With DeSantis back in Florida, will culture war battles return?

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ quick exit from the Republican presidential campaign on Sunday begs the question: Will he return home to push confrontational culture wars again, especially with a 2028 run for the White House in play?

DeSantis must decide whether to take the reins on the 2024 legislative session already in session, or revert to his more hands-off style during his first year of office, Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said Monday.

“Will he be a more typical governor, meaning he will have some influence, but legislative priorities will really be showcased?” Jewett asked. “That’s the way it looked the day before yesterday, when he was busy out of the state and hadn’t really been pushing so hard [in Florida]. He may just be exhausted and tired now, physically, emotionally, mentally.”

Former state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat running for state Senate, said he expected nothing different from the governor.

“DeSantis told us what to expect during his State of the State [address], and we should believe him,” Smith said. “He told Republicans to ‘stay the course.’ Which means DeSantis will continue the culture war attacks on abortion rights and LGBT people.”

DeSantis’ last three years “are not going to be a lame duck administration,” Smith said. “We’re going to be stuck with an angry duck, who’s shown a willingness to weaponize government and punish his political enemies with impunity.”

State Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican and prominent Donald Trump supporter in 2024, said he didn’t think DeSantis ever stopped being in control. He said DeSantis still has a great relationship with state Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast.

“We should go back to business as usual … [with DeSantis] allowing the Legislature to move but working hand in glove,” Gruters said. “I don’t think his power is diminished. He is still widely supported in Florida.”

Brian Ballard, a longtime Trump supporter who also chaired DeSantis’ inaugural committee, said between DeSantis and his predecessor Sen. Rick Scott, the office of governor has increased in power.

“His role is just as vital as any session before,” Ballard said of DeSantis.

GOP lawmakers also know that the success of their agendas rely on his agenda moving forward as well, Ballard said.

What will the agenda be?

Just what that agenda will be, however, is unclear.

Legislative leaders so far this session have said they reject bills that ban most abortions at conception, end universal mail-in voting and allow open carry of guns, all of which are culture war issues.

“He might not have the same sense of urgency, that same pace of rolling out one after another of conservative, controversial proposals that we’ve seen over the last couple of years,” Jewett said. “He’ll pursue some things because it is his sincere belief, and he’ll pursue others more because he thinks that might help him win over the Republican primary voters of the future.”

Jewett said he thinks DeSantis will again seek the GOP nomination for president four years from now.

“Much of what DeSantis does in his last three years will still take into account his plans to run for president again,” Jewett said.

DeSantis gained a national profile amid the COVID-19 pandemic for his stance against most coronavirus restrictions, and eventually against mRNA vaccines themselves, despite promoting the shots in the first months they were made available.

He leveraged his newfound fame and presidential ambitions by leading the GOP-controlled Legislature into attacks on “critical race theory” and diversity initiatives. He also launched a war on his state’s largest single-site employer, Walt Disney Co., after its then-CEO criticized what critics call the “don’t say gay” law that he signed.

“He always governed by intimidation, threats and carrying out those threats,” said Mac Stipanovich, a Tallahassee consultant, former Republican, and longtime DeSantis critic. “He’s not as threatening today as he was a year-and-a-half ago. … There will be some glimmers or sparks of independence among the Legislature. Whether they burst into flames remains to be seen.”

DeSantis has already transformed himself in office, Stipanovich said. When he first was elected governor in 2018, largely in part to then-President Trump’s endorsement, “he was just a hologram, a projection of Trump’s mind.”

In 2019, though, “he surprised people by coming out as a center-right conservative. Then he figured out he could get more far to the right … [But] he was after a constituency that loved Trump, that he could not win.”

Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, said DeSantis had seemed to be more contemplative near the end about what went wrong, and possibly what he would do differently in the future.

Projected to do well

DeSantis started as the odds-on favorite to mount a real challenge to Trump, only to pull out of the race after the first contest of the election, the Iowa caucuses.

“He was doing something of an autopsy of his own campaign,” Scala said. “The pressure was off, and he started to put things a little more in perspective. And he’s a young guy, he figures 2028 is another possibility.”

His campaign in New Hampshire, a key first primary state, never really got off the ground in 2024. A future run would have to include some major changes, Scala said.

“Sometimes running to the right makes you a lot less appealing to mainstream, even somewhat conservative Republican voters, who don’t like all of the culture war rhetoric,” Scala said. “How do you have a better campaign that isn’t just this raw meat for social conservatives?”

How he performs during the next three years in office will have a large role in determining his political future, Ballard said.

“Ron’s legacy is going to be tied directly to his ability to govern the state of Florida,” Ballard said.

Stipanovich, however, said DeSantis’ further ambitions may be a pipe dream.

“I believe he peaked at his reelection and he will not be a significant factor in 2028,” Stipanovich said. “He’s just too damaged. … What DeSantis did is the opposite of establishing credibility for a national race.”

He compared DeSantis with previous stars-turned-presidential losers such as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

In addition, he said, any path padding his political resume by becoming a U.S. senator is currently blocked by fellow Republicans Scott and Marco Rubio, unless he were to take a major gamble and run against one of them in a primary. Scott is up for reelection this year.

“I think DeSantis will come back here [to Florida],” Stipanovich said. “He’ll be sullen, he’ll be angry, he’ll be vindictive, he will make excuses. But I think he’s done.”

Evan Power, the new state GOP chair, had a warning for Florida Democrats.

“It appears that @FlaDems have spent hours celebrating,” Power wrote on X, formerly Twitter, after DeSantis withdrew from the race on Sunday. “I don’t think they realize that 3 more years of @RonDeSantis’s leadership here will just speed up their extinction. Be careful what you wish for.”

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