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Op-Ed: Florida Man and the future of the Republican Party

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at a news conference.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference in Doral, Fla. on May, 14, 2020.
(Associated Press)

You know all those “Florida man” stories? “Florida man arrested for throwing alligator through drive-thru window,” “Florida man learns hard way he stole laxatives, not opioids,” etc.?

There are several theories for why Florida men stand out so much, starting with Florida is just weird. The most interesting involves the “streetlight effect,” a logical fallacy inspired by the old joke about the drunk who looks for his lost car keys only under a streetlight because that’s where the light is good — something you could definitely see Florida Man doing.

The Sunshine State has robust “sunshine laws,” making it easy to get arrest information quickly. Hence, according to this theory, Florida Man is no more outlandish than, say, California Man, it’s just that we can see Florida man under the media’s streetlight.

Interesting theory. Let’s test it out.

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Three Florida Men — Donald Trump, Rep. Matt Gaetz and Gov. Ron DeSantis — define the Republican Party these days. Trump — a recently minted Floridian — surely deserves outsized attention as much as he craves it. He and his enablers are determined to keep the GOP in his thrall. Just over the weekend, Trump told a group of donors at Mar-a-Lago that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was a “dumb son of a b----,” and repeated his bogus claims about the election being stolen.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a leading Trump toady, is in the crosshairs of the FBI and a House ethics investigation for alleged sex trafficking of a minor. That feels very homo floridus. That’s two for the Florida-is-weird column.

Then there’s Gov. Ron DeSantis. He has also played the role of Trump superfan and is adept at arousing media anger, a job requirement on the right these days, but unlike Gaetz — and, frankly, Trump — he actually knows how to govern effectively.

Politically, the key difference between DeSantis and Gaetz is that Gaetz garners media attention by making an ass of himself, while DeSantis makes the media look asinine when it tries to make him out to be nothing more than a Trump wannabe.

The fact is, DeSantis did better with the public than Trump during the worst times of the COVID-19 pandemic and his support continues to rise in Florida. Before the pandemic, his governing agenda won him a 62% approval rating. In this case, his critics won’t gain much traction by tarring him as another Florida weirdo. In fact, outlandishly unfair attacks, like CBS’s recent “60 Minutes” report on DeSantis, are likely to gain him more support.

Some conservative pundits are already focusing on DeSantis as the face of the post-Trump right. But it’s early yet. Just ask former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, once also hailed as a fighter who’d save the GOP.

The comparison with Wisconsin is instructive. For years, the Badger State punched well above its weight nationally, with Walker, former House Speaker Paul Ryan and former Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus dominating the GOP. Now it’s Florida’s turn.

Trump explains some of that. The yearly Conservative Political Action Conference is essentially an arm of Trump Inc. now. Republican politicians are required to decamp for Mar-a-Lago to ask for favor or forgiveness from Trump. Trump even holds auditions for his endorsement.

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But handicappers shouldn’t just focus on the political Florida Man stories. The GOP’s path out of the wilderness may be a long one, but it will start in Florida. Republicans can’t win the electoral college without the state. Moreover, Florida is one of America’s most demographically representative battleground states. Wisconsin’s hegemony brought one set of issues — Ryan’s fixation on entitlements, for example — to the fore, while Florida’s ascendancy could further push up issues like school choice on the Republican agenda.

Also, not only does Florida regularly produce Republican politicians who know how to appeal to a diverse electorate, it has a diverse electorate that is open to electing Republicans.

For years, Democrats took the slogan “demography is destiny” too seriously, believing that a growing electorate of nonwhite voters would guarantee victory. Florida defies those lazy assumptions.

In 2018, running against Andrew Gillum, the African American mayor of Tallahassee, DeSantis got 44% of the Latino vote and 30% of the nonwhite vote. And Trump himself improved with Latino voters in 2020.

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So, score two out of three for Florida men bringing some special weirdness to the table. Still, it remains to be seen whether DeSantis can ultimately get out of Trump’s shadow and into the light or whether the Florida Man-in-Chief will even let him.

@JonahDispatch


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