The DeSantis era Florida GOP pivot on race could open door for Democrats

Florida’s population today is more non-white than anytime since the passage of the Federal Voting Rights Act in 1965. Yet in 2020, Florida went more Republican at the top-of-the-ticket than any election since 2004 (top-of-the-ticket races were: 2006 US Senate, 2008 Presidential, 2010 US Senate, 2012 Presidential, 2014 Governor, 2016 Presidential, 2018 US Senate).

Winning elections is often about CUTTING MARGINS among the base electorate or likely base of the opposition. For years, Florida Republicans have understood this better than Democrats and accordingly executed a plan to win just enough voters to deny victory to the opposition.

It’s worth noting that despite the onerous right-wing policy efforts of Jeb Bush and Rick Scott, they were largely race-neutral politicians. In fact, both had a sort of missionary zeal regarding expanding the GOP tent to more minorities in order to break the back of the Democrats electoral coalition. Jeb Bush spent much of his time envisioning a socially conservative party that pushed the idea of economic empowerment to attract minorities. In addition, Bush was (and remains) very openly pro-immigration.

Rick Scott spent more time than any statewide Republican outside Bush trying to cultivate non-Cuban Latino voters. While this didn’t reap dividends in 2010 and 2014, by 2018 he had a rapport with enough of this demographic to squeak through an election win. The irony being Ron DeSantis benefited from Scott’s strength among Latinos in 2018, and likely doesn’t win otherwise.

But like so many other things, Ron DeSantis is different than his predecessors. We’ve spent ample ink on this site describing how DeSantis illiberal authoritarian instincts, take him into anti-coporatism and other spaces traditional conservatives like Bush stayed away from. However, we have not really discussed how DeSantis illberalism now has squarely put him in the territory of a race-baiting demagoguery.

In recent weeks, DeSantis rhetoric on immigration has become overheated – those who don’t track his regular primetime Fox News appearances may not realize how demagogic DeSantis has become on immigration and how his race-baiting has become less cloaked (if you don’t believe me just Google clips of recent DeSantis appearances on Fox and contrast it to the sort of interviews Jeb Bush or Rick Scott, for all their many flaws on other issues, would give).

The rhetorical bards of DeSantis marks a clear departure from the tone RPOF Chairman Al Cárdenas (who later led the American Conservative Union) set for Florida Republicans in the late 1990’s on race which was different than the national GOP. This general trend takes DeSantis into territory where he could realign the state’s voters somewhat soliciting the support of working class white voters who have continued to support Democrats, BUT could also lead to increased Democratic margins among minority voters and more trouble in the suburbs for the GOP.

It’s often forgotten that in 2002 Jeb Bush poor performance in rural areas v other GOPers was more than offset by better than expected performances up and down the I-4 corridor. In 2010, Rick Scott did not do as well as you’d expect a GOP nominee to do in many North Florida counties, but cut margins in other places to eek out a victory. Both Bush and Scott has an ability to appeal to urbane voters – even if just slightly, they picked up enough votes to win, particularly in suburban areas. The market-driven pro-business conservatism of both helped.

On the other hand, Ron DeSantis despite his Ivy League background and military service appears a politician completely out of depth with the cultural attitudes of those residing in urban and suburban areas. He’s taken the Republican base he inherited and shifted the narrative toward a more populist and angry tone. DeSantis retains a base among small business owners, but his attacks on corporations and anti-free market views on tech companies and vaccine passports is likely to hurt him in some places where Bush and Scott retained support.

Let’s not forget the infamous fundraising appeal DeSantis sent out at the height of Florida’s COVID surge (pictured above). Blatantly racist in its tone, DeSantis’ email blamed illegal immigrants for the Covid problems in Florida and predictably avoided any discussion of unvaccinated and unmasked Floridians, who almost certainly support him disproportionately compared to the Democrats. The email blames President Biden for the COVID-19 crisis in Florida, which is laughable in so many ways.

The way things are going, DeSantis may forfeit the opportunity to cut into margins in Democratic areas, although as I have mentioned previously, the realignment of vaccines as a class-based issue does give the Governor some ability potentially to sway a small number of minority voters.

The bottom line is this – while many Democratic activists have liked to claim for years the Republicans are a party of racists, Florida’s GOP has made great efforts to broaden its base and appeal to just enough minority voters to keep control of the state. But Governor DeSantis’ recent moves and tone which in many ways are reminiscent of the race-baiting of yesteryear’s southern Democrats (even DeSantis regular comments and tweets about the overreach of the Federal Government, etc have its roots in segregationist rhetoric) finally gives Democrats a tangible target with which to accuse the GOP of racism. If they play it right, and it sticks, it may very well give the party a chance to beat DeSantis next year.

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