On the evening of Nov. 8, 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis presided over a jubilant scene at the Tampa Convention Center, where he celebrated his decisive victory over Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist.
"Florida is where woke goes to die," DeSantis told a cheering crowd, touting his culture war victories and previewing what would become the central message of his presidential campaign.
On an otherwise disappointing night for Republicans, DeSantis's victory cemented his status as a GOP frontrunner, the young and dynamic candidate who could wrest the party from Trump.
The following week, Trump launched his third straight White House bid despite the fact that many Republicans blamed him for the poor midterm results. The lack of enthusiasm for the 45th president was evident in the polls, which showed DeSantis surging.
"I think DeSantis is a much greater risk to Biden than Trump," a Democratic donor from Orlando told Yahoo News in December.
Six months later, national polls show Trump ahead of DeSantis by more than 30 points. State polls aren't much kinder: Not only is DeSantis badly trailing Trump in the crucial early-primary states of Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, but he has former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina gaining support in each of those battlegrounds.
So what happened to the once "inevitable" DeSantis?
Read more from Yahoo News: Poll: No bump for DeSantis from 2024 launch as Trump continues to climb
Was his Florida victory overstated?
DeSantis has touted his 19% victory last November as proof of his political talents. And while the 44-year-old governor does have sharp political instincts, Crist was a flawed candidate who received little support from the national Democratic establishment.
Running against a more competent challenger — Rep. Val Demings of Orlando — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio won reelection by 16%. And other Republican governors won by impressive margins too. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine defeated his Democratic opponent by 25%; in New Hampshire, incumbent Chris Sununu won by 16%.
DeSantis did seem to persuade a good number of independent and even some Democratic voters that his hands-off approach to the pandemic was superior to blue-state restrictions. But Florida had been becoming more conservative for years — a Democratic nominee for president has not won the state since 2012.
In other words, DeSantis may have “over-learned” the lessons of his 2022 campaign, which owed some of its success to his political talent — but some also to circumstance.
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An ongoing battle with Disney
One of DeSantis’s signature policy accomplishments was stripping Disney of near complete control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a move he undertook last year because the corporation publicly opposed a new Florida law — dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents — that curtailed how questions of sexuality and gender expression could be discussed and handled in schools.
But Disney proceeded to outmaneuver DeSantis by legally solidifying its own control over Reedy Creek right before his handpicked governing board took over. DeSantis promised a legal battle, but some fellow Republicans quickly seized on the defeat to criticize his use of state power to control private enterprise.
DeSantis has likewise gone after the Tampa Bay Rays and the National Hockey League. And while he is still a favorite of the conservative press, the governor's divisive agenda polls poorly among Americans.
Read more from our partners: Is DeSantis Using Racism to Win the Presidency?
A sharp-edged personality
During his tenure as governor, DeSantis rarely sat for interviews with mainstream media outlets, preferring instead to court conservative media personalities as his stature within the Republican firmament rose. Campaigning for president, however, requires dealing with prospective voters and local power brokers.
And that hasn’t proved easy for DeSantis. During a recent trip to Washington, he discovered that many of his fellow House members (he served in the chamber for five years) aren’t exactly fans, even if they readily acknowledge his intelligence, ambition and acumen.
"I think he's an asshole," former Rep. David Trott, R-Mich., told Politico after the foray to Washington. "I don't think he cares about people." Others have said much the same thing, with former Florida GOP Rep. David Jolly telling MSNBC last week that DeSantis was a "uniquely unlikeable person."
A meeting with British business figures in late April went especially poorly. "There wasn't any stardust," one attendee complained.
Richard Nixon lacked charisma too, but he didn't have to contend with social media platforms turning every awkward gesture or misstep into a viral meme.
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A problem named Donald
DeSantis would not have been governor, in all likelihood, were it not for a Trump endorsement — via tweet — that elevated him in the Republican gubernatorial primary over establishment choice Adam Putnam, then the state agriculture secretary.
Five-and-a-half years later, the two men are bitter enemies, in large part because Trump perceives DeSantis as disloyal for not waiting until 2028 to seek the presidency.
Although more than a dozen Republicans are running for president — including his own former vice president, Pence, and U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley — Trump has been fixated on destroying DeSantis, attacking him at every opportunity.
DeSantis needs to attract Trump supporters in order to have any chance of winning the GOP primary, but he isn’t likely to do so if he throws hard counterpunches. So far, he has resorted to making oblique references to Trump without challenging him directly, the way some donors and supporters say he needs to do.
That dynamic has presented an odd dissonance, with a candidate who says he never backs down from a fight studiously unwilling to directly take on the formidable opponent who stands in his way.
Read more from our partners: Losing already? Maybe Ron DeSantis' flailing presidential campaign caught 'woke mind virus.'