Republicans are wrestling with whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the likely 2024 presidential hopeful, should — or even can — soften his staunchly conservative brand enough to win a national election.
DeSantis built a reputation as a relentless political firebrand who was willing to push a long list of policies that endeared himself to conservatives nationwide. And as he prepares for a likely presidential bid, he’s not showing any signs of dialing it down.
But while that may help him stand out in a Republican primary that will be decided by the GOP’s most conservative and loyal voters, some in the party are unsure if his views will appeal to a broader swath of the electorate in a 2024 general election.
“It’s a legitimate concern that’s going to have to be dealt with at some point,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who served as a senior aide to Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential run, while noting that DeSantis’s top priority right now is winning the primary against former President Trump. “Right now, his focus on cultural issues doesn’t really play as cleanly in the areas of the country that really matter in a general election, which are the suburban areas around the United States.”
Florida’s annual legislative session is set to begin on Tuesday, and state Republican lawmakers are poised to hand DeSantis a new round of victories on a number of his policy priorities. Among them are proposals to allow Floridians to carry concealed weapons without a permit, ban diversity and equity programs at public colleges and universities and weaken state laws that protect the news media from lawsuits.
The session could also eventually include an effort to further restrict abortion in the state. While DeSantis signed a 15-week ban on the procedure into law last year, he has faced pressure from anti-abortion groups to go further, though he has not said exactly what restrictions he would support.
The expected policy victories could help give DeSantis a jolt of momentum heading into a presidential campaign. While he’s said little about his 2024 intentions, DeSantis is widely expected to announce a White House bid sometime after the state legislature wraps up its session in May.
He also recently ramped up his public appearances and travel schedule, making stops in Texas and California over the weekend. He’s also set to make his debut appearance in Iowa on Friday.
Of course, he’ll still have to win the GOP nomination before he can begin worrying about a general election campaign, and early polling shows him running in second place behind Trump in a hypothetical primary that could include more than a dozen candidates.
But DeSantis’s hard-right agenda has already made him a target of Democrats as they gear up for a potential face-off with the Florida governor in 2024.
President Biden tweaked DeSantis over his refusal to expand Medicaid in Florida during a visit to Tampa last month, while the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has put out a steady stream of talking points labeling him as an extremist and successor to Trump’s “MAGA agenda.”
Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist, said that DeSantis’s ultra-conservative persona would be a “tremendous liability” in a national general election campaign, adding that the “further he goes not just to the right, but really to the farthest realms of the radical right, it’ll be harder and harder for him to tack back to the center.”
“DeSantis has basically tailored his entire campaign and persona specifically to cater to a hard-right audience and build a hard-right agenda,” Reinish said. “That’s beyond a tough sell, even to a center right Republican, much less to a moderate Democrat.”
Democrats also say that they have a long list of material to work with: his lax approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, a state law that bans instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in schools from kindergarten to third grade and his openness to signing further abortion restrictions — an issue that hobbled Republicans in other parts of the country in last year’s midterm elections.
But DeSantis’s allies say there’s little reason for him to soften his approach, noting that he won reelection last year in a 19-point landslide despite Democratic efforts to cast him as a far-right ideologue.
Instead, they argue that DeSantis’s core message — that his “anti-woke” policies are simply intended to remove politics from daily life — has resonance with independent voters and even some moderate Democrats.
“If you’re running for president, I think you’re always going to have to ask how to make your message palatable to the most people possible,” one Republican consultant said. “But this whole idea that you should be able to teach third graders about gender identity at school? I think there’s a lot of Americans out there who are going to look at the governor and believe that he’s doing the right thing.”
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist and former congressional candidate, put it bluntly: “There is going to be no moderation” if DeSantis makes it to the general election.
“There’s always one or two issues that you can say Republicans are pushing the envelope on. But when it comes to school curriculum, illegal immigration, non-citizens voting in elections, sexual identity curriculum, are they really pushing the envelope?” he said.
“A lot of the issues that DeSantis fights back on loudly are the issues that the small 10 percent of persuadable voters actually agree with him on.”
But DeSantis is still untested on the national stage, having never run for office outside of his home state. Democrats say he’s liable to run into tougher resistance nationally than he ever has in Florida, where a lack of Democratic organization and infrastructure has hobbled the party’s ability to rally opposition to DeSantis.
“He rushes straight in on identity politics and culture war stuff, and I think a lot of that has to do with Florida Democrats not being able to counter that,” Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida, said. “But the rest of the country isn’t Florida and a general election isn’t a Republican primary.”