How DeSantis Transformed Florida’s Political Identity

Not so long ago, such a change would have seemed out of the question in a state known for its narrow electoral margins and fierce recounts. Mr. DeSantis won the governorship by about 32,000 votes in 2018, barely one term. His aloof personality didn’t really shine.

But as of 2020, a politically tuned Mr. DeSantis seized on discontent with coronavirus pandemic policies, betting that economic prosperity and individual freedoms would matter more to voters in the long run than protecting public health. . More than 73,000 Floridians have died from Covid-19, but public opinion polls have shown that Mr. DeSantis and many of his politicians remain wildly popular.

Parents, in particular, who applauded the governor’s opposition to Covid-19 restrictions in schools, remained active on issues of curriculum and culture.

“I think the governor is more popular than Disney — I think the governor is more popular than the former president,” said Anthony Pedicini, a Republican strategist in Tampa. “If you run for office as a Republican in Florida and you don’t live up to the DeSantis mantra, you won’t win.”

The question now for Mr. DeSantis — and virtually everyone in Florida — is whether the rightward shift will stop, either through court intervention, or a corporate response, or, come November, a electoral reprimand. But given Florida’s trends in recent years, the most likely outcome may be a sustained campaign toward a new, more rigid conservative orthodoxy, one that voters could very well ratify this fall.

The state’s rapid and unexpected tilt to the right came as Florida swelled with new residents. Between July 2020 and July 2021, about 260,000 more people arrived than left, higher net migration than any other state. The trend started before the pandemic, but seemed to accelerate as remote workers sought warm weather, low taxes and few public health restrictions.

Culturally, Floridians have been less conservative than their rulers. They voted by large majorities to legalize medical marijuana, ban gerrymandering and restore the franchise to felons. (Last year, Republican lawmakers imposed limits on the use of such citizen-vote initiatives.) So the recent wave of legislation has been met with alarm in major cities across the state, which are nearly all led by Democrats.

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