TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis won re-election to a second term Tuesday in a dominant victory over Democrat Charlie Crist, bolstering his rise as a prominent GOP star with potential White House ambitions.
DeSantis' win continues a rightward shift for what was once the nation's largest swing state, as voters embraced a governor who reveled in culture war politics and framed his candidacy as a battle against the "woke agenda" of liberals.
In the lead-up to the election, DeSantis harnessed the power of incumbency to assemble media, often on short notice and far outside major markets, for news conferences where he would spend significant time honing critiques of Democratic President Joe Biden, liberal policies and the mainstream media, delivered before cheering crowds.
He gained significant national attention during the start of the coronavirus pandemic through his outspoken opposition to continued lockdowns and to mask and vaccine mandates, and eventually displayed an eagerness to wade into nearly any cultural divide.
His ceaseless combative posture, and ability to leverage the power of state government to his will, endeared DeSantis to major GOP donors and built him into a natural heir to former President Donald Trump in the minds of some Republican voters.
Weeks before the election, DeSantis directed the state to fly groups of migrants from Texas to the upscale liberal enclave of Martha's Vineyard, as a protest over the federal government’s immigration policies at the southern border. DeSantis said the move was a way to make immigration a "front-burner issue" before the midterms, with his critics questioning the legality of the flights as they accused officials of lying to the passengers.
Election Day came as Florida continued to recover from the Category 4 Hurricane Ian, which slammed into the state in late September and killed more than 100 people and caused widespread damage.
Politically, the storm temporarily muted much of the bitter campaign rhetoric and provided DeSantis a platform to project a unifying tone as a competent crisis manager able to set aside the culture warrior and work with rivals such as Biden on response efforts.
The victory is certain to further speculation of a potential DeSantis presidential run. DeSantis has so far dodged questions on his possible Washington aspirations, skirting the subject repeatedly during his only gubernatorial debate with Crist in late October.
Trump, who credits himself for propelling DeSantis to a first term in the governor’s office, has teased a third presidential run and grown frustrated with DeSantis' refusal to rule out a 2024 campaign, according to people familiar with Trump’s thinking.
The governor was able to raise substantially more money than Crist, a 66-year-old Democrat who had previously served as a Republican governor of Florida from 2007 to 2011. Crist aimed his candidacy at moderate voters in Florida, criticizing DeSantis as a bully, as he sought to reverse a losing streak for Democrats in the state.
Crist resigned a congressional seat to run for governor this year but was forced to fend off barbs on the campaign trail about various stances held over his decades in Florida politics. In a short concession speech, Crist congratulated DeSantis and thanked supporters, saying his political career has been an "absolute blessing."
Democrats, the minority party in the state government, faced considerable challenges in a state recently considered to be a perennial political battleground but that has drifted rightward. Trump won the state twice and Republicans have been aggressive in organizing at the local level and made a sustained push on voter registration.
Last year, the GOP notched more registered voters in the state than Democrats for the first time in modern history, and then continued to widen the gap into November.
In a telling signal before election day, GOP voters cast a greater number of ballots than Democrats in Miami-Dade County during the early voting period, boosting confidence that Republicans could take the county for the first time in two decades. DeSantis won Miami-Dade County on election night.
The economy is weighing heavily on the minds of Florida voters. Three-quarters of them believe things in the country are heading in the wrong direction, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of more than 3,300 voters in Florida.
About half ranked jobs as the most important issue facing the country and almost 8 in 10 voters said the nation’s economy is not so good or poor.
A slight majority of voters in Florida approve of DeSantis' decision to send migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to northern Democratic states. A larger percentage of voters approve of how DeSantis handled hurricane relief in the state — about three-quarters — compared to how President Joe Biden handled things — about 6 in 10.
Some Democrats have admitted previous organizing and registration efforts in Florida had mostly centered around presidential races, and there were concerns that big donors and the national wing of the party might cede the state after recent losses and DeSantis’ growing popularity.
The Democratic Governors Association has bristled at that characterization and said it considers Florida a competitive battleground. The organization has spent $685,000 to help elect Crist, a spokesperson said.
The election unfolded under the state's controversial new Office of Election Crimes and Security, created at the request of DeSantis to address concerns in the GOP about voter fraud. The office notified county election supervisors in October of certain voters who could be ineligible to cast ballots due to prior felony convictions and requested counties prevent them from voting.
Florida also pushed back on plans from the federal government to send monitors to Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to ensure compliance with federal voting rights laws — a routine step.
In a letter, Republican Secretary of State Cord Byrd's office told the Justice Department that federal monitors are not allowed inside polling places and that their presence could undermine confidence in the election. The Justice Department, which also sent monitors to about two dozen other states, eventually said their monitors in Florida would be outside the polling places.
"They wanted to be inside the polling places and they couldn’t provide a reason to be there nor any statutory authority for them to be there, so we asked them that they respect Florida law," Byrd said Tuesday, adding the monitors "can go there and do their job but they have to do that job outside the polling place."