By ANTHONY IZAGUIRRE
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis won reelection to a second term Tuesday in a dominant victory over Democrat Charlie Crist, bolstering his rise as a prominent GOP star with potential White House ambitions.
DeSantis’ win continues a rightward shift for what was formerly the nation’s largest swing state, with voters in even the once Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County embracing a governor who framed his candidacy as a battle against what he characterized as the “woke agenda” of liberals.
“We fight the woke in the Legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die,” DeSantis told elated supporters during his victory speech, telling the crowd in closing, “I have only begun to fight.”
In the lead-up to the election, DeSantis harnessed the power of incumbency to assemble media, often on short notice and far outside major markets, for news conferences where he would spend significant time honing critiques of Democratic President Joe Biden, liberal policies and the mainstream media, delivered before cheering crowds.
He gained significant national attention during the start of the coronavirus pandemic through his outspoken opposition to continued lockdowns and to mask and vaccine mandates, and eventually displayed an eagerness to wade into nearly any cultural divide.
His ceaseless combative posture, and ability to leverage the power of state government to his will, endeared DeSantis to major GOP donors and built him into a natural heir to former President Donald Trump in the minds of some Republican voters.
Weeks before the election, DeSantis directed the state to fly groups of migrants from Texas to the upscale liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, as a protest over the federal government’s immigration policies at the southern border. DeSantis said the move was a way to make immigration a “front-burner issue” before the midterms, with his critics questioning the legality of the flights as they accused officials of lying to the passengers.
Election Day came as Florida continued to recover from the Category 4 Hurricane Ian, which slammed into the state in late September and killed more than 100 people and caused widespread damage.
Politically, the storm temporarily muted much of the bitter campaign rhetoric and provided DeSantis a platform to project a unifying tone as a competent crisis manager able to set aside the culture warrior and work with rivals such as Biden on response efforts.
The victory is certain to further speculation of a potential DeSantis presidential run. DeSantis has so far dodged questions on his possible Washington aspirations, skirting the subject repeatedly during his only gubernatorial debate with Crist in late October.
Trump, who credits himself for propelling DeSantis to a first term in the governor’s office, has teased a third presidential run and grown frustrated with DeSantis’ refusal to rule out a 2024 campaign, according to people familiar with Trump’s thinking. Late Monday, Trump told Fox News that DeSantis could “hurt himself badly” by running for president. Trump suggested he would reveal things about DeSantis “that won’t be very flattering,” while also saying he wasn’t in a “tiff” with the governor.
DeSantis was able to raise substantially more money than Crist, a 66-year-old Democrat who had previously served as a Republican governor of Florida from 2007 to 2011. Crist aimed his candidacy at moderate voters in Florida, criticizing DeSantis as a bully, as he sought to reverse a losing streak for Democrats in the state.
Crist resigned a congressional seat to run for governor this year but was forced to fend off barbs on the campaign trail about various stances held over his decades in Florida politics. In a short concession speech, Crist congratulated DeSantis and thanked supporters, saying his political career has been an “absolute blessing.”
Democrats, the minority party in the state government, faced considerable challenges in a state recently considered to be a perennial political battleground but that has drifted rightward. Trump won the state twice and Republicans have been aggressive in organizing at the local level and made a sustained push on voter registration.
Last year, the GOP notched more registered voters in the state than Democrats for the first time in modern history, and then continued to widen the gap into November.
In a major blow to Democrats on election night, DeSantis won the reliably blue Miami-Dade County, the first Republican to do so in two decades. The governor thanked the county specifically during his victory speech.
DeSantis’ cabinet will be filled with Republicans after the reelection wins of both Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and the victory of outgoing Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson as Agriculture Commissioner.
The economy weighed heavily on the minds of Florida voters. Three-quarters of them believe things in the country are heading in the wrong direction, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of more than 3,300 voters in Florida.
A slight majority of voters in Florida approve of DeSantis’ decision to send migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to northern Democratic states. A larger percentage of voters approve of how DeSantis handled hurricane relief in the state — about three-quarters — compared to how President Joe Biden handled things — about 6 in 10.
Some Democrats have admitted previous organizing and registration efforts in Florida had mostly centered around presidential races, and there were concerns that big donors and the national wing of the party might cede the state after recent losses and DeSantis’ growing popularity.
The Democratic Governors Association has bristled at that characterization and said it considers Florida a competitive battleground. The organization has spent $685,000 to help elect Crist, a spokesperson said.
Learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections.
And follow the AP’s election coverage of the 2022 elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections.
Associated Press reporter Mike Schneider contributed from Orlando, Florida.