As DeSantis’s presidential bid lags, unease hangs over Florida’s Capitol

TALLAHASSEE — The last time they met here, the mood among Republican state legislators was excited and confident. Their governor was running in earnest for president, and they passed bills giving Ron DeSantis nearly everything he wanted, including more restrictions on education, immigration, abortion and the rights of the LGBTQ community.

Given DeSantis’s high poll numbers and huge campaign war chest, many at the Capitol were optimistic that DeSantis could make it to the White House.

Half a year later, as those legislators wrap up a special session called by the governor, the buzz is gone. Instead, there’s unease and uncertainty, not just about DeSantis’s future but about how he’ll act at home should his foundering presidential push come to an end. His gubernatorial term lasts through 2026.

Former president Donald Trump is scooping up endorsements from GOP state lawmakers who pledged their support to the governor in April only to flip in recent weeks. More are contemplating joining them, though they’re worried about how DeSantis will punish them and their legislative priorities if they defect.

“I don’t expect to get a lot of projects done this year, and I expect my bills will get vetoed,” said Randy Fine, a prominent DeSantis ally from Brevard County who switched to Trump in late October. “I can work with anybody, but he may not want to work with me. I think he’s pretty angry.”

The governor has a reputation in both parties in Tallahassee for being demanding and vindictive — traits that have helped him push through his aggressive agenda yet come at the price of building a deep well of loyal supporters.

With Trump’s lead in the GOP primary seemingly unshakable and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley pulling even or surpassing DeSantis in some polls for second place, the diminishing support among his fellow Republicans in Tallahassee is drawing attention.

Fine, the sole Jewish GOP legislator, shifted his endorsement in the weeks after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. He felt DeSantis wasn’t doing enough to use laws that Fine helped pass to quell anti-Israel protests on college campuses that he says threaten Jewish students. The governor, he said, reacted to his decision “with petulance.”

A half-dozen colleagues have followed Fine’s lead, He thinks others also may flip.

“I think what I did gave people cover to feel like they could do it too, so I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said Monday. “There’s strength in numbers.”

State Rep. Webster Barnaby is among those pointing to the war between Israel and Hamas as the reason he now wants Trump to return to the White House and DeSantis to remain in the governor’s mansion.

“The country and the world are literally on fire. We need to stay focused on our state, and we need the governor working on our state,” said Barnaby, whose district is northeast of Orlando. “The time for competitions within the party should be over.”

Democrats say it’s too early to tell how far the defections will spread, but even the ones to date are telling given the near-complete control DeSantis has exercised in the party in Florida.

“There’s blood in the water,” Democratic caucus leader Fentrice Driskell said, standing in the lobby of the House chamber. “We have to see if his iron grip will still hold. I don’t know yet what this means for him, but it certainly signals a weakness.”

Driskell and other Democratic lawmakers — along with many of their Republican counterparts — say they want to go back to focusing on Florida issues such as the state’s property insurance crisis and the rising cost of living. That reflects some voters’ sentiments, too.

“So much of what we’ve been doing these past two years has been totally in furtherance of the governor’s political ambitions,” Driskell said. “This special session is an example of that. The timing of it is so conspicuous, given that we‘ll wrap up … before the next Republican primary debate.”

After the end of the regular legislative session in May — but before he signed the state’s budget and wielded his veto pen — DeSantis locked down the endorsements of 99 legislators. Most had been reliable supporters through his first five years in office.

With its current supermajority, the GOP passed nearly all of the governor’s legislative priorities. Among the most contentious: a six-week abortion ban, crackdown on undocumented immigrants, expansion of a “Don’t Say Gay” law to prohibit classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity and takeover of Disney World’s local taxing district.

Still, Trump’s team stepped up its pursuit of Florida Republicans. The former president had already garnered endorsements from most of the state’s GOP congressional delegation, but state-level elected officials were mostly sticking with DeSantis.

Trump continues to woo DeSantis supporters with phone calls and invitations to events such as a GOP gala at Mar-a-Lago scheduled for Thursday. Many have also been invited to his rally in Hialeah on Wednesday, which will take place at the same time and in the same county as the third GOP debate. Local party officials in Miami-Dade County said his team offered VIP tickets and access to Trump for the rally.

DeSantis’s reputation for aloofness and lack of collegiality in Tallahassee stands in contrast to Trump’s backslapping personality.

“I think the legislators who split to Trump got more attention from President Trump in 30 minutes than they’ve gotten from Ron DeSantis in five years,” Fine said, sitting in his office in Tallahassee. “There are many members here who have never met the governor.”

State Rep. Rick Roth was one of the few Republican legislators who declined to endorse DeSantis in the spring. He said he’s not surprised that his colleagues are starting to peel away from him.

“The trouble is, the governor doesn’t listen well. He never has,” said Roth, a farmer from Palm Beach County who was getting his shoes shined Monday in the statehouse. “Here’s the sad part. He thinks his win in 2022 was all him, but it wasn’t. Half of it was, but look at the candidate the Democrats put up. Charlie Crist did not do a good job.”

Roth still calls DeSantis “a great governor. He’s not ready to be president. His time will come.”

Michael Caruso, another Palm Beach County representative, said he is a Trump fan as well as a DeSantis supporter who thinks now is the time for DeSantis to be president. He said the Trump team has tried repeatedly in recent weeks to get him to flip.

“I’ve been getting approached by President Trump’s team with a strong push. They’re saying, the writing’s on the wall, President Trump is going to win the nomination, so get on the front of the bus now, because you know you’re going to get on board eventually,” Caruso said. “Trump was a great president, but I think President DeSantis would have more success in unifying this country.”

He has heard the talk in the halls of the Capitol, about others who are planning to switch their allegiance. He says he won’t be one of them.

“It’s disappointing that some of my colleagues have defected,” Caruso said. “I am all about loyalty, and I’m disappointed when I see disloyalty.”


A previous version of this article misidentified a Palm Beach County legislator. He is Michael Caruso, not Rick Caruso. The article has been corrected.

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