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DeSantis won, but DeSantis-ism lost

His politics played well in Florida, but failed elsewhere.
Image: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis campaigns for Congressman Lee Zeldin in New York on Oct. 29, 2022
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis campaigns for Rep. Lee Zeldin, who was running for governor, in New York on Oct. 29.Mark Peterson / Redux file

“We fight the woke in the legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.”

With these fighting words, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hailed his sweeping re-election victory last week. DeSantis trounced his opponent, Democrat Charlie Crist, by 1.5 million votes. The blatant gerrymander he masterminded helped Republicans flip four House seats in the state. The results leave little doubt that Florida is now firmly a red state and that he is the non-Trump front-runner for the 2024 presidential nomination.

But while Tuesday was a big win for DeSantis, it was a loser for "DeSantis-ism." His war on wokeness, attacks on liberals, and divisive culture war politics played well in Florida, but elsewhere it landed with a resounding thud. 

While DeSantis may be capturing the id of Republican voters, his cross-party appeal is limited.

Even as he faced a re-election fight, DeSantis found time to travel the country and campaign with Republican politicians cut from the same cloth. He attended rallies with Kari Lake and Blake Masters in Arizona, Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Lee Zeldin in New York, Mark Ronchetti and Rep. Yvette Herrell in New Mexico, Derek Schmidt in Kansas, and J.D. Vance in Ohio. The first seven all lost, and while Vance emerged victorious, he ran nearly 10 points behind his Ohio Republican ticket mate, Gov. Mike DeWine (who did not campaign with DeSantis). 

In addition, DeSantis spoke at a rally in Wisconsin for Sen. Ron Johnson, who narrowly won his re-election fight by 1 point, and gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels, who lost to incumbent Democrat Tony Evers. He gave a last-minute endorsement to New Hampshire Senate candidate Don Bolduc, who lost by 9 points to incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan. And he rallied for Adam Laxalt in Nevada Republicans' Senate primary fight last April. While Laxalt won his party’s nod, he ultimately lost the election to Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.

The symbolism is rich. While DeSantis may be capturing the id of Republican voters, his cross-party appeal is limited. It wasn’t just that DeSantis-endorsed candidates fared poorly; the issues that have propelled his rise up the Republican presidential ranks did little to move voters this election cycle. 

In Pennsylvania, DeSantis took his anti-woke agenda on the road, declaring on behalf of his culture warrior ally, Mastriano, that “we can’t just stand idly by while woke ideology ravages every institution in our society.” Keystone State voters clearly didn’t agree, handing the Pennsylvania Republican a 14-point loss, nearly 10 points worse than Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, who largely eschewed the same kind of ostentatious culture war attacks.

Beyond policy issues, the midterm was a defeat for DeSantis’ entire political persona.

Earlier this year, I spoke with a Republican political consultant who told me that critical race theory and transgender rights would be two of the more important political issues in 2022. DeSantis has made both cause célèbres. Florida Republicans passed legislation to ban the teaching of critical race theory and enacted what critics called the “Don’t Say Gay” law that restricts the teaching of gender issues in Florida schools. DeSantis even went to war with Disney, one of his state’s biggest employers, over its opposition to the latter measure. By some estimates, Republicans ran at least $50 million in anti-trans ads this cycle.

Yet, across the country, Republican candidates who trumpeted those divisive issues fared poorly. In Michigan, for example, state Republicans convinced themselves that anti-trans issues would lead to a political upset in the state. Instead, Democrats won every statewide office and flipped the state House and Senate — the latter for the first time in nearly 40 years. In fact, more LGBTQ candidates won office this year than ever before, including victories for the first two lesbian governors in U.S. history (Massachusetts and Oregon). 

Immigration was another issue on which DeSantis hung his hat. In September, he infamously sent two planeloads of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard to dramatize his xenophobic and anti-immigrant bona fides. But there’s little evidence that such cruel immigrant-bashing was a winning message either for Republicans.

Beyond policy issues, the midterm was a defeat for DeSantis’ entire political persona — the angry, uncompromising, vindictive, anti-woke politician who will unceasingly attack Democrats and give liberals no quarter. Similar candidates did reasonably well in states that already lean red, but they were firmly rejected in swing states. Indeed, if there was one takeaway from the 2022 campaign, it’s that DeSantis’ divisive style of politics simply didn’t play. 

On one level, DeSantis may not care. He is, right now, a leading contender for the 2024 Republican nomination, and if his near-term goal was to win over Republican primary voters, he has likely succeeded.

But DeSantis’ road to dominance in the GOP will limit his appeal in a general election when Democrats and independents get the chance to make their feelings known. As I wrote about DeSantis a few months ago, “It’s one thing to run to the right in a primary campaign; it’s another to ostentatiously go out of your way to alienate half the country.” And if Tuesday’s results are any indication, more than half of the country has little interest in what the Florida governor is selling.