Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is tacking further to the right as he weighs a 2024 presidential bid, a strategy that could endear him to the GOP’s conservative base and help him outflank rivals — including former President Trump.
DeSantis has already carved out a reputation as a conservative firebrand, but in recent days he’s ramped up his rhetoric.
This week alone, he called on the state Supreme Court to convene a grand jury to look into “any and all wrongdoing” with respect to the development and promotion of COVID-19 vaccines — getting into a public battle with Anthony Fauci, the White House adviser on COVID-19 and a target of the right, in the process.
He also came out against a recently signed federal law protecting same-sex and interracial marriages.
The rightward march by DeSantis could help him with conservatives, but it also carries some risks — especially if DeSantis winds up as the party’s nominee in a 2024 general election.
“He’s got to win the primary before he can run in the general, and the Republican constituency today is still very Trump-ish, so he has to be solid on those conservative issues in order to be a viable alternative to Trump,” Saul Anuzis, a Republican strategist, said. “It makes sense, but the trick is not to go too far.”
As his political profile has swelled in recent years, DeSantis has emerged as the biggest threat to Trump’s hopes of recapturing the White House and maintaining his grip on the Republican Party.
A poll from USA Today and Suffolk University released this week found that two-thirds of Republicans and GOP-leaning voters want DeSantis to launch a bid for the presidency in 2024. That same survey showed him overtaking the former president in a primary match-up; 56 percent said they prefer the Florida governor compared to 33 percent who favor Trump.
DeSantis, who was reelected to a second term in the governor’s mansion last month by a landslide 19-point margin, hasn’t made a final decision on a presidential bid. And if he decides to run, a campaign announcement is likely months away.
It might be a surprise to some that DeSantis needs to tack to the right at all.
The Florida governor has fostered a reputation as a conservative stalwart by staking out hard-line positions on everything from COVID-19 restrictions to immigration.
Still, some Republicans say he may still have some vulnerabilities when it comes to appealing to the GOP’s base.
“I think first and foremost, he’s a populist,” one Republican strategist said. “And I think for some of the really hardcore conservatives, that can make him look a little squishy on things like abortion, on the sanctity of marriage. That’s not where you want to be in a Republican primary.”
While DeSantis signed a bill earlier this year banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy in Florida, without exceptions for cases of rape or incest, that still fell short of the total abortion bans that several other Republican-controlled states have enacted since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights case.
Weighing in this week on the newly signed Respect for Marriage Act, which enshrines into law federal protections for same-sex and interracial couples, DeSantis said there was “certainly no need” for such a measure.
He also raised concerns about what the law could mean for religious institutions opposed to same-sex marriage.
“They are using the power, I think, of the federal government in ways that will absolutely put religious institutions in difficult spots if you have people that are so inclined to be very aggressive against that,” DeSantis told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham on Tuesday.
Anuzis said that while DeSantis is staking out hard-line positions, he’s managed to do so in a “more rational” manner that can appeal to a broader swath of voters.
“The policy positions of Trump didn’t bother people. The style did,” Anuzis said. “I think DeSantis is able to present those positions in a more rational and calmer way.”
“A lot of it depends on the rhetoric, the style, the way you say things,” he continued. “You can be rational and collected, or you can be sensational and try to excite the base, and that comes with a political price to pay in the general election.”
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said that DeSantis has been careful to choose his battles. While DeSantis is “clearly trying to stake out a place should he decide to run” for president in 2024, he’s largely done so in a way that doesn’t step outside the boundaries of his role as Florida governor.
“The guy wants to show that he’s an adult and can govern, and he did,” Heye said. “He can be the culture warrior to a lot of the conservative base and he can also demonstrate that he’s a good and competent governor.”
One Florida Republican strategist also noted that DeSantis’s request that the state Supreme Court convene a grand jury to investigate COVID-19 vaccines is par for the course when it comes to the Florida governor’s agenda. DeSantis first rose to national prominence for his willingness to criticize federal public health officials and their advice in the midst of the pandemic.
“The real question is: Did we need the mandates? Should we be giving these shots to children? There’s a lot of legitimate questions out there,” the strategist said. “He’s not a conspiracy theorist. He’s addressing issues that are populist — concerns that people have.”