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December 12, 2023

What Happened to Ron DeSantis?

The Florida governor who seemed such a promising prospect just a year ago is now at risk of falling to third place.

Ron DeSantis is running as the true-blue conservative in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

And he’s learning the hard way that Republicans don’t nominate true-blue conservatives.

As Donald Trump leads every poll by double-digits, the Florida governor who seemed such a promising prospect just a year ago is now at risk of falling to third place.

If Nikki Haley bests DeSantis in Iowa, his 2024 campaign won’t be the only casualty; his hopes of ever becoming president will dim, and rivals won’t fear him as they look to ‘28 or '32.

How did DeSantis go from a 19-point reelection only a year ago to a fight for his political life today?

He’s been a successful governor during trying times, and he’s never shy about comparing his COVID record to President Donald Trump’s.

At a moment when university presidents are under fire, even resigning, for their capitulation to campus radicalism, DeSantis has shown Republicans how to get tough with higher ed and compel schools like New College of Florida to change.

DeSantis takes a stronger line against abortion and transgenderism than Haley does, and he insists that he’s a better fiscal conservative than Trump proved to be.

He’s at the forefront of immigration battles, too, and if his foreign policy doesn’t satisfy either hawks or doves, he seems attuned to the cautious disposition of Republican voters today.

His record and rhetoric make DeSantis an outstanding candidate for the Republican right.

But in 2016 Trump taught the Republican right a lesson that it quickly forgot.

A real-estate tycoon and reality-TV host without a day of experience in office — and with a history of moderate or even liberal statements — swept away a whole field of GOP contenders with iron-clad conservative credentials.

If Republicans were looking to nominate a leader who checked all the boxes of conservative orthodoxy, they could have picked Ted Cruz or Scott Walker or practically any of the 2016 aspirants other than Trump.

Yet as singular as Trump was and is, the failure of his conservative rivals was typical of how the right has fared in Republican presidential contests.

The two George Bushes, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney — not a single one of them was a true-blue conservative icon.

Neither was Richard Nixon or Dwight Eisenhower.

Barry Goldwater was Mr. Conservative when he won the nomination in 1964, but for a race most Republican leaders considered unwinnable.

Since World War II, the only conservative’s conservative to get the nomination at a time when the party thought it could prevail was Ronald Reagan.

That’s why Reagan remains the singular totem of conservative orthodoxy and practically the only role-model any Republican hopeful cites to prove his or her bona fides — though DeSantis deserves credit for referencing Calvin Coolidge in last week’s debate.

It’s not that Republican voters aren’t generally conservative.

It’s simply that they’re not thoroughly, consistently and single-mindedly conservative.

When a politician stakes his campaign on a demonstration of how thorough, consistent and philosophically pure he is, he might impress conservative journalists and policy wonks, but they don’t pick the nominee.

DeSantis isn’t too conservative to win, but his campaign sells him like spinach — as if it’s irrelevant whether voters like him, so long as they acknowledge that he’s right.

The campaign also fell for the myth of a “moment.”

The DeSantis reelection triumph generated endless pundit chatter about how his “moment” had arrived — much as in 2014 journalists dazzled by recent successes of the Tea Party declared that a “libertarian moment” was upon us.

And a moment was all it was.

There have always been three problems with taking DeSantis’ landslide in 2022 as indicative of his prospects in general.

The first is that his 2018 gubernatorial contest was as notable for its narrow margin as his victory last year was for its wide one.

DeSantis beat Andrew Gillum in that first race by less than half a percentage point.

2018 was a very good year for Democrats, so DeSantis still bucked a trend — but only barely.

And a trend is the second reason his 2022 blowout needs to be contextualized — because that was a great year for incumbents in both parties, even if it was a disappointing cycle for Republicans overall.

The third problem with reading too much into DeSantis’ reelection is specific to that race: The Democratic Party was bitterly divided in Florida that year, with a party-switching ex-Republican, Charlie Crist, at the top of its ticket.

DeSantis’ reelection results were rock-solid, but they were never a sign his “moment” had come.

Now his future is on the line, and on the ballot in Iowa.

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