With DeSantis Out of the Race, Floridians Wonder: How Will He Govern Now?

Forgive Florida voters for feeling a little whiplash.

Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared unstoppable in late 2022. He had just won re-election, thumping his opponent by nearly 20 percentage points in a victory attributed in large part to voters rewarding him for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

But this week, he dropped out of the Republican presidential race after a single contest, in Iowa, where he received a thumping of his own, losing to former President Donald J. Trump by about 30 points.

It was a remarkable flameout for a man who has pushed the boundaries of his executive power to reshape Florida into a cradle of right-wing policies, eliciting strong opinions all around.

“I thought he was going to go all the way,” said Taylor Brame, 24, who moved to Florida in part because she was a fan of Mr. DeSantis’s minimal restrictions during the pandemic.

She relocated from Seattle two and a half years ago because Florida was “open for business,” she recalled on Monday at a park across the street from the Gulf of Mexico in Dunedin, Mr. DeSantis’s hometown near Tampa.

“I moved across the country for him,” said Ms. Brame, a registered Republican. “I’m a little sad that he dropped out.”

Outside a pizza parlor on Main Street, Paul Starrett, 69, wore a red Trump hat and expressed enthusiasm about Mr. DeSantis’s leadership.

“I don’t think it’s Ron’s time yet,” Mr. Starrett said. “He’s such a great governor, in my opinion, that I would not want to see him go yet.”

Though Mr. DeSantis has spent much of the past year traveling and campaigning outside the state, his sweeping policies have touched many corners of Floridians’ lives, prompting supporters to welcome his return to day-to-day government and critics to worry about which issues the governor, who is term-limited, might tackle in his final three years.

“He’s the kind of politician that’s out there for himself — he’s not listening to us,” said Jamie Maniscalco, 33, a registered Democrat who moved to Hollywood, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale, from Virginia in 2019. “They’re banning books, they’re banning dictionaries in school, and now his Republicans in the House and Senate are trying to completely outright ban abortion care.”

Ms. Maniscalco helped gather signatures for a ballot measure that would once again allow abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy in the state, she said. Mr. DeSantis signed laws banning abortion after 15 weeks, and then after six weeks. (The six-week ban has not yet taken effect.)

“I can’t be a Floridian for much longer,” Ms. Maniscalco said. “I’m engaged, and I’m thinking about having kids, and it will not be in this state.”

She and others, including some voters who back the governor, said Florida had become too expensive, with home and food prices, rent and property insurance rates all climbing during Mr. DeSantis’s tenure. Last fall, several Florida cities had among the highest inflation rates in the country.

John Scovill, 56, a chef who has lived in Dunedin since 1990, pointed ruefully to something Mr. DeSantis boasted about on the campaign trail: the influx of residents from other states during the pandemic.

“He flooded people into Florida, which raised our rent, raised the food, inflated property values,” said Mr. Scovill, an unaffiliated voter. “It makes it harder for people to live here now.”

His rent in downtown Dunedin, a once-sleepy town that now bustles this time of year with part-time residents known as snowbirds, used to be $950 a month. He moved, and the same unit now rents for $1,800, he said.

Rick Reikenis, a 71-year-old engineer and registered Democrat who works in West Palm Beach, said Mr. DeSantis had ignored important Florida issues and had instead done things intended to help his presidential campaign, like flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard from Texas, creating an office to investigate alleged election crimes and signing anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation.

“A lot more attention should have been paid to the insurance crisis than running for president,” Mr. Reikenis said.

“Ron DeSantis won by a lot,” he added, referring to the 2022 governor’s race, “but I don’t think he’s popular.”

Public opinion surveys in Florida have shown that Mr. DeSantis’s job approval has fallen since he entered the presidential race last spring.

Still, Steve McGuire, 44, a registered Republican in Naples, said he hoped Mr. DeSantis would hold firm to the policies that make the state so attractive to him: the lack of a state income tax, the taxpayer-funded school voucher programs that help his wife, Jennifer, home-school their two teenage children, and the policies they believe afford Floridians more freedom than people living elsewhere.

“I would have been proud to have him as president,” Jennifer McGuire, 41, said of Mr. DeSantis. “But we’re happy to have him here.”

At the East Naples Community Park — home to the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships — Clare Schroeder, 70, an unaffiliated voter, called Mr. DeSantis’s run “ego-driven and a long shot at best.”

He enacted laws to endear himself to right-wing voters at the expense of Floridians, she said, citing legislation that has led to book bans in public schools. “We are causing a greater degree of ignorance in children than there has been at any other point in time,” she said.

Ms. Schroeder said she hoped Mr. DeSantis would recognize that his approach did not work, and move closer to the middle of the political spectrum.

“I’m not asking him to become Gavin Newsom,” she said, referring to the Democratic governor of California. “I’m asking him to be more in line with the beliefs of more of the people.”

Reporting was contributed by Valerie Crowder from Tallahassee, Nichole Manna from Jacksonville, Jane Musgrave from West Palm Beach, and Verónica Zaragovia from Miami Beach and Doral, Fla. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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