Ron DeSantis’s shifting political brand shows how he could win in ‘24

If you’ve only started paying attention to Ron DeSantis recently — as he’s muscled his way onto the national stage and emerged as Donald Trump’s likeliest rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — you’ve probably seen the pugnacious Florida governor likened to “Trump 2.0.”

The combative attitude. The anti-"woke" agenda. The attention-seeking stunts. Even the unusual hand gestures.

But DeSantis wasn’t always the next Donald. In fact, during a brief and now mostly forgotten period in 2019, the newly and very narrowly governor positioned himself as something else entirely: the chief executive of a key swing state who seemed determined to govern from the center on the environment, education, marijuana, criminal justice and public accountability — and who was winning unexpected praise from both the right and the left for his efforts.

After DeSantis's first month in office, 180 of 200 "campaign operatives, lobbyists, money-raisers, political scientists and other veterans of Florida politics" surveyed by the Tampa Bay Times graded the governor's performance as a B or better — including "the vast majority" of Democrats on the panel.

“He’s a different kind of Republican,” one Dem told the paper. “I believe that Gov. DeSantis is out to re-make the image of Republicans in Florida and that will go a long way in changing the public’s thinking of GOP elected officeholders.”

"He's taken a very pragmatic course," added then-Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "I say this as a Democrat and as a mayor: I've been really pleased and pleasantly surprised by… the decisions he's made."

Today, of course, Democrats like Buckhorn have changed their tune. “Since then, we’ve been fed a steady diet of red-meat culture wars,” the former Tampa mayor tells Yahoo News. “So any attempt to tack to the center was either a plan that DeSantis abandoned — or it was never his real plan in the first place.”

But planned or not, DeSantis's "moderate moment" was real while it lasted. It was also revealing. Not because it exposed the governor as a closet centrist; he's always been a conservative at heart, from the book-length diatribe against Barack Obama he published right before running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 to his subsequent stint in Congress as a founding member of the right-wing Freedom Caucus. In one 2018 ad, he pantomimed reading "The Art of the Deal" to his infant son while words "PITBULL TRUMP DEFENDER" flashed on screen.

Rather, DeSantis’s decision to swerve to the center for much of 2019 — just like his decision to veer rightward from 2020 on — shows that he has mastered a different art: the art of the political pivot.

“DeSantis reads the sentiment of the public at the time and has the ability to react — all while seeing how it fits into his long-term plans,” says Susan MacManus, emeritus professor of political science at the University of South Florida and a longtime expert on Florida politics. “He’s very, very astute — and very, very strategic.”

More than anything else, it is this dexterity — the ability to maneuver through an evolving political landscape without getting on the wrong side of public opinion — that distinguishes the nimble DeSantis from the heavy-handed Trump.

“DeSantis is smart as hell,” explains John Morgan, a prominent Orlando lawyer, Democratic donor and political rainmaker. “He is smarter than Trump. Trump's reading nothing. DeSantis is reading everything voraciously.”

People like DeSantis see things as ”black and white. You see it clearly, several moves ahead. And it’s all calculated. I think that's how Ron DeSantis operates.”

If the Florida governor chooses to challenge the former president in 2024, this is also the key contrast — between an agile force and immovable object — that could come to define the GOP primary contest.

And ultimately, it might make DeSantis the more difficult candidate for Democrats to defeat.

Most Ron DeSantis stories start around March 2020, and they tend to go something like this:

At first, DeSantis implements COVID lockdowns. Three weeks later, he changes his mind. "We will never do any of these lockdowns again," he says. As the pandemic continues, he grows more and more hostile toward other mitigation measures: mask mandates, school closures, vaccine boosters. Critics call him "DeathSantis." DeSantis's reply? "Florida is a free state." Fox News calls him "the future of the party." DeSantis capitalizes, picking made-for-cable-news fights over every culture war issue he can: how schools teach about race; how teachers talk about gender; how corporations handle LGBTQ rights; how Floridians are allowed to protest; how Floridians are allowed to vote. He even signs a restrictive new voting law live on "Fox & Friends."

And then the stories culminate with DeSantis winning reelection by 19 percentage points in the 2022 midterms as the rest of the GOP falters.

But what people forget is that before all of that — before the pandemic — DeSantis’s political incentives were pointing in the opposite direction. And he was following where they led.

In November 2018, DeSantis was elected governor by fewer than 33,000 votes — the narrowest margin (0.4%) in Florida history. The race was so close that it required a recount.

More to the point, the way DeSantis eked out a win over Andrew Gillum, the Black mayor of Tallahassee, had been the subject of some controversy, with national Democrats accusing DeSantis of "doing everything [he] could to try to play whites against blacks" after he falsely claimed Tallahassee "is the most crime-ridden city in the entire state of Florida" and implored voters not to "monkey this up."

“Now, I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” Gillum snapped during their debate. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”

The following January, DeSantis took office without much of a mandate for anything — except maybe mending fences.

"The narrowness of his victory and the changing demographics of the state made it very clear among savvy Republicans that they have to broaden their base," MacManus explained after the election.

Unlike Trump — who bellowed about "American carnage" in his inaugural address, then immediately issued his divisive "Muslim ban" — DeSantis seemed to grasp this delicate dynamic.

"We were elected to serve all Floridians and that is a charge we will keep," he said in a written address published right before his inauguration. "I know there are political divides in our state, but the election is over and it is time for our state to come together."

It’s not unusual for politicians to pay lip service to bipartisanship when they first take office. But DeSantis followed through. In sharp contrast to his Republican predecessor Rick Scott — now Florida’s junior senator — the new governor made it his mission from Day One to woo legislators in Tallahassee.

"He reiterated that he did not like the partisanship and that he wanted us to work together and to have independent branches of government — that the Legislature should not be a rubber stamp for the governor," Democratic State Rep. Loranne Ausley told the Tallahassee Democrat after an early luncheon with DeSantis. "I take that to heart." She described herself as "cautiously optimistic."

“He’s reaching out,” added State Rep. Bill Montford, another Democrat. “So I’m hopeful that we will see a lot of efforts on his part to expand bipartisanship on a lot of these issues.”

Then, to everyone’s surprise, DeSantis did just that — to a carefully calculated degree.

“He was trying to score points with people who didn't vote for him in the general election,” Buckhorn, the former Tampa mayor, recalls. “And it was appreciated at the time because it was the right thing to do.”

With the “monkey up” fracas fresh in Floridians’ minds, one of the governor’s first moves was to secure a full pardon for the Groveland Four, a group of three black men and one black teenager who were wrongly accused of raping a 17-year-old white girl named Norma Padgett in 1949.

Scott had conspicuously dodged the case, but DeSantis made it clear that "justice was miscarried" and that "acts of evil" had been carried out against the accused— one of whom was lynched, and all of whom were long dead — for "crimes they did not commit."

"It is a weight lifted, it is a cloud lifted," a family member told the Orlando Sentinel. "It's the shame taken away."

"His incentive was to erase the notion that he was racist, which was a big part of the campaign,” says MacManus. “So he finally did something the Black community had been arguing for for years. And he did it quickly.”

DeSantis went on to include two Democrats — state Rep. Jared Moskowitz and longtime public official Jim Zingale — in his administration while surprising critics who expected his Republican appointees to be "loyal supporters with missions to destroy the agencies they lead," as the Miami Herald reported at the time.

“It would be an understatement to say I was not DeSantis’ supporter, but it appears he has appointed solid, competent people,” GOP political strategist Mac Stipanovich told the Herald. “I expected the appointments to be much more heavy on campaign operatives and to have had a much greater Trumpian ideological edge and that has not been the case.”

DeSantis also broke with Scott on smokable medical marijuana, effectively reversing his predecessor's unpopular ban by threatening to take executive action if lawmakers refused to repeal it themselves. He paid a somber visit to the memorial for the 49 people who died in the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando; "Florida will always remember these precious lives," he wrote on the wall. And when he released his first budget proposal in early 2019, it "broke the record for spending" — in part because of a major funding increase for public education — "and contained no major cuts, placing him at odds with staunch fiscal conservatives in the Florida House," according to a February 2019 report in Tampa Bay Times.

“Where did this Ron DeSantis come from?” read the headline. “A month into his term… DeSantis has shattered assumptions that he would govern exclusively from the right.”

Most striking of all, however, was the new governor's environmental agenda. For years many Floridians had been fed up with Scott, who prohibited officials from using the words "climate change" or "global warming," cut funding for water management and loosened toxic pollution standards. He eventually earned the nickname "Red Tide Rick" after the nasty, toxin-producing algal bloom that came to plague the state's coastal cities, killing fish and other marine animals.

DeSantis, in contrast, sensed an opportunity.

"[Red tide] was clearly something people cared about, and it was a bipartisan thing," Frank Jackalone, director of the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club, told Mother Jones in April 2019. "It impacts people, whether you live in a Republican area or a Democratic area, it doesn't matter."

Describing himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist,” DeSantis proposed $2.5 billion for Everglades restoration over four years — the highest level of funding in the state’s history — along with a red tide task force to reduce “the adverse impacts of blue-green algae blooms.”

“Obviously, we don’t want to go on a spending binge, but I think some of the stuff we’re looking to do, like with the water quality… the cost of that will only increase if we let the problems get worse,” DeSantis said at the time. “So I’m willing to kind of bite that bullet.”

And though DeSantis never mentioned climate change himself, he appointed as the state’s first chief science officer the respected University of Florida marine biologist Thomas Frazer — who immediately affirmed that “climate change is real and humans are responsible for it.”

“What has been so remarkable is to see people acknowledge, ‘Oh my God, [DeSantis] wasn’t lying,’” Kimberly Mitchell, executive director of the Everglades Trust, told Mother Jones. “And he’s doing it. He’s already done more than was done in the 12 years before him.”

Floridians liked the new approach. By mid-March 2019, nearly six in 10 of them (59%) approved of how DeSantis was handling his job, according to a Quinnipiac University poll — including a plurality of Democrats. A Rasmussen survey from around the same time showed DeSantis's approval at 64% and his disapproval at 24%. It was the most lopsided rating any Florida governor had enjoyed in at least a decade.

“I’m sure there will be plenty of things he’ll do that Democrats won’t like, but you build for those moments like he is now,” Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who ran Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008, said at the time. “You can spend a lot of time trying to play 12-dimensional chess to figure out where the country is going to be. [But he’s] do[ing] a good job as governor and let[ting] cards fall where they may.”

Needless to say, DeSantis’s initial burst of bipartisan good feeling did not last.

By the time his first budget actually passed in May — amid simultaneous and successful Republican efforts to ban sanctuary cities, restrict future ballot measures and make it harder for ex-felons to regain the right to vote — Democratic lawmakers were starting to feel disillusioned.

"With the amount of damage he is going to be doing to everyday people's lives, people may actually shockingly start to miss Gov. Scott," state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami told the Orlando Sentinel. "DeSantis is a mini-Trump."

But again, DeSantis was never a moderate. He was just playing one on TV — or, more precisely, he was picking popular, high-profile pressure points where he could diverge from conservative orthodoxy, then emphasizing those quirks more than, say, his efforts to boost school vouchers, or gut Obama-era curriculum standards, or appoint conservative justices to the state Supreme Court.

He was, in other words, pivoting with the politics of the moment. And it worked.

“There [are] great wins for conservatives, but there’s also, with the environment stuff, [things] that appeal to a lot of Democrats,'' DeSantis said of that first budget. "So there’s really something in here, I think, for everybody, in one way or another.''

And that is almost certainly how DeSantis will operate if he runs in 2024 — first in a primary that would require him to pry conservatives away from Trump and then in a general election that would compel him to court moderates.

“I think DeSantis is a much greater risk to Biden than Trump,” says Morgan, who describes himself as a Biden Democrat, because DeSantis knows how to appeal to both hard-right Republicans and moderate “Jeb Bush types.”

“DeSantis knows how to walk that line,” Morgan added.

Though DeSantis's emphasis has clearly shifted to riling the national MAGA base — by arresting Floridians for alleged voter fraud; by banning transgender health care for minors; by going to war with Disney over LGBTQ rights — it's also true that he has continued to increase spending on environmental projects (by $1.5 billion compared to the previous four years) and teacher salaries (by $800 million) while trying to thread the needle on abortion and refusing to indulge the fantasy that the 2020 presidential election was rigged and stolen from Trump.

It isn’t hard to see the dim outline of another pivot there — one carefully calibrated to appeal to both Republicans who fear that Trump can’t win and swing voters who’d rather not see either of the last two presidents serve a second term. DeSantis has proven he can navigate this sort of switchback before. Trump has never even tried. In 2024, that could make all the difference.