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Trump, DeSantis, and Florida as the New GOP Olympus
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Trump, DeSantis, and Florida as the New GOP Olympus

Will the Sunshine State ever yield a Republican president?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Orange County Choppers Road House and Museum on March 8, 2023, in Pinellas Park, Florida.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Part of the premise in the Percy Jackson children’s books is that Olympus, home of the Greek gods, materializes wherever the heart of Western civilization resides. What began near Athens moved to Rome and then Constantinople and then, maybe, Aachen, Madrid, Paris, and London before coming to New York.  

We could do the same for America’s political parties and their spiritual homes. We could see Democrats going from Richmond to Atlanta before turning north to New York and west to Chicago, and now San Francisco (if it’s not already Los Angeles). Up next, Las Vegas? 

Republicans, though their party was founded in Wisconsin, started their life centered on the New York of William Seward and Horace Greeley. Then a long stay in Ohio before zooming out to the California coast. After that, and for a few decades, Texas. Now, of course, it’s Florida.

Florida looks like the new Republican Party in many ways. It has lots of culturally conservative white folks (the southerners who live in the northern part of the state), older voters (the oldest median age of any of the 39 largest states), and a fast-growing population of Hispanic residents from the Caribbean and South America, whom Republicans see as a key way to offset the party’s deficiencies with other minority and immigrant groups.

And, like the states that preceded it in the story of the GOP once were, Florida is growing like gangbusters. For the first time since cheap air conditioning made it the preferred destination for East Coast retirees in the 1950s, Florida increased its population faster than any state in the union last year

While Texas continues to grow, now boasting more than 30 million residents, the way it’s growing is making it less reliably Republican. Florida is expanding mostly because of domestic migration—Americans from other states drawn to warm weather, low taxes, and, particularly during and after the coronavirus pandemic, its right-of-center governance. 

Texas saw a lot of the same thing through the Bush-Perry years, but has of late been an engine of its own growth. The state has grown by more than 9 million souls this century, but about half of that has come from its own birth rate, with another quarter or so coming from other countries. As much as Texans like to say that it’s relocated Californians or Yankees who are pushing the state left, the truth is that homegrown younger voters and immigrants skew Democratic.   

Florida, one imagines, will have a similar story to tell one day. How warm weather, a favorable business climate, and conservative governance grew a once-sleepy state into the top destination for transplants. Those new residents flourished and raised their families … right before their children and grandchildren started voting against those same policies. California Republicans could certainly commiserate, too.

For now, though, it’s Florida’s time as the Republican homeland. 

But Ohio had at least one president every decade from the 1860s to the 1920s and California had Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and Texas had the Bushes. Who is Florida’s man? Donald Trump won the general in 2016 as a New Yorker, though he lost the state by more than 20 points in both of his previous campaigns.

Donald Trump looks a lot like the old Florida in many ways: An elderly New Yorker who found a low-tax refuge in the warm weather at the southern end of the state (even if, in his case, the jurisdictional concerns were about more than the tax code). 

Gov. Ron DeSantis, on the other hand, is native-born, young, and from the Republican part of the state. He looks like the new Florida.   

The last time Republicans were picking a nominee without an incumbent, in 2016, they had a similar Florida dynamic at work in some ways. Then it was former Gov. Jeb Bush, a better-known, older transplant, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a young, homegrown upstart. And like with DeSantis and Trump, the upstart rose by drafting off and mimicking the success and messaging of the established politician. 

And at this point in the race, it was going about as well for the upstart. 

Here’s Politico from July 2015: “In the crowded GOP field, Bush leads the second-place Rubio 28 to 16 percent in their home state, according to Mason Dixon Polling & Research’s survey. In Mason-Dixon’s poll three months ago, Rubio was essentially tied with Bush 31 to 30 percent.”    

And here’s the Palm Beach Post this week: “A poll released Monday shows Florida is still Donald Trump country … The survey by Florida Atlantic University Mainstreet PolCom Lab shows the former president still trouncing Gov. Ron DeSantis among state Republicans in their duel for the 2024 GOP nomination, 50% to 30%. And almost 1-in-5 of Republicans said it is ‘disloyal’ to vote for a candidate other than Trump.”

The numbers are different in scale because of the number of other competitive candidates in the race, but in both cases show the younger “new Florida” candidate getting just a bit better than half as much support as the “old Florida” candidate. And, like Bush and Rubio, this battle is obviously a blood feud tinged with allegations of betrayal and disloyalty. 

DeSantis, like Rubio, seems determined to drive a hole right through his former benefactor’s coalition. Trump, like Bush, seems very focused on first obliterating the pretender to the Floridian throne.

None of that means the 2024 story will necessarily play out in the same catastrophic way for DeSantis and Trump as it did for Bush and Rubio. Only that the battle for supremacy in the new Republican Olympus will be a costly one and may leave open the way for others from beyond the Sunshine State.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.