Wherever Gov. Ron DeSantis goes, he brings greetings from “the free state of Florida.” He heralds his “Florida Blueprint.” And he brags about how many people originally from whichever state he happens to be visiting love taking advantage of Florida’s warm weather and low taxes.
But a funny thing has happened as DeSantis travels the country with a “Make America Florida” message that underpins the Republican’s soon-to-launch presidential campaign.
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DeSantis has found that not everyone wants to be Florida. And he has encountered spirited pushback from competitive fellow governors and GOP officials who believe that their states have done just as much, if not more, to advance a conservative agenda.
“It’s a lot of fun competing with my colleagues and Republican governors across the country,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has hosted DeSantis in the first-in-the-nation caucus state, said in an interview with NBC News. “But make no mistake, we are competitors.”
Reynolds introduced and interviewed DeSantis at two events in March, making sure to hold up her own record alongside his and frame them as equally accomplished governors. DeSantis, though, emphasized that he enjoys a “special perch” or “unique catbird’s seat” to view how other governors are doing, “because when people visit or move here, they tell me what’s going on in their states.”
After bestowing this authority onto himself, he took some shots at Democratic-led Illinois and proclaimed that Reynolds indeed presides over “one of the best-run states.”
It’s a tricky task — one that has caught attention of DeSantis’ home state reporters at Florida Politics — that in the wrong hands can come off as a magnanimous pander or a condescending pat on the back. And there have been signs in recent weeks that DeSantis recognizes he needs to shift how he talks about Florida, making it seem less aspirational and exceptional and more like an example of Republican leadership that has thrived elsewhere.
Reynolds, who stressed that her rivalry with DeSantis is friendly, brushed aside a question about whether his comments might offend Iowans and then quickly pivoted to her own accomplishments.
“Offend Iowans? Oh no, because I took care of that,” Reynolds said. “Because starting this year, we no longer tax retirement income. I made a deal with Gov. DeSantis. I said, ‘Hey, I’ll let our retirees go down to Florida — maybe a couple of months in January and February when the temperature’s not as good here in Iowa. … He’s gracious when he talks about it.”
DeSantis’ Florida boosterism has also prompted some ribbing in New Hampshire. At a GOP dinner there last month, DeSantis spoke admiringly about that state’s “Live Free or Die” motto before launching into his self-congratulatory story. Before DeSantis left the stage, New Hampshire GOP Chairman Chris Ager playfully jabbed at the governor.
“Instead of people moving to Florida,” Ager said, “maybe you can move up here.”
DeSantis' spokesperson did not return a request for comment for this piece.
As boastful as DeSantis can be, he also searches for common cause with his audiences. During two stops in Ohio last month he played up his mother’s roots in the Youngstown area and his wife’s childhood in Troy, near Dayton. During that trip, he told a GOP crowd over breakfast in Akron that some parts of Florida are like “Ohio South,” given the number of retirees there.
“And it’s all good, because I’ll tell you, when it came time to get that big victory margin, there were a lot of transplanted people from Ohio who had my back,” DeSantis said, referring to his 19-point re-election margin last year. “So, God bless them for doing that.”
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During a speech in South Carolina, DeSantis mentioned how his in-laws now live in the state and how he’s noticed more traffic on the roads there when he and his wife visit.
“Similar to what we’ve seen in Florida over the years with people coming down here,” he said.
But he was unable to resist an attempt at one-upmanship: “Famously — and, as long as I’m around, permanently — we have no state income tax. You guys should try that sometime.”
In Georgia, a compliment quickly gave way to grievance.
“One thing we’re no longer No. 1 in is college football,” DeSantis told an audience during a visit to a gun store in March. “So I just have a little bit of a plea … just stop taking so many of our high school football recruits. Can you give us a little bit of a chance?”
Ager, the New Hampshire GOP chair, said in an interview that he sees nothing wrong with friendly competition — and he wasted little time asserting his own state’s superiority.
“We are clearly No. 1. Gov. DeSantis calls it the free state of Florida. But the Cato Institute ... in their whole scoring criteria, New Hampshire came in first last year,” Ager said, referring to a libertarian think tank’s ranking of New Hampshire as the freest state, based on personal and economic freedoms. “So we have some objective criteria from a third party.”
DeSantis himself seems to have softened his pitch a tad. While addressing the Utah GOP’s organizing convention in late April, he called the state, led by Republican Gov. Spencer Cox, “one of the best governed, best performing states.” DeSantis then went on to bestow perhaps the biggest compliment he could, even if it kind of came at the expense of a third state.
“I was recently visiting with some folks in Iowa, and people said, ‘Iowa, they’re really the Florida of the Midwest with all the conservative stuff they’re doing,’” DeSantis said. “Well, let me just tell you, maybe this is a little secret, but it might just be that Florida’s the Utah of the Southeast.”
By the time he returned to Iowa this month, DeSantis sounded ready to reconsider.
“I was here in March, and someone kind of took note and they’re like, ‘Man … Iowa’s like the Florida of the Midwest.’ … But I just want to let you know, after watching all the good stuff you’ve done in Iowa, it may be that Florida is the Iowa of the Southeast. So we’ll see.”
For the competitive Reynolds, there’s no question.
“Absolutely,” said Iowa’s governor, who has not endorsed a candidate for president. “Florida is the Iowa of the Southeast, and we’re doing everything we can to continue that narrative.”