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DeSantis eyes big Florida win in November as a White House springboard

The governor is so confident of winning re-election that he's hoping to beat Donald Trump's 2020 margin in the state, sources say.
Image: Ron DeSantis speaks to reporters on Oct. 6, 2018 in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Ron DeSantis speaks to reporters Oct. 6, 2018, in West Palm Beach, Fla.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won’t say whether he’ll run for president, but he’s starting to acknowledge that his road to the White House might hinge on a big re-election win this year.

For months, Florida Capitol insiders and Republicans familiar with the governor's thinking have speculated that a resounding victory in November would strengthen his national bona fides as a top GOP presidential contender — even if his political benefactor, former President Donald Trump, decides to run again.

DeSantis has steadfastly refused to cross Trump in public or suggest he would challenge him in a primary, but in a new interview on the conservative podcast "The Truth with Lisa Boothe" that aired Monday morning, DeSantis made it clear he’s eying his re-election bid as a springboard for something bigger.

“My goal would be, if we win the election really big, people like you who analyze these things are going to say: ‘The days of Florida being a swing state are over. Florida is a red state.’ And I think that’s because of a lot of what we’ve done,” DeSantis said when Boothe, a Fox News contributor, specifically pressed him about his White House ambitions. Boothe didn't ask whether he would want to run in two years if Trump runs or wait for six years.

DeSantis didn’t specify what a “really big” win would look like. But in battleground Florida — where he won his office by less than half a percentage point in 2018 — even a few points can look like a landslide. And two sources in DeSantis’ orbit say he would like to best Trump’s unexpectedly high margin of 3.3 percentage points from two years ago.

“You’re never going to hear the governor challenge the [former] president,” one of the Republicans said. “But there’s definitely a marker Trump laid down, and he definitely wants to beat it.”

For his part, Trump hasn’t spoken ill of DeSantis in public. But he has privately pointed out that his endorsement of DeSantis, once a little-known member of Congress, in 2018 helped him win the GOP primary for governor against Adam Putnam, a better-known and better-funded rival who was the state's agriculture commissioner.

Since then, DeSantis has become a magnet for controversy and national headlines, starting with his staunch opposition to Covid mandates and restrictions. He remained relevant through the just-ended legislative session, when he engaged in a political feud with LGBTQ activists and the Walt Disney Co., one of the state’s largest employers.

DeSantis, who is likely to remain in the headlines as a top Republican culture warrior, told Boothe he would be interested in banning transgender children from receiving hormones or surgery as part of "gender affirming care," which the state Health Department is examining.

Trump advisers don’t think DeSantis would challenge Trump in 2024, although they’re eying DeSantis’ sizable war chest as a possible source of super PAC money if he handily wins re-election and banks tens of millions of dollars afterward. Trump insiders have been discussing plans to have Trump announce his White House plans in early January, making it more difficult for a newly re-elected governor like DeSantis to announce a presidential bid without coming into direct confrontation with Trump.

“Trump made Ron, and if Ron ran against Trump there would be hell to pay,” said a Republican who has discussed DeSantis’ and Trump’s presidential plans with the former president.

DeSantis is relatively popular in Florida, with 56 percent of voters overall approving of his job performance and 38 percent disapproving, according to a Morning Consult survey released Thursday.

Florida surveys also suggest DeSantis has a relatively comfortably lead over his top potential Democratic rivals for governor, Rep. Charlie Crist and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Most national polls, however, show Trump with a double-digit lead over DeSantis in a hypothetical 2024 primary.

The subject of Trump never came up in his interview with Boothe, and DeSantis quickly deflected her questions about his plans to run for the White House. But he acknowledged that he’s now a national political figure who’s so popular in the GOP that conservatives are buying “paraphernalia” with his name or likeness.

And when it comes to running for president, he said, “people always bring it up to me.”

DeSantis boasted that, for the first time, registered Republicans now outnumber registered Democrats in the state. He attributed the dynamic partly to the number of people who moved to Florida from other states, including Republicans like Boothe.

“That’s telling me the people like you who came for a reason are the norm,” he said, “and some of the people who would come from these blue state dumpster fires and then still vote the same way when they come here that they are indefinitely the distinct minority, which is a good thing.”

When asked, DeSantis said his wife, former Jacksonville TV news anchor Casey DeSantis, is his top political adviser.

“She’s got a very good nose for BS, and she’s kind of like [the] middle America-type of voter that we need,” he said. “I’m not a consultant-driven governor. … I’m not calling political consultants, saying: ‘Hey, what do I need to do? What do I need to do? How do I need to handle this?’ I just handle it, and I do what I need to do. … She is a great kind of sounding board for what happens.”