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The Florida Theory of Republican Power

It’s not just Ron DeSantis. The Sunshine State is a veritable home of the Grand Old Party in exile.
President Trump Holds News Conference with FL Gov. De Santis At White House

“Our schools are supposed to give people a foundation of knowledge, not supposed to be indoctrination centers, where you’re trying to push specific ideologies,” Florida’s governor said this week in Naples. 

“Let me be clear: there’s no room in our classrooms for things like Critical Race Theory,”  continued Gov. Ron DeSantis. “Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.” For embattled conservatives — and more quietly, even old school liberals leery of America’s sudden, leftward lunge — such a clear denunciation was manna from heaven. 

Here was a governor of a top five state (if money or people mean anything), a buzzy, growing state — with an eye toward reality, a relative counterweight to a nation gripped by lockdown fever — and one that bucked the national trend, declining to reward Joe Biden with its twenty-nine Electoral votes after the summer of George Floyd. It’s little wonder that Republicans are aflutter about Mr. DeSantis, maybe President DeSantis, the all-American Sunbelt governor who keeps bucking the nation’s elite and lives to tell the tale (this week in the Wall Street Journal, thank you very much). The straw poll from this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, held where else (?), in Florida, put the governor as the second choice of those attending, after you know who.    

But it’s not just DeSantis— which may be a problem for DeSantis (more on that later).

The Sunshine State has become a veritable home of the Grand Old Party in exile. Its regional breakdown could be taken as a simile for the various power centers of the party as a whole. First, you have the Panhandle, most prominently represented in Congress by Matt Gaetz. To devotees and critics alike, there was perhaps no more archetypal place in the country to hold one of the 45th president’s notorious rallies. “Only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement,” the New York wheeler-dealer once replied to some incendiary saber-rattling from his throngs of supporters.   

Heading south, and you start heading into expatriate families from America’s more old guard climes real fast. Like many Republicans, Tucker Carlson has taken up residence off the Gulf coast, ditching D.C. The artist and TAC board member George O’Neill Jr. has long lived in the middle of the state. Stopping there, you might assume the GOP was still all WASP stock at the commanding heights, like back in the old days.

Moving right along, Fort Myers and Naples, where DeSantis spoke, have long been considered hotbeds for those leaving the Midwest, places like Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, locales once part of the Democratic machine that became the lynchpin of the right’s comeback in 2016. Rick Scott, the former two-term governor and Florida’s junior senator, hails from the Show Me State and calls Naples home. A little north, Tom Brady of Tampa, the peerless Super Bowl champion, has long been regarded as a crypto-Republican.  

In Miami, you encounter Florida’s senior senator, Marco Rubio, the party’s perennial once-and-future hope. You also run into more and more folks from Silicon Valley, who say they’re fleeing “woke” California. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have also decamped to a place there following their exodus from government. Miami’s mayor, Francis X. Suarez, is certainly trying to make a name for himself, and like Rubio, is at the forefront of the party’s attempts to court Hispanic Americans, which proved more successful than anyone imagined in 2020. And, of course, the secretive Matt Drudge has long convulsed the news cycle from his Miami-Dade compound. 

Circling back up, you run smack into Palm Beach on the Atlantic. It is traditionally a Democratic stronghold, but perhaps trending R, at least in spirit. Drudge’s friend Ann Coulter has been seen around town, and there’s no getting around the neighborhood’s newest permanent resident. Still pressing his case that the 2020 election was a fraud, the Florida writer Michael Kruse dubbed Donald J. Trump the “antipope” of Mar-A-Lago

Throughout the state, other dissidents from Trump’s former Washington abound. Which is all exciting stuff for those politically-minded enough to ride out the Biden years elsewhere. Where it might pose a problem is when the time comes to overthrow Democratic rule.

For years, Florida insiders insisted, that even as he graced the cover of Time magazine as the party’s future, that when push came to shove, if Jeb Bush, the former governor and scion of the party’s most powerful family, ever pulled the trigger, Rubio would wait his turn. If Rubio was seen as the natural, Bush was seen as the brass. If the boss got in, his mentee would wait. It didn’t happen. 

Bush and Rubio both passed on bids in 2012, and of course, Bush and Rubio both did not pass on cracks at bat in 2016. Their friends insist they destroyed each other. And opportunity knocked for a New York resident who had never run for anything. 

But if the dynamics in 2016 portended poorly for Florida to send to Washington its first president, 2024 could make the Bush-Rubio rivalry look like kids’ stuff. Trump, his daughter, Carlson, Gaetz, DeSantis, Scott, Rubio, even Coulter are all conceivable candidates, and while they may not all run, this dynamic shows no signs of letting up in the future— I, for one, am not writing off a President Brady. 

Gaetz is part of DeSantis’ political machine, and told me two years ago, before the current governor became more famous, that he won’t run for president any time soon “because Ron DeSantis is going to be president.” Carlson, or anyone, running against Trump would be an unlikely sight, but Trump might not run, and if he spends three years dodging prosecutors and creditors, in embarrassing, public fashion, it could render a comeback a Himalayan ascent, from a position of political bankruptcy, if not personal. 

An heir taking his place, such as Mrs. Trump, is talked of, though the former senior counselor to the president passed on a Senate run in 2022 recently. Both the state’s senators, Rubio and Scott, running against each other, along with the governor, would be preposterous, but this state is preposterous and all three men nakedly want to be president. 

A vaxxed summer is in the offing, then statewide elections in Virginia, almost certainly California, and New Jersey, then the midterms, and then it will be presidential season again in under twenty months. For would-be West Wing occupants, even in Florida, there’s only so much time left to soak up the sunshine.