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Sayfie Review Featured Column

by Dr. Susan MacManus
December 13, 2018


Susan A. MacManus

U. of South Florida Distinguished University Professor Emerita


Florida has a history of having very close, competitive elections, and 2018 was no different. Florida’s gubernatorial race, along with its U.S. Senate and Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services (a statewide Cabinet post) contests each required a statewide recount to certify the winner.1

Two GenXers Take the Stage…Unexpectedly

Republican Ron DeSantis’s margin-of-victory over Democrat Andrew Gillum was 0.4 percent (32,463 votes out of over 8.2 million cast)—the state’s closest gubernatorial election ever! The closeness of the race was never really in doubt. A 1% margin-of-victory had characterized both the 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial elections and the 2012 and 2016 presidential races. The candidates, both Gen Xers, were opposites insofar as their campaign strategies and platforms. Neither had been regarded as front-runners in their own party’s primary at the beginning of the 2018 midterm cycle. Neither had run statewide races before—DeSantis being a three-term member of Congress, Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee.

The Primary Contests

In the Republican primary, DeSantis ran a very unconventional campaign—relying heavily on a few tweets from President Trump2 and 122 appearances on Fox News Channel, largely in support of President Trump, to beat Adam Putnam, the well-known Agriculture Commissioner and former Congressman and state legislator. DeSantis’ strategy was to use President Trump to energize Republican voters who normally sit out a midterm primary. Trump came to the Republican-rich Tampa Bay media market July 31and held a big rally in support of DeSantis—just weeks ahead of the August 28 primary.  

Democrat Andrew Gillum—the unapologetically progressive African American mayor of Tallahassee—shocked everyone with a win over four Democratic opponents, each with far more money than he, including Philip Levine, the former mayor of Miami Beach, Gwen Graham, a former Congress member and daughter of Democratic icon Sen./Gov. Bob Graham, Jeff Greene a south Florida billionaire, and Chris King, a wealthy young entrepreneur.  Gillum won with an unconventional primary campaign—a grassroots effort with lots of in-person appearances (259) aimed at younger and minority voters who historically have had the lowest turnout rates in August midterm primaries. Gillum’s strategy reflected an intimate knowledge of Florida’s changing demographics—the rising electorate—and how to communicate with and energize them. He also clearly benefitted from his opponents splitting the rest of the Democratic base.

The General Election Campaign

After winning the primary, DeSantis had to play catch-up in the grassroots outreach game, working hard to win over staunch Putnam supporters who greatly resented the President’s intervention in the primary. His in-person appearances increased, while his Fox News Channel appearances decreased considerably. DeSantis’s campaign was far less issue-intensive than Gillum’s. Instead, the Republican chose to focus on Gillum’s shortcomings—his socialist platform, an FBI investigation of activities during his tenure as mayor, along with the city’s high crime rate.  His casting of Gillum as a socialist was a message that resonated more with high turnout older white voters and Hispanics with ties to Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Colombia.

For much of the campaign, GOP voter engagement lagged. National events eventually sparked Republican enthusiasm—specifically the Kavanaugh hearings and the migrant caravan—along with corruption accusations against Gillum that got considerable attention in the last debate prior to the election (October 24). Late rallies by Trump in two heavily Republican strongholds (Ft. Myers and Pensacola) promoting DeSantis and U.S. Senate candidate Rick Scott ramped up turnout.3

DeSantis was unapologetically “pro-Trump” throughout the campaign, choosing to distance himself from the president only a few times following Trump tweets about Puerto Rico—his opposition to statehood and claims that the number of deaths attributed to Hurricane Maria was inflated. DeSantis, well-aware of the growing Puerto Rican population in Florida, did not agree with either statement. After the election was over he began to signal a desire to tamp down the partisan divide. During the recount when it appeared DeSantis had won, he privately urged the president to tone down his claims that election fraud was rampant in the Sunshine State. Then in several post-election speeches, he promised Floridians that as governor he will set aside his harsh partisan campaign tone and work to bring people together. A huge question is whether he will actually take on a less-Trump-like governance style. (The motive is there—to broaden his support after a nail-biter of an election.)

In contrast to DeSantis, Gillum made his campaign more proactive, stressing what he proposed to do in Tallahassee and in Washington to help those left behind (“Bring it home, Florida”): increase the corporate income tax to spend more on education, reform the criminal justice system, automatically restore felon voting rights, increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, raise the starting pay for teachers to $50,000, expand Medicaid, support Medicare for All, and protect the federal Affordable Health Care Act, especially coverage of persons with pre-existing conditions. Gillum’s strong anti-Trump language and support of congressional impeachment proceedings and reduced Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authority helped draw an even clearer line of distinction between him and DeSantis. So, too, did Gillum’s repeated attacks on DeSantis for racially insensitive remarks and past appearances at events featuring some white supremacist speakers.

10 Big Challenges Facing Gov. DeSantis

The three-term former congressmember Ron DeSantis4 takes office January 8, 2019 with considerably less knowledge of state/local than national issues. He is well aware of the GOP’s slimmer margins-of-victory in the top two races (U.S. Senate, Governor), and Democratic pick-ups of one Cabinet post (Agriculture Commissioner), 2 congressional seats (delegation is now 14Rs, 13Ds), 1 state senate seat, and 5 state house seats.  

DeSantis faces a Florida electorate that is changing in its age and racial/ethnic composition. The three youngest generations (GenXers, Millennials, and GenZers)5 now make up 53% of Florida’s registered voters—a figure projected to go up as 1.4 million felons have their voting rights restored. These younger Floridians are more racially/ethnically diverse than older generations, more likely to register as independents (No Party Affiliation), and more liberal in their policy preferences. The 2018 midterm results saw an increase in young women and minorities running for and winning posts up and down the ballot, reflecting the desire of these voters to “put new faces in high places” and to govern in a more collegial fashion.

These three dynamics—less in-depth knowledge of Florida specific issues, an even more politically divided state, and a changing electorate that is electing more young, racial/ethnic, and female candidates to public office—will affect virtually all of the more process- and policy-oriented challenges identified below.


Executive Branch Challenges

  1. Appointing new staff and agency heads. DeSantis is benefitting from Gov. Rick Scott’s help with his transition and appears to be avoiding a major mistake made by Scott—bringing in a team of inexperienced staffers and department heads, with little insight as to how state government runs.  DeSantis has brought in as his chief-of-staff Shane Strum who was appointed by Governor Jeb Bush to a south Florida hospital board6, served as chief-of-staff under former Republican Charlie Crist7, and was GOP Gov. Rick Scott’s transition team leader. Strum has private sector experience as an executive with a large healthcare system. The executive director of DeSantis’s transition team, Susie Wiles, his campaign manager, knows Florida backwards and forwards, and is well aware of the challenges facing both the state and the Republican Party of Florida.8 So, are the four co-chairs of his transition team.9

    Selection of agency heads for the Departments of State, Corrections, Environmental Protection, Economic Opportunity, Children and Families, Health, Education, and Juvenile Justice, along with the Agency for Health Care Administration (ACHA) and Enterprise Florida (a public-private agency) will be some of the most closely watched.  Each deals with contentious issues and receives extensive scrutiny by relevant interest groups and the media. Also likely to be heavily scrutinized is the effectiveness of the governor’s selection of the next Republican Party of Florida leader at a time when the party is being criticized for its inadequate outreach to minority and female voters.   

    A key question is whether DeSantis’ agency heads will be staunchly conservative partisans in the mold of Trump administration officials or include some moderate Republicans and a Democrat or two. In other words, will the DeSantis executive team be more like Trump’s or closer to a Jeb Bush or Charlie Crist team? And will his team include more executives with both private and public sector experience?

  1. Assigning responsibilities to the Lt. Governor. Under the Florida Constitution, the primary responsibility of the Lt. Gov. is to succeed to the governorship should something prevent the current governor from serving. Beyond that, each governor has decided what responsibility(ies) to assign the Lt. Governor. DeSantis chose as his running mate Jeanette Núñez, a popular and well-respected longtime female legislator from Miami who had served as speaker pro tempore the previous two years. Undoubtedly, she will help him maneuver the Republican-controlled state legislature because he comes to office without strong legislative relationships. But will he also use her as an emissary to Florida’s growing Hispanic populations? To connect with female voters at a time when few GOP women hold high positions?  (She will be Florida’s first Hispanic female Lt. Governor.)

  1. Interactions with the Cabinet. Florida’s governor, together with the Cabinet (statewide elected Attorney General, Chief Financial Officer, Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services) or some of its members sit as the governing bodies of about a dozen boards, commissions, departments, and divisions.  The dynamics of the Cabinet have changed considerably with the election of two new members—both female and friends from their law school days. One is a Democrat (Ag Commissioner), the other a Republican (AG). The new Ag Commissioners becomes Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat. At a minimum, Cabinet decisions are less likely to be unanimous as under the previously all Republican Cabinet. An interesting dynamic to watch is whether splits will occur along party or gender lines.

  1. Implementing campaign priorities. In his victory speech, DeSantis talked about “keeping our economy growing, improving our water quality and environment, promoting public safety and expanding educational opportunities…[building] a Florida that is cleaner, safer, stronger.”10 There is no better statement of a governor’s priorities than the proposed budget. DeSantis’ first budget proposal (estimated to be almost $90 billion) to the Florida Legislature is due in early February no later than 30 days before the start of the 2019 session (March 5).

    On the economy, DeSantis has promised to follow Gov. Scott’s “Jobs” blueprint. But a big question is if, and to what extent, he supports a pure market approach or one offering economic incentives to attract businesses and investments, especially if the economy takes a downward turn. And, of course, how successful will he be at pushing his agenda through the Republican-controlled legislature under new leaders and with more Democratic members (House: 73R-47D; Senate: 23R-17D)11.  

Legislative Branch Challenges

  1. Getting Governor’s Agenda Through the Legislature. Early projections are for the governor and the Republican legislature to be on the same page regarding no new taxes, continued opposition to Medicaid expansion, litigation cost containment, regulatory relief and support for the expansion of school choice options. It is less clear how successful the governor will be in imposing more restrictions on abortions, which he favors. It is also unclear whether he and the Lt. Gov. can effectively ease historical tensions between the two chambers, although his chief-of-staff Strum has close ties to both the Speaker and the Senate President. Key trouble spots, often sparking geographically-based differences among legislators, are likely to be over funding for transportation, schools, affordable housing, health care, corrections and criminal justice reform, and the environment (especially sea-level rise, climate change, and seismic blasting off Florida coast).

    Another big question mark is not so much whether there will be election reforms as what specific “fixes” will be adopted ahead of the 2020 election. High priority goals for Democratic legislators in both chambers are: banning assault weapons, expanding Medicaid, devising pro-active policies to deal with climate change, and promoting social justice—stronger protections for minorities, females, immigrants,12 and the LQBTQ community.

    Clearly, the new Speaker of the House José Oliva, an early DeSantis supporter, has health care reform based on free market principles as a top priority—but is his brand of reform in sync with others on the DeSantis team with extensive health care experience? The new President of the Senate, Bill Galvano, has a different top priority—improving the state’s infrastructure (transportation, water, communications) to keep the economy strong and keep up with growth. Each leader has appointed strong members to their Appropriations committees—promising a real tug-of-war between the chambers and difficulty in crafting a compromise.  Interestingly, both leaders have also brought more females into top leadership and committee positions.13 Many studies suggest women are better compromisers in legislative bodies. The question is whether these women will truly have influence or just be there to shore up the GOP’s image as an inclusive party.14

  1. Implementation of amendments passed by voters. Florida voters approved 11 constitutional amendments ranging from automatic restoration of felons’ voting rights and voter control of gambling expansion to ending dog racing.  Democrats, environmental and felon rights advocacy groups, among others, will carefully be monitoring the Legislature’s implementation of amendments following past spending controversies related to an environmental amendment adopted by voters in 2014. The new governor will be expected to use his clout to push the legislature if it appears to be wavering—and the Florida media will be covering it closely.  

Judicial Branch Challenges

  1. Choosing 3 new Florida Supreme Court justices. Three of the Court’s 7 members must retire on January 8, 2019 due to Florida’s mandatory retirement age requirement (70). Ironically, Florida voters just voted to increase the retirement age to 75. These three retiring members are considered part of a 4-3 liberal majority; two are females, one of whom is an African American.  The same day the retirements take effect, Gov. DeSantis takes the oath of office. He has already been handed a list of 11 persons deemed qualified by the 9-member Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission (all are appointed by the governor by law). DeSantis, himself a lawyer, has publicly stated he will appoint “solid constitutionalists” to the three positions who will put an end to “judicial activism” on the high court. The selection of three conservative justices could make challenges to legislative and gubernatorial policies and procedures a bit less likely to pass, especially on hot topics like school funding, school choice, and the wording of proposed amendments. (Battles between the liberal Court and the conservative legislative and executive branches have been commonplace.)

    The lack of an African American on the list of 11 has already stirred objections from the NAACP and other legal groups.  The situation has reignited claims that DeSantis is racist—claims that were raised in the campaign when he used a term describing actions by Gillum that was interpreted to be racist.  DeSantis could face pressure to ask the JNC to send him additional names to choose from, including more blacks.15 There are already promises among Democratic legislators to change the law allowing governors to appoint all 9 JNC members.16

Intergovernmental Challenges: Federal and Local

  1. Relationships with President Trump, Florida’s U.S. Senate and congressional delegation. DeSantis has stated he is counting on his relationship with President Trump to help secure federal funding to help reduce environmental problems like algae blooms and red tide, fully restore the Everglades, and address the growing opioid problem. There is some speculation that he will ask the president to award Florida a Medicaid block grant to help the working poor.  But the reality is that the president cannot unilaterally take such actions. Appropriations are made by Congress. Following the 2018 election, the state now has 2 Republican U.S. Senators rather than a split delegation, and a nearly evenly-divided congressional delegation. DeSantis will surely experience opposition from a Democratically-controlled U.S. House and pressure from Florida Democratic congressmembers to push for Medicaid expansion, an assault weapon ban, and criminal justice reform, among other progressive policies.

  1. Looking ahead: U.S. Census and redistricting. It is never too soon for Florida’s congressmembers, state legislators, and the governor to be looking ahead to the 2020 Census and the 2022 redistricting that will follow.  Controversies over whether a citizenship question should be included in the 2020 Census will undoubtedly be raised by Democrats and local officials across the state and by Democratic Congressmembers from Florida.  The governor will have to weigh in on this volatile issue that will affect state and local finances as well as the number of congressional seats Florida will have following the release of official Census population figures. Currently, it is estimated Florida will gain two seats.  

  1. Continued organized efforts to protect local control.  The new governor faces continued opposition from local officials—county and city—and local businesses to state mandates, mostly unfunded.  The irony for many Republicans is that the party has traditionally stood for decentralized approaches to governance and economic growth, but recent legislative sessions have seen an increase in state attempts at centralization, mostly driven by legislative leadership.  This battle is not over and promises to be one Gov. DeSantis will be thrust into, especially if both the national and state economies worsen.

The Best Job Ever

DeSantis’ predecessors all agree that the best job in politics is being governor. Former Gov. Jeb Bush articulated why: “Governors have the power to reform, to innovate, to convene, to drive the conversation and to problem solve. They balance budgets, work across the aisle and are far more responsible for outcomes and accountable to their constituents than their federal counterparts are.” 17    

Gov. DeSantis, it’s your turn now!


1 Recounts were also required for one Florida Senate and two Florida House races. Following the infamous 2000 election, Florida had adopted rigorous recount triggers—if a candidate’s winning margin is 0.5 percent or less, a machine recount is mandatory. If after the machine recount, the margin is 0.25 percent or less, a hand recount of all under- and over-votes is required. Fortunately, the state uses optical scan voting systems that yield a paper trail.

2 The first Trump tweet was in December 2017 after seeing DeSantis on a Fox News Channel program: “Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader, Yale and then Harvard Law, who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida. He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!”

3 Turnout among voters living in the Naples-Ft. Myers media market (67%) was the highest of any of the state’s 10 markets; Pensacola market turnout was 61%--but higher than expected on the heels of the devastating Hurricane Michael. The statewide turnout rate was 63%.

4 DeSantis resigned September 10, 2018 to focus on his general election campaign.

5 Pew Research Center definitions of generations: Greatest (born before 1928), Silent (1928-1945), Baby Boomer (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), Millennial (1981-1996), Generation Z (After 1996).

6 Governor Jeb Bush appointed him to South Broward Hospital District Board of Commissioners; Strum served as Board Chair 2001-2009.

7 During his tenure in the Crist administration, he was a strong advocate for strategic planning for transportation and infrastructure, along with higher education reform.

8 Wiles, a sought-after Republican strategist from Jacksonville, ran Donald Trump's successful 2016 campaign and was a key adviser to Rick Scott in his first successful race for governor (2010). She is a lobbyist for Ballard Partners, a Tallahassee-based lobbying firm with strong connections to Trump and an office in Washington DC.

9 Congressman Matt Gaetz (a “Trump acolyte”), former Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran (a staunch supporter of school choice), former U.S. Senator George LeMieux (appointed by Gov. Crist to fill a vacancy), and former Lt. Gov. and twice president of the Florida Senate, Toni Jennings.

10 Lloyd Dunkelberger, News Service of Florida, “Ron DeSantis’ Win Paves way for Conservative Edge on Florida Supreme Court,” November 7, 2018.

11 66 new legislators out of 120 were sworn into office after the 2018 election—46/120 in the House, 20/40 in the Senate. Among the 46 House freshmen; 24R, 22D; Among the 20 Senate freshmen, 11D, 9R.

12 On the campaign trail, DeSantis strongly supported the adoption of a mandatory E-Verify process in Florida.

13 Galvano chose Kathleen Passidomo as Senate majority leader because of her reputation for being a consensus builder able to work well with both Democrats and Republicans.

14 DeSantis did not fare as well among Florida’s female voters (only 43%) as Gillum, especially among college-educated white women. And a higher number of Democratic than Republican women were elected to the Florida Legislature: 7 women (4 Ds, 3 Rs) of 40 state senators and 36 women (23 Ds, 13 Rs) of 120 state House members.

15 The JNC interviewed 59 candidates, including six black applicants.

16 In 1991, the Legislature passed a law granting the governor the power to name all the nine JNC members with staggered terms. Prior to that, the governor named three, the Florida Bar Association and the commission itself each chose three more members.

17 Jeb Bush, “Jeb Bush has advice for new governors: Ignore DC’s ‘gridlock, dysfunction and arrogance’.” Tallahassee Democrat, November 1, 2018.