by 26 points among likely Florida Republican primary voters, a huge increase since August.

Trump seems to sense the threat of DeSantis’ rising star. Soon after the midterm elections, Trump released a statement calling him “average” and “Ron DeSanctimonious.” The former President, who endorsed DeSantis for governor in 2018, took credit for him winning that race win and pushed back on the idea that DeSantis should be credited for drawing new residents to Florida: DeSantis “has the advantage of SUNSHINE, where people from badly run States up North would go no matter who the Governor was, just like I did!” Trump said.

Ahead of Trump’s Tuesday announcement, DeSantis was asked what he made of the former President’s criticism.

“Check out the scoreboard from last Tuesday night,” he said.

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Write to Mini Racker at mini.racker@time.com