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What does a polarizing first term mean for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' reelection bid?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tonight, Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is facing off with his Democratic challenger, the former Florida governor Charlie Crist, in their first and only debate before next month's election. Polling shows DeSantis with an average 10 point advantage. And the outcome of the race might tell us how his leadership has resonated with Florida voters, like his response during the pandemic, pushing against federal guidance on masking and vaccines.

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RON DESANTIS: In Florida, we reject the biomedical security state, which erodes liberty, harms livelihoods and divides our society.

CHANG: Voters might also be thinking about his stances on education, like his push against critical race theory and his support for the bill that restricted how schools teach about LGBTQ topics.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What critics call the Don't Say Gay bill is on the Senate floor.

DESANTIS: Does it say that in the bill?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you support...

DESANTIS: Does it say that in the bill?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm asking...

DESANTIS: I'm asking you to tell me what's in the bill, because you are pushing false narratives. It doesn't matter what critics say.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hold on. It says the advanced classroom instruction on sexual identity and gender orientation.

DESANTIS: For who? For grades pre-K through 3.

CHANG: More recently, voters have watched DeSantis respond to Hurricane Ian and, separately, his controversial decision to fly dozens of migrants from Texas to Massachusetts.

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DESANTIS: But yes, if you have folks that are inclined to think Florida is a good place, our message to them is we are not a sanctuary state, and it's better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction. And yes...

CHANG: And a reelection for DeSantis could have some national political stakes beyond the midterms. We're going to talk about all of that with Emily Mahoney, political editor for the Tampa Bay Times.

Welcome.

EMILY MAHONEY: Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: So it might be worth remembering, as we listen to some of those moments that we just mentioned above - you know, Ron DeSantis, he wasn't always seen as someone so aligned with former President Trump. Like, when did that shift happen for DeSantis, would you say?

MAHONEY: Well, his rise to prominence has been really fascinating to follow. So I covered his campaign in 2018. And back then, you have to remember he was a somewhat unknown congressman representing the northeast part of Florida. And he was able to win that election in large part because he was endorsed by then-President Donald Trump. He won over a much more established Republican in the primary and squeaked out a victory, just barely, in the general.

But then when he took office, there was a sort of a honeymoon period where he championed a lot of bipartisan issues for about the first year of his administration - teacher pay, raising teacher salaries was a big one, cleaning up Florida's waterways. Some Democrats were expressing surprise that this guy who they expected to be really hard right was really sort of finding compromise.

And really all of that changed when the pandemic hit. He really embraced this combative style of rejecting the advice of pretty much the medical establishment and wanted Florida to be out in front early, opening up schools, opening up businesses. He, you know, prohibited local municipalities from enforcing mask mandates, for example. And so that really, I think, accelerated his rise to national prominence. And he's really found this rhythm of being on the national stage and positioning himself as a foil to President Biden and what he calls the radical left sort of on a daily basis.

CHANG: I want to pivot to a moment to his challenger. This is former Governor Charlie Crist. And just to remind people, Crist was a Republican himself when he was governor more than a decade ago but switched his party affiliation back in 2012. It is worth noting that even with more voters registered as Republican in Florida compared to years past, there are still a number of unaffiliated voters in the state. What do you think might sway them to Crist?

MAHONEY: Yeah. Well, that's always the big question in Florida. We have so many independent voters here. And I think that if you asked for that question of Crist, he would say probably abortion. He has been hammering his abortion messaging constantly in the last few weeks and has been warning voters that if DeSantis is reelected, that he will pass an even more stringent ban on abortion than what exists currently, which is a 15-week ban with no exceptions. And so I think that that's where he is hedging his bets.

And I would say that the Republicans believe that it is the issue of the economy. That has sort of been their closing argument in the state of Florida. And I think, you know, the results will sort of start to tell us which issue is resonating more.

CHANG: I also want to talk a little bit about the effect Hurricane Ian might have on this race. Like, earlier this month, we had reporting on how Florida has had to scramble to get polling places ready after Hurricane Ian. How is that recovery and response impacting the race politically, you think?

MAHONEY: It impacted the race in a really big way, I would say. Charlie Crist has had an uphill battle from the start because of his huge disadvantage with fundraising, for example. But he was starting to pick up some momentum before the hurricane hit. He had some planned fundraisers. And all of that was scrapped because of the hurricane.

Instead of that, what we saw was DeSantis on television standing next to Biden. And, you know, all that does is really position DeSantis as looking gubernatorial at solving an issue in a bipartisan way, which is popular with voters and really sort of marginalize any conversation about Crist for a few weeks. One Democratic pollster said it was sort of the final nail in the coffin for Charlie Crist.

CHANG: Well, of course, winning a second term as governor for DeSantis could help put him in a better position to possibly run for president in 2024. Can you just remind us, like, what signals has DeSantis given recently suggesting he really does plan to run for the White House?

MAHONEY: Well, if you ask him about it publicly, he'll always downplay it and say that, you know, everyone is obsessed with 2024, but I'm just focused on winning 2022. But he has continued to hold fundraisers around the state. He's campaigned for other Republican candidates. So he's kind of lending his star power in a way that is sort of Trumpian. And so I think that that's really undeniable in terms of fueling the 2024 buzz.

CHANG: So what do you think? Has DeSantis' first term as governor put him on a clear path to run for president, or do you think he may have alienated too many voters nationally to make a realistic run for the White House?

MAHONEY: I think that his first term has definitely positioned him to run for a 2024 Republican primary. Like we talked about, he has this combative political style that's popular with Republicans and really has positioned himself as a national figure among Republicans. Now, whether that translates to a general presidential win, it's very hard to say, obviously. It's a lot of sort of hypotheticals built into that. But, you know, the sort of elephant in the room here, no pun intended, is Donald Trump as well, which, you know, if he were to run against DeSantis in a hypothetical 2024 race, that obviously complicates things for Governor DeSantis considering he owes much of his political rise to Trump.

CHANG: That is Emily Mahoney, political editor with The Tampa Bay Times. Thank you so much.

MAHONEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.