Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the six-week abortion ban into law late at night on April 13, 2023. Credit: governor’s office
The young, popular Republican governor made a national name for himself by imposing a conservative agenda in what had been considered a swing state; early polls showed him a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination.
And then the bottom dropped out following less-than-impressive performances in debates and other national forums. By September 2015, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker withdrew from the race.
“Walker could claim a lot of credit with conservatives for the dramatic policy changes he put in in Wisconsin, essentially eliminating public-sector unions, new restrictions on teachers, and so on. He had a real platform there, love it or hate it,” Charles Frankin, professor of law and public policy at Marquette University, recalled in a telephone interview with the Phoenix.
“But when he got on the campaign trail and started getting questions about national policy issues — and the most extreme case went to London and gave an interview at an international policy forum there and proved incapable of saying a single word about international relations — is when I think I saw his campaign really collapse,” Franklin said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis faces the same situation now, as he shows every sign of entering the 2024 Republican primaries for president but has begun dropping in the polls.
For example, the FiveThirtyEight polling average shows a decline in the governor’s favorability rating from 44.5% on Jan. 19 to 40.6% as of Tuesday. Donald Trump led in the site’s GOP primary polling average with 49.3% against 26.2% for DeSantis, with other contenders in single digits. He still leads Trump among his home-state voters, however.
Can he still parlay his strong reelection last year into national success? Will his pugnacious stances on base-pleasing issues like abortion, immigration, and transgender rights help or hurt him with voters in key states? Especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court has turned abortion rights into more than a theoretical debate?
In recent weeks, DeSantis has signed into law an unpopular six-week abortion ban, the consequences of which will reverberate throughout the South, and allowed people to carry concealed weapons without training or permits. He has vastly expanded taxpayer-funded private-school tuition; limited the ability to sue insurance carriers amid an affordability crisis in that industry; and pushed the Legislature to limit civil rights for transgender people.
The governor has been signing those bills into law between trips to key presidential-testing states to promote his campaign book and give speeches. And although he was highly visible leading the recovery from Hurrican Ian, he has been conspicuously AWOL as South Florida suffered major flooding and gasoline shortages.
And what about Trump, who arguably made the difference in DeSantis’s squeaker of an election win in 2018 but now is lobbing insults at his potential challengers?
Survey of states
To try to figure this out, the Phoenix contacted political analysts in Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, and Wisconsin — battleground states plus the site of the first GOP caucus. To no surprise, we learned that his positions on social issues could help him in Republican primaries but also could weigh him down in general elections. Also, that the qualities that made him a popular governor in Florida might not translate to national politics.
“My question — and I don’t have any idea on this with DeSantis — is can he talk about those national and international issues that Scott Walker, despite his state achievements, proved incapable of talking about?” Frankin said.
Here’s what the experts told us:
It’s not clear DeSantis’ “Free State of Florida” shtick will fly out West, where the deeply ingrained libertarian streak leaves voters cool to social-scare politics, according to Paul Bentz, senior vice president for research and strategy at Highground Inc., a public affairs consultancy in Phoenix.
“Criminalization of abortion is not attractive to our swing demographics, many of whom live in our high-wage, high-income, high education-attainment area here in the Valley [of the Sun], in Maricopa County, along the 101 Freeway corridor where a lot of the tech companies have come,” he said in a telephone interview.
Politics in Iowa, on the other hand, eerily echo those in Florida, said David Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University.
Under Republican Gov. Kim Reyolds, Iowa has passed a transgender care for minors ban, plus universal vouchers for private schools using public dollars. Rural lawmakers blocked the latter bill last year, fearing it would starve public schools in their districts, but — in a DeSantis-like move — Reynolds ran primary opponents to secure the votes she needed, Peterson said.
DeSantis remains largely unknown in that Midwestern state, Peterson added. That won’t be a problem in Georgia, where TV news broadcasts from North Florida bleed into many counties.
“He probably at this point would be better known in Georgia than he would be in a lot of other states, because of the close proximity between the two states. He has to go out and introduce himself in places like New Hampshire and Iowa. But Georgia, yes, he’s got some visibility,” said politics professor Charles Bullock III of the University of Georgia.
Of course, the wild card remains abortion politics, which most recently allowed the Democratic-aligned candidate to win Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court election by 11 points. That’s not even popular in Florida, it would seem. In-state polling on the topic has been limited, but 75% of the respondents in a University of North Florida poll published March 9 said they opposed a six-week ban without exceptions for rape and incest, including 61% of Republicans. Note that the bill DeSantis signed does include those exceptions.
Nationally, a Reuters/Ipsos poll last week found that about half of Americans, including 44% of Republicans, strongly or somewhat oppose a national six-week abortion ban, and 43% of Republicans were less likely to vote for a politician who supports limiting access to abortion.
Arizona elected Democrats for U.S. Senate, governor, and secretary of state in 2022. Abortion was most salient, Bentz said, against Republican U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters because he’d made lurid comments about the issue, including that it was “demonic.” Kari Lake lost the governor’s race because she was seen as too close to Trump and Mark Finchem lost the secretary of state race because he was seen as too extreme on election denialism, Bentz said.
Abortion law is unsettled in the state, which has a total ban left over from territorial days and a 15-week ban passed since the Dobbs ruling that’s now tied up in court. The Republican-controlled legislature is solidly anti-abortion, but Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs is poised to veto any further restrictions, Bentz said. Attorney General Kris Mayes is a Democrat, too.
“Our electorate opposes the criminalization of abortion. At the same time, they don’t necessarily support open access. Polling abortion is very difficult because there are so many difference graduations,” Benz said.
It’s hard to know how the issue will rank compared to matters like the economy.
“When you talk about someone like DeSantis, I think abortion will be in the matrix of topics being discussed but I don’t think it will be the driver. While I don’t believe somebody like Donald Trump could win Arizona in 2024, I do think that DeSantis could have a chance. We are still a red-leaning state; there is a significant number of the swing audience that makes its decision from race to race — and certainly reproductive rights are one of those topics that drives that, but the economy and inflation certainly impact that as well.
“I would be more interested in how DeSantis navigates election integrity and security, the so-called theft of these elections. I think that would play a very interesting and maybe even a larger driver of his ability and viability in Arizona than abortion.”
Election security works as an issue in Arizona in general terms but not if it extends to restricting voting, Bentz said (as DeSantis did last year in Florida; legislation now pending provides for additional restrictions). Another consideration is that Arizona doesn’t start counting drop-box votes until election-day ballots are in, leading to lengthy delays for the vote count. People there are impressed that Florida counts its ballots as efficiently as it does.
“He gets to take credit for that, whether or not he did that or not.”
Bottom line for DeSantis: “He’s an unknown commodity and Trump is a very well-known commodity. I think he can take some of the conservative pieces that are attractive to that audience and to the audience that’s loyal to Trump but I think he has the ability to win back some of the people that the [Trump] cult of personality has lost.”
Bentz added: “I’d say his chances in the primary have certainly declined with the indictment of Trump. It will likely solidify the base even further behind the former president.”
However, “I still maintain that DeSantis would have a better chance than Trump to win Arizona in a general election.”
Bullock, of UGA, tells a story about DeSantis’ standing in Georgia.
“When DeSantis was announced at the [Florida-Georgia] game last September or October, he got a tremendous round of applause from the Georgia side of the stadium,” he said.
“Florida you’d expect, but the Georgia side — usually anything related to Florida, Georgia would have no positive response to. They did have a very positive response to DeSantis.”
Gov. Brian Kemp was ahead of DeSantis in pushing a six-week abortion ban, having promised in 2018 that “he would see that Georgia had the most restrictive law in the nation, and in the first few months after he took office Georgia passed a six-week law,” Bullock said.
It’s not popular. “No. Most Georgians are not in favor of that, but the Republicans are very much in favor of it,” he said. Same goes for transgender rights and DeSantis’ migrant flights. “Those would be popular with Republicans, not popular at all with Democrats,” Bullock said.
And Trump poses a major obstacle to DeSantis’ ambitions, at least among Republicans.
Republican voters are fond of DeSantis, but if the choice was between DeSantis and Trump, they would more often than not take Trump.
– Charles Bullock III
“That would be a difficult choice for some voters. Trump remains more popular among Georgia Republicans than DeSantis. Republican voters are fond of DeSantis, but if the choice was between DeSantis and Trump, they would more often than not take Trump,” Bullock said.
“The general election, DeSantis might well perform better. Georgia during the past few election cycles, Joe Biden carried the state; [Democrat] Raphael Warnock won twice; [Democrat] Jon Ossoff has won once [in U.S. Senate races]. The item that unites them is that they were either running against Trump or someone very closely associated with Trump.
“Now, our 2022 elections for constitutional offices, the two weakest Republicans, obviously, were [Herschel] Walker; the second weakest was the individual running for lieutenant governor, Burt Jones, and he was very closely aligned with Trump.
“The best performance came out of Brad Raffensberger, obviously not associated with Trump; and the third best was our governor, who picked up more votes than he had in 2018. The one in second place would be the insurance commissioner. Trump had candidates who were running against all three of those.”
In other words: “The closer they are with Trump, the more difficult it is for them. They have a bit of distance, they’ll do better in the general election.”
In Iowa, Gov. Reynolds signed a six-week abortion ban as long ago as 2018, but a state court blocked it the next year, citing the then-standing Roe v. Wade and a privacy-related precedent by the Iowa Supreme Court. Reynolds sought a rehearing following Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, but a different state trial court ruled that the state must enact its ban all over again.
“I’m kind of surprised that Reynolds isn’t doing more to fight the block. My sense is that she’s trying to be a little careful and not go in too fast on that. But I think, generally, the Republican Party here is quite pro-life and they’ll be quite happy with what DeSantis is doing,” said Peterson of Iowa State.
The state congressional delegation and both U.S. senators are Republicans and every statewide constitutional officer except one, state auditor Rob Sand. They also control supermajorities in the state General Assembly and Senate. “It’s a Republican state,” Peterson said.
“Trump is popular, but I don’t think Trump is as popular as he is in other parts of the country. He didn’t win the Iowa caucus in 2016. He mobilized a lot of Republicans. He helped create the shift to becoming a Republican state. But do I think there’s a little bit of tiredness with Trump, a little concern he can’t win. DeSantis is probably going to be better liked.”
The state GOP in 2012 split almost equally between Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum, Peterson said: “A libertarian piece, a Christian conservative piece, and country-club Republicans. They were almost equal.”
Then-Gov. Terry Branstad chose Reynolds as his lieutenant governor to shore up his support with Christian conservatives, Peterson said. When he became ambassador to China, she became governor.
“She remolded the party in her image,” Peterson said. “She has really gotten her way on a lot of things — a lot like DeSantis, right?”
Franklin, who oversees the Marquette University Law School Poll, hasn’t surveyed the Wisconsin electorate since last fall. In his last national poll, conducted March 13-22, Trump led DeSantis among Republicans with 40 percent against 35 for the Florida governor.
Marquette plans its next national poll later this month and a Wisconsin survey in June.
The state’s electorate runs roughly 45% Republican to 44% Democratic, plus independents and nonpartisans, Franklin said. President Biden beat Donald Trump by 0.6 percentage points in 2020, or by 20,682 votes out of more than 3.2 million cast.
“It seems clear that he has built a following within the GOP and that following has grown steady over the last year,” Franklin said of DeSantis.
“The No. 1 thing that leaps out is that he is very well liked among Republicans who like Donald Trump, if not actually as well-liked among the anti-Trump Republicans. What that means is, his threat to Trump is a threat that’s coming from inside the house. It’s the risk to Trump that MAGA-type voters, Trump-supporting Republicans, will see DeSantis as an attractive new bearer of the torch going forward.
“Trump has easily fended off the never-Trumpers because they’re a small group — they’re somewhere between 10% and 25% of the party. But DeSantis is that rare person who really appeals within the MAGA coalition.
“The question, of course, is can he sustain that once Trump’s attacks begin in earnest, once the campaign begins in earnest. The one other thing to mention is that, as prominent has DeSantis has become, in our polling still around 20% of Republicans say they don’t know enough to have an opinion of him. Obviously, almost nobody lacks an opinion of Trump.”
Nationally since January 2022, the percentage of Republicans who told pollsters they knew little about DeSantis went down from 40% to around 20% as of March 2023, Franklin said.
In a Marquette national poll conducted March 13-22, 35% of respondents viewed DeSantis favorably and 46% unfavorably. Among Republicans, 69% viewed DeSantis favorably compared to 66% for Trump. In a head-to-head match with Biden, 41% preferred Biden against 42% for DeSantis, a virtual tie. Head to head against Trump, DeSantis scored 54% and Trump 46%.
But that was before Trump’s indictment on April 4 in Manhattan on charges arising from his alleged hush-money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, which prompted many Republicans to rally around the ex-president.
“During that time, his [DeSantis’] unfavorable ratings have virtually not moved among Republicans while his favorables have gone up. What that means is, as people got to know him within the party, they almost all developed a positive view of him. Very little evidence that growing name recognition also brought with it a price of at least a few more people with negative views of him,” Franklin said.
That doesn’t mean Wisconsin voters are fully aware of what DeSantis has been up to in Florida.
‘A fair number of takers’
Take DeSantis’ social politics: “Within the Republican Party, there will be a fair number of takers for that — people who embrace at least some of those things. Wisconsin has long had a strong right-to-life movement and continues to do so — that has been prominent in the state GOP for a long time.
“What we saw last fall, though, was the Republican gubernatorial candidate [Tim Michels] strongly embrace our current abortion law, which dates to 1849 and bans abortion except for the life of the mother, period.
“And the gubernatorial candidate said, yes, that law’s exactly what I think it should be. Which was a bold statement in the wake of the Dobbs decision,” Franklin said. Pushback within the party “led him to modify it only to the point of saying, well, if the legislature sent me a bill with rape and incest [exceptions]. Will of the elected representatives,” he continued. “And he lost by 3.4 points.”
Franklin’s conclusion: “A six-week ban would be more restrictive than what most people in Wisconsin would favor. It’s probably OK in a GOP primary; in fact, it may be a positive in the primary.”
As for DeSantis on immigration, Franklin sees that as “a good Republican issue. It plays on fears within the party but it’s also one that has some appeal in the general electorate. Maybe not putting people on planes to Martha’s Vineyard, but the broader concern of surges of undocumented people crossing the border. That is not to be dismissed as an unimportant issue,” he said.
What about DeSantis policy on critical race theory and the LGBTQ community?
“I really wonder whether this is going to have legs politically. Critical race theory had a flash in the pan moment that lasted a few weeks or months. Don’t hear much about it right now — maybe there [in Florida] but not here.
“Transgender issues are something that DeSantis or other Republicans might ride for a while. When we poll on transgender issues there’s a weird division between [people] strongly approving of the Supreme Court’s decision a few years ago saying that antidiscrimination law applies to LGBTQ people.”
But much higher percentage are OK with the ban on competition by transgender athletes, which might be exploitable during the primary and maybe general elections, he said.
As for the overall picture, perhaps Bullock has a point about DeSantis:
“He’d probably be the back-up quarterback. But we know how infrequently back-up quarterbacks get to play, right? As long as Trump is on the field, Ron’s going to be sitting on the bench,” he said.
Correction: The original version of this article misreported the year that Arizona elected Democrats for U.S. Senate, governor, and secretary of state. The correct year is 2022.
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