But back in 2016, the Yale and Harvard graduate and former Navy lawyer seemed a perfectly normal Bush-Romney Republican. Alert and astute, he impressed me and everybody I talked with about him—but not nearly as much as another emerging star at the convention, Eric Greitens, who was then running for governor of Missouri. When later that year I asked The Atlantic for the time and budget to follow one future post-Trump Republican presidential possibility, I selected Greitens. He won the governorship, then resigned amid scandal. Greitens is now back in the news, running for one of Missouri’s U.S. Senate seats—but it is DeSantis who is the most mentioned potential non-Trump Republican contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
DeSantis’s rise is partly a story about him. It’s partly a story about his critics. But perhaps above all, it’s a story about his state.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, DeSantis followed the wishes of the Trump administration—and like so many other Republican governors, sought above all to preserve an appearance of normality. He delayed closing bars and restaurants until after the end of the 2020 spring break. He ended restrictions early, allowing all Florida businesses to reopen in September. The state of Florida never imposed a mask mandate, and DeSantis forbade local governments from collecting any fines for violations of their own mandates.* Perhaps his most consequential decision was to reopen Florida schools to in-person learning in August 2020.
These actions were bitterly controversial. Yet their net result on morbidity and mortality was strangely modest. Florida ranks in the middle of the 50-state pack in cases and deaths over the course of the pandemic: 23rd in cases, 28th in deaths.
Meanwhile, DeSantis can point to two big wins for his state attributable to his policies.
The first is that the unemployment rate in Florida never spiked as high as it did in some other states. As of March, Florida’s unemployment rate stood at 4.7 percent, placing it 19th in the country; California’s was at 8.3 percent.
The second, and probably even more important for the long term, is that Florida opened its schools to in-person learning in August, putting students back in classrooms, even as instruction in many other states remained remote.
Derek Thompson: The curious case of Florida’s pandemic response
The DeSantis message for 2024: I kept adults at work and kids at school without the catastrophic effects predicted by my critics. Because I didn’t panic, Florida emerged from the pandemic in stronger economic shape than many other states—and a generation of Florida schoolchildren continued their education because of me. Pretty powerful, no?
DeSantis’s rise also owes much to his critics. The Florida governor has figured out that Republicans love a culture-war brawl, but that overdoing it can alienate a general-election electorate. His solution has been to provoke narrowly targeted fights over issues that matter a lot to highly engaged conservatives and liberals—but that will not mean much to anybody else come 2024.