DeSantis wins reelection, ushering in a red-state era in Florida

Gov. Ron DeSantis quickly and overwhelmingly won a second term as governor on Tuesday night, ushering historic victories up and down the ballot that will cement the state’s identity as a red state for years to come.

While all signs pointed to a decisive win for DeSantis and Republicans in the state Legislature, his double-digit margin of victory — which included flipping Miami-Dade County — was buoyed by gains in deeply Democratic areas across the state.

“Thanks to the overwhelming support of the people of Florida, we not only won the election, we have rewritten the political map,” DeSantis said in his victory speech on Tuesday night. “Thank you for honoring us with a win for the ages.”

Voters handed DeSantis, who was both praised and attacked nationally over his controversial decision to reopen the state in 2020 during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, an easy and decisive win over Charlie Crist, the former governor and St. Petersburg congressman who entered the race as the Democratic underdog. It was Crist’s second attempt at returning to the governor’s mansion.

DeSantis’ margin of victory reached nearly 20 percentage points statewide, and a 16-point swing from his 2018 election in crucial Miami-Dade County.

“Over the past month, since the early vote started coming in, it’s been the most consistent plot line that I’ve witnessed where it’s been just a decisive Republican performance,” said Rob Schmidt, vice president of the national GOP polling firm McLaughlin & Associates. “I was wondering how we could lose, and that would be a very strong turnout from Democrats on Election Day, which we saw no traces of.”

The Associated Press called the race for DeSantis moments after the polls closed in Florida’s Panhandle at 8 p.m. EST.

There were many signs heading into Election Day that Republicans would have the upper hand: For the first time in the state’s history, Republicans had a voter-registration advantage, with over 200,000 more registered voters than Democrats. Republican voters showed up in high numbers during early voting, outnumbering Democrats. And national Democratic donors did little to compete with Republican fundraising, including credible efforts to challenge DeSantis’ own record-breaking reelection fund.

DeSantis not only made gains in reliably blue counties — he also flipped some of them. He won Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Duval, Palm Beach and Osceola counties — all of which have more Democrats than Republicans. He also won Hillsborough County with 54% of the vote, a 10-point swing from his win in the county four years ago.

“I was expecting major Republican wins, I just didn’t expect it to be so overwhelming,” said Christian Camara, a Republican consultant and lobbyist based in Tallahassee. “It’s shocking to me.”

Republicans also secured super-majorities in the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate, an advantage that will give GOP leaders further control over the legislative process with the largest majorities in a decade.

Race-by-race results: Click here for all the statewide and South Florida election results

“We chose facts over fear, we chose education over indoctrination, we chose law and order over rioting and disorder, Florida was a refuge of sanity when the world went mad,” DeSantis said from the stage of his victory party in Tampa. “We made promises to the people of Florida, and we have delivered on those promises. And so today, after four years, the people have delivered their verdict. Freedom is here to stay.”

DeSantis said the election was a “win for the ages” and his was the “best-run campaign in the history of Florida politics.”

“Thank you to Miami-Dade County. Thank you to Palm Beach County,” he added.

During short remarks conceding the election, Crist addressed supporters at his Election Night party in St. Petersburg.

“I’m a happy man and I am at peace and I am grateful to all of you,” Crist said. “To Governor DeSantis, to you and your family, I wish you the best.”

The forceful Election Night showing from Republicans is the culmination of nearly three decades of party efforts, begun under former Gov. Jeb Bush, maintained by dominant Republican majorities in the Legislature, and re-energized and solidified by former President Donald Trump.

The base, built on a coalition of new and old residents, honed a deeply conservative social and economic message designed to appeal to suburban voters, rural voters and Hispanic communities, particularly Cuban Americans.

Although Florida was twice won by Barack Obama, Trump began the Democratic erosion in 2016 with a narrow win that he widened by more than double in 2020 and that contributed to Republicans securing the voter-registration advantage.

Democrats were hoping the debate over abortion rights would lift them over obstacles that they faced heading into the midterm election. Crist repeatedly knocked DeSantis for his “extreme” views on abortion, mainly criticizing him for backing a 15-week abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest — and for not saying what other restrictions he would support if reelected.

But abortion was overshadowed by gasoline prices, inflation and crime, issues that DeSantis hammered and ultimately helped him secure a second four-year term in Tallahassee.

Seemingly unconcerned by his own prospects, DeSantis spent the months leading up to the election campaigning for Republican candidates in other states, including for New York’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin and candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, Kari Lake and Blake Masters, in Arizona.

In stump speeches, DeSantis would rarely focus on Crist. Instead, he focused on President Joe Biden, who, polls show, is not popular among Florida voters. Biden visited the state a week ago — after nearly 3 million votes had already been cast — for a last-ditch effort to buoy Crist, Senate candidate Val Demings and other Democrats on the ballot.

DeSantis often targeted Biden’s policies on immigration, the economy and broadly attacked Democrats when he talked about his fight against the “woke left.“

When Biden campaigned with Crist in Miami Gardens in the days leading up to Election Day, DeSantis mocked the president and joked the visit was helping his reelection bid.

“We had a visitor down here in South Florida last week from Washington, D.C., I saw,” DeSantis said during his Election Eve rally in Hialeah on Monday night. “I didn’t know he was coming down. And then I got word, ‘Hey, there has been an elderly fellow wandering around aimlessly on the streets of Miami’. I said, ‘Oh, Joe came.’ ”

A Democratic stronghold reddens

Likely nowhere was DeSantis’ popularity more evident than in Miami-Dade — the home of Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez. DeSantis lost the county during a high-turnout election in 2018 with 39% of the vote. Flipping the county, where over 70% of residents are Hispanic, pushes the state further out of reach for Democrats.

Laura Lehman Dray, a Democrat, chalks up the Republican wave to how the party connects with people in the community.

“Much of it has to do with the ground game and how one reaches out to the community,” Dray, 60, said Saturday at the Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center. “The success of any effort has to do with the ability to connect with and energize people around their goals. And when people run a good ground game, it’s effective.”

Sitting with a group outside the John F. Kennedy Library in Hialeah on Saturday afternoon, Dennis Perez, 68, held a sign that read, in Spanish, “Thanks, Democrats, for voting Republican.”

“What we’re seeing — gladly — is that many of our Democrat brothers are voting Republican,” Perez said. A lot of people are affected by the government, and the economy has been ruined by the Democrats,” he argued. “So the Democrats are feeling that and are affected by it — when they’re putting gas or buying food — and they say, ‘No, I’m not going to support [the Democrats] anymore.’ ”

That’s why he wrote his sign, he explained. The switch is “satisfying.”

“We need conservative people, people who respect life, people who respect freedom,” Perez said. “That’s why I’ll continue being Republican, continue supporting Republicans and admiring Republicans like Ron DeSantis. He’s a defender of life [and] of liberty.”

A fundraising machine

DeSantis, who has built a national reputation and become a fundraising juggernaut, is widely believed to be seriously considering a 2024 run for the White House.

In the lead-up to his decisive victory on Tuesday night, DeSantis’ political aspirations have caught the attention of Trump, who remains a behemoth in the party. Leading up to Nov. 8, Trump strongly hinted that he is preparing to announce his third presidential campaign, and seeing DeSantis as a potential 2024 rival, the former president began taking more forceful jabs at DeSantis.

On Saturday in Pennsylvania, Trump nicknamed him “Ron DeSanctimonious.” Then, Trump headed to Miami to rally support for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, an event that noticeably did not include DeSantis. Trump told the South Florida crowd to reelect DeSantis.

But on Tuesday, outside a polling location in Palm Beach, Trump told reporters that DeSantis would be making a mistake if he decided to run against him.

“If he runs, he runs,” Trump said, according to The Wall Street Journal. But he added: “If he did run, I will tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering. I know more about him than anybody other than perhaps his wife, who is really running his campaign.”

Trump’s relationship with DeSantis waned since the Republican governor’s popularity has carved out a lane for a potential 2024 White House bid.

Trump endorsed DeSantis in his 2018 run for governor, boosting the chances of a then-little-known congressman who was facing a tough Republican primary against establishment favorite Adam Putnam. DeSantis was elected governor over Democratic rival Andrew Gillum by just 32,000 votes.

DeSantis’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his fight against the “woke left” contributed to his popularity ballooning in GOP circles. Now, DeSantis is building a coalition of national supporters — including Elon Musk, GOP mega-donor Ken Griffin and a network of conservative media influencers — raising a dizzying amount of money from donors big and small, and the Republican Party of Florida has started sending pro-DeSantis mailers to voters out-of-state.

Ahead of the midterms, DeSantis raised more than $200 million for his reelection bid. The massive fundraising haul was used to run a relentless stream of ads against Crist and to hand-select a set of issues intended to speak to the MAGA base at the national level, said Tom Patterson, Bradlee professor of government and the press at the Harvard Kennedy School during a webinar for reporters and scholars on Friday.

“The main reason for the nationalization is we’ve lost a lot of diversity within our two political parties,” Patterson explained. “... What this has done is to make the parties more ideologically coherent, making the Republican majority uniformly more conservative and the Democratic Party more uniformly progressive or liberal.”

The possibility that DeSantis could run for president became a point of contention during the lone gubernatorial debate.

Crist asked DeSantis to pledge he would serve out a full four-year term. The question was met by an awkward silence, but after a long pause, DeSantis quipped: “The only worn-out donkey I’m looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist.”

Florida Democrats face ‘disaster’ scenario

Democrats nationally were also working against a big headwind: the economy.

Midterm elections traditionally tend to be more partisan and less influenced by the issues and the party that holds the presidency traditionally does worse than the opponent, said Patterson..

Part of that is because the surge of new voters who show up in the presidential election often don’t return in the midterms, creating an automatic disadvantage for the incumbent president’s party.

And this year, Democrats nationally were also working against a big headwind in the economy. It’s much harder for the party in power to do well when the economy is not doing well. With higher gas prices and grocery bills, Republicans did a better job messaging on the economy than Democrats, said Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

Early in the year there was a huge enthusiasm gap in the favor of Democrats in the wake of the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling and other issues, but the abortion-rights issue was quickly subsumed by the economy and crime, he said.

Florida Democrats also faced an infrastructure disadvantage.

Christian Ulvert, director of the Florida Senate Democrats’ election campaigns, said the red wave of 2022 reminded him of the shellacking that Democrats got in 2010, when the Tea Party movement ushered in Rick Scott as governor in a narrow win over Democrat Alex Sink and Republican super majorities in the House and Senate.

“They’re not buying what Democrats are selling and they’re not motivated by what is before them. That’s a recipe for disaster,’‘ Ulvert said.

He argued that the results are less a reflection of a winning message from Republicans but rather a losing one from Democrats.

“DeSantis is a real force,’‘ Ulvert said. “I warned folks months ago that by having a non-competitive gubernatorial race, Ron DeSantis would treat that race as a test run to what a presidential race would look like. So that victory was not designed by Republicans. It was us gifting it to them. So, Merry Christmas, Ron DeSantis.”

Miami Herald reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report from Tallahassee, and Miami Herald reporters Sommer Brugal and Ana Claudia Chacín contributed from Miami.