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Gov. Ron DeSantis cruises to re-election, solidifying GOP hold on Florida politics

MIAMI — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis notched a quick election night win, NBC News projected Tuesday, a victory that could become a springboard for a White House run and put him on a collision course with former President Donald Trump.

DeSantis’ victory over former Rep. Charlie Crist — fueled by a massive cash advantage, political headwinds against Democrats like Crist and changing demographics in a reddening state — contrasted sharply with his election four years ago when he won by less than half a percentage point.

Sen. Marco Rubio also cruised to victory Tuesday night, NBC News projected, securing his third term in a statewide Democratic collapse. He defeated Democratic Rep. Val Demings.

At DeSantis’ victory speech, supporters chanted “two more years,” signaling their support for a presidential run in 2024. The governor, however, appeared to remain focused on his win and the successful effort to turn Florida a deeper red.

“The people have delivered their verdict: Freedom is here to stay,” he said. “Now, thanks to the overwhelming support of the people of Florida we not only won this election, we have rewritten the political map.”

As ballots continue to be tallied, DeSantis supporters and campaign insiders hoped he would win bragging rights by exceeding Jeb Bush’s historic margin in 2002, when Bush secured re-election as governor by 12.8 percentage points. With 92% of the vote tally reported, DeSantis appeared to be well on his way with more than a 19-point edge over Crist.

DeSantis also might become the first Republican gubernatorial candidate since Bush to win Miami-Dade, the state’s largest county, which also has its largest Hispanic population and was once considered a Democratic bastion. With 8% of the vote yet to be counted, he led there by more than 11 points.

Crist congratulated DeSantis on his victory when speaking to supporters on Tuesday night. He released a lengthy statement as well to thank Floridians for their support and emphasize his underdog status.

“Unfortunately, tonight did not turn out the way we hoped,” he said. “We were the underdog from the minute I entered this race 18 months ago. I knew we would be outspent. I knew we would not have as many television ads. But you know me; I am an optimist. I love Florida.”

The red wave under DeSantis appeared so big that, for the first time since Reconstruction, Florida is on pace to have no statewide elected Democrat, calling its swing state status into further question.

The Legislature is controlled by the GOP, and all seven state Supreme Court justices were appointed by Republicans, four by DeSantis.

“A big win in Florida is a huge proof point for DeSantis, a strong point for showcasing governing strength and electoral strength,” said David Kochel, a veteran Republican campaign adviser who hails from first-caucus-in-the-nation Iowa. “The fact DeSantis won by a hair in 2018 and now he’s blowing away Democrats sends a message.”

Trump, who’s eying announcing a comeback bid for president this month, has been closely monitoring DeSantis, sometimes obsessively so, according to Republicans who have discussed the governor with the former president.

Ever since DeSantis’ star began to rise in the national Republican firmament in 2021, Trump has privately fumed about the upstart governor as a potential challenger, calling his prominence an act of disloyalty because his endorsement helped DeSantis win his 2018 GOP primary for governor.

“Trump even complains that DeSantis ripped off the way he throws hats to the crowd at his rallies: ‘That’s my technique!’ It’s weird,” said a Republican who didn’t want to speak on the record to disclose private conversations with Trump.

In an interview with Fox News published on Election Day, Trump denied he was in a “tiff” with DeSantis and called him a “fine guy” but then said DeSantis “would be making a mistake” if he ran for president against him.

“I would tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering — I know more about him than anybody — other than, perhaps, his wife,” Trump said, without elaborating.

When Trump’s team announced a rally last Sunday in Miami, DeSantis’ campaign let it be known that the governor — who had skipped another Florida rally last year with Trump — wouldn’t be attending, further annoying Trump, who called him “Ron DeSanctimonious” at a rally Saturday in Pennsylvania.

Trump retooled his message over the weekend and, making sure to take credit for DeSantis’ 2018 win, announced in Miami that he was endorsing the governor.

“More people heard Trump criticize DeSantis than endorse him, and it probably just helped Ron, because a lot of independents and even some Republicans want Trump to go away. So Trump is unwittingly making DeSantis the alternative,” said a Republican who has good relations with both men.

Many nationwide polls show Trump ahead of DeSantis in hypothetical matchups, and Trump boasted that he got a bounce in the polls after the FBI executed a search warrant in August at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida as part of an investigation into whether he illegally took and kept sensitive U.S. documents.

Polling is more mixed in some states. A survey in the nation’s first primary state, New Hampshire, found the two statistically tied in a primary, but another survey found Trump with a lead. Some Florida polls have also shown DeSantis leading Trump in a one-on-one primary. A recent poll of swing state Georgia voters by the Republican firm Echelon Insights found Trump losing a hypothetical primary to DeSantis, 52% to 36%.

Trump is gearing up for multiple primary challengers; advisers say that could make his path to victory in a primary easier because the other candidates would divide the non-Trump vote in the Republican Party, which happened in 2016.

“If you’re Trump and you think this is a cakewalk, maybe numbers like this would give him pause,” said Patrick Ruffini, an Echelon Insight pollster. “DeSantis, and perhaps surprisingly so, is becoming a near-equal of Trump. He’s not an equal yet.”

Under DeSantis, the Republican Party this year for the first time in Florida history had more registered voters than Democrats, a margin of 306,000. Before DeSantis’ election in 2018, Democrats had an advantage of 281,000 registered voters. Registered Democrats, however, had been losing the edge since their high-water mark, in 2008, when they outnumbered Republicans by nearly 658,000.

DeSantis rose to national prominence in late 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, when he reopened businesses and schools in defiance of expert opinion. DeSantis also banned mask mandates and vaccine passports, earning him negative mainstream media coverage but the adoration of conservatives, who began seeing him as a future presidential candidate. It also helped with fundraising.

DeSantis raised a record $196 million for his re-election, spent $130 million and still has $66 million left, according to the most-recent financial reports for his campaign and political committees.

The cycle of mounting criticism, rising Republican support and increased fundraising repeated itself when DeSantis took up legislation this year to ban schools from teaching young children about sexual orientation and gender identity, which led to a high-profile clash with Disney World. DeSantis also seized a week’s worth of saturation media coverage in September for flying Venezuelan migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to protest Democratic immigration policies, leading to lawsuits and investigations.

DeSantis’ support remained strong in polls, however, even among Hispanic voters in Florida, a majority of whom said they approved of the Martha’s Vineyard flights in a Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy survey conducted for Telemundo/LX News. The poll also showed DeSantis might win a majority of Hispanic voters in Florida, which no Republican governor has done in 20 years.

At the same time, national Democrats barely invested in Florida after Trump beat President Joe Biden in the state by 3.3 percentage points, a comparative landslide in a state where top elections had been decided by about a point for years. In 2018, a coalition of Democratically aligned groups spent $40 million in the state, but this year, it was closer to $1 million, according to the Florida Democratic Party, whose chairman, Manny Diaz, is considering resigning after Tuesday’s loss, according to a confidant who was not authorized to speak on his behalf.

Crist struggled to raise funds and never got much traction in the polls. He has the unique distinction of having lost to the top three statewide officeholders: Sen. Marco Rubio in 2010, Scott in 2014 and now DeSantis.

But for all of the favorable trends, DeSantis still does not look ready to commit to a White House bid.

Meanwhile, Republican financiers like hedge fund mogul Ken Griffin are openly encouraging him to run for president.

DeSantis could convert his state political committee money into a federal super PAC to help boost a presidential campaign, and a source familiar with discussions in DeSantis’ political orbit said some advisers want him to roll the money over in December as a statement that he’s keeping his White House options open.

The $66 million DeSantis has in the bank compares with about $70 million Trump had in his Save America committee in mid-October.

In the spring lawmaking session, the source said, legislators might change the state’s “resign to run law” to make it easier for DeSantis to run for president and remain governor — but only if he gives a signal. Under current law, DeSantis would have to leave the Governor’s Mansion once he qualified to run for president.

A spokeswoman for DeSantis declined to comment.

Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser and vocal DeSantis critic, said DeSantis benefited Tuesday night from a favorable political environment and the devastation of Hurricane Ian last month, which allowed him to earn statewide free media coverage while Crist had no platform.

Still, Stone said, “that’s not enough to be president or beat Donald Trump.”

“Trump is going to annihilate Ron if he runs,” Stone said, faulting DeSantis’ lone debate performance against Crist last month, when he “looked stiff and uncomfortable. … He can’t do that on the big stage with Trump.”

At the debate, DeSantis pointedly refused to answer when he was asked whether he would serve out a full term as governor if he were re-elected.

“Why not answer the question if you’re not running for president?” asked Tony Fabrizio, a pollster for Trump who also polled for DeSantis in his brief run for the Senate in 2016.

Fabrizio said that DeSantis should be proud of Tuesday’s results but that Trump is better positioned to take credit for what unfolds throughout the country.

“If we have a big night and we win the House and Senate, who do you think is going to get credit for that? It’s Donald Trump, the leader of the party who helped all these candidates,” Fabrizio said. “In that event, Ron has a different set of issues he has to contend with if he wants to run against Trump.”

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