Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics — Week of 1.21.24

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Ron DeSantis is down, and Susie Wiles must be loving it.

It never feels good to have your ideas shot down by the Governor of your same party. But Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Sen. Ileana Garcia felt that sting this week, and abruptly.

As Florida Republicans rapidly coalesce around Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential race after Ron DeSantis dropped out (more on that later), Patronis began touting a proposal to forward up to $5 million of taxpayers’ money to help stock the legal fund of politicians who are victims of “political discrimination.”

Garcia filed legislation earlier this month to set up the funds, before DeSantis called it quits. But with Trump being the only current big-name candidate dealing with endless legal trouble, it’s clear who this was designed for.

While DeSantis has since endorsed Trump, he is not endorsing the idea of sending taxpayer money to fund the billionaire’s legal defense.

Responding to a piece describing how some state Republicans backed the proposal, DeSantis commented, “But not the Florida Republican who wields the veto pen.”

And that comment abruptly killed the bill, which Patronis had promoted just days earlier. The same evening DeSantis posted that remark on Twitter, Garcia announced she was pulling the legislation from consideration.

DeSantis is taking a principled stance here. He’s spoken out repeatedly against the Trump prosecutions (most of which, let’s be clear, are not mere examples of “political discrimination”). Nevertheless, DeSantis doesn’t want Floridians being forced to pony up to defend Trump.

Still, this sets up an interesting dynamic between DeSantis and Trump. The former President demands unconditional loyalty to all who look to float in his orbit. Is this a one-off move by the Governor due to ideological reasons? Or is he setting up to be a thorn in Trump’s side going forward, regardless of his endorsement?

Only time will tell.

Now, it’s on to our weekly game of winners and losers.

Winners

Honorable mention: Obamacare. Florida hit a record this year, with more than 4.21 million Floridians signing up for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, in 2024.

That easily put Florida at the top of states enrolling in ACA coverage, topping second-place Texas by nearly 800,000 sign-ups.

“For decades, when it came to federal programs we could depend on to keep Americans covered, three were always top of mind — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, but now it’s crystal clear that we need to add a fourth — the Affordable Care Act,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

Florida lawmakers are attempting to pass major state legislation helping to boost the state’s health care workforce. Senate President Kathleen Passidomo is pushing that legislation.

That package will not include an expansion of Medicaid as allowed under the ACA. Florida is one of 10 states that have not expanded Medicaid coverage under the bill.

But as far as the meat of the ACA, Floridians appear to be willing buyers, as this year’s sign-up numbers show.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest winner: Florida Trump Republicans. With DeSantis now officially out of the race, the Florida Republicans who went long on Trump are seeing their big bet likely to pay off.

State Sen. Joe Gruters originally stood alone among state legislators when he backed Trump. Much of Florida’s congressional delegation was there early as well. And state Rep. Randy Fine kicked off another batch of state lawmakers backing Trump before DeSantis’ decision to drop out triggered a flood of state lawmakers endorsing the former President.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Kevin Marino Cabrera, a longtime supporter of Trump’s who served as the Florida State Director for his 2020 campaign, also appears to now be benefiting from his ties. Cabrera earned Trump’s endorsement late this past week in his bid for Republican Party of Florida Vice Chair.

And it should be said that unlike some in the GOP establishment ready to coronate Trump, this 2024 GOP Primary isn’t officially over. Yes, Trump appears to hold enough sway among a bare majority to win the nomination. But with court troubles abound for the former President, it’s not impossible for a bombshell to turn this race on its head and give Nikki Haley a bump.

That is, it’s likely Trump will be the 2024 nominee but not certain. What is certain, however, is that Florida is now officially Trump territory with the Governor out of the race. And those who saw that from the beginning will have that loyalty rewarded. Until, of course, they dare say the mildest critique of the King of Thin Skin. But for now, they are sitting pretty.

The biggest winner: Susie Wiles. And with Trump’s campaign sitting in the driver’s seat, it’s important to shout out the architect of his success.

After being forced out of DeSantis World years ago by Casey DeSantis in one of the biggest political miscalculations in Florida history, Wiles is surely reveling in DeSantis’ downfall.

Yes, Trump has a grip on his base all his own. But Wiles, along with other campaign pros like Chris LaCivita and James Blair, have helped give Trump something he lacked during his initial 2016 run: a real, disciplined team behind the scenes.

That helped Trump do something he couldn’t do in 2016 (despite his efforts to retcon history): win Iowa. He also edged out a win in New Hampshire. Those are two states where organization matters.

And yes, these wins have not been blowouts, despite Trump’s status as a former President. But that’s mostly due to Trump’s myriad flaws as a candidate and his perpetual polarizing nature. Wiles and the team behind the scenes are putting in the work necessary to deliver Trump another nomination. The General Election, of course, will be a tougher slog.

Wiles, certainly is dead set on delivering a winning campaign above all else. But if she’s being honest, seeing DeSantis forced to drop out after one race despite spending boatloads of cash is a close second. And there, it’s already mission accomplished.

Losers

Dishonorable mention: James Uthmeier. Despite Uthmeier’s seeming deep-seated disdain for this outlet, we’re not going to put the blame on him for DeSantis’ dumpster fire of a campaign.

Uthmeier, who served as the Governor’s Chief of Staff before moving to the campaign side and who has now moved back into that role, came on as his Campaign Manager late in the game. By that point, DeSantis had already nosedived in the polls, ceding his support to Trump because he was too afraid to take him on (a move he tried to correct far too late).

So this entry isn’t an outright condemnation of Uthmeier’s performance (though, of course, he didn’t exactly deliver the comeback Team DeSantis has been promising for months). Rather, he lands in the losers list for the simple fact that he spent all time in Iowa only to come trudging back to the same state-level Chief of Staff job.

Uthmeier seems like a DeSantis true believer and someone who will have a place in the Governor’s orbit for as long as he wants.

But that decision to hitch his future to DeSantis bombed out spectacularly when DeSantis’ campaign did the same. Now, Uthmeier is alongside the Governor playing out the string as DeSantis transitions into lame duck status.

Maybe he’ll have a spot in a future national DeSantis campaign. But if others in DeSantis World continue showing their complete inability to learn from past mistakes, the Governor will again end up right where he started.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest loser: DeSantis’ online comms team. Speaking of which, have the toxic, vindictive vultures on the Governor’s communications team learned absolutely nothing?

Bryan Griffin, Christina Pushaw, Jeremy Redfern and the whole crew were so wildly out of touch that they took America’s most popular Republican Governor and drove his approval ratings into a ditch.

And they were sure to be hateful to anyone perceived as a political enemy along the way. That includes turning on Fox News, the network which propped up DeSantis for months before recognizing what the rest of us did: He, and the people he empowered to speak on his behalf, don’t know how to communicate to the American electorate.

The comms clowns’ act certainly played well on the internet, a place where toxicity and hate-posting thrives thanks to the anonymity and distance it provides.

We certainly aren’t Team Haley when it comes to social media disclosure and growing up on the internet has shown the beauty, discovery and hilarious memes that this medium can provide. But we also recognize that yes, social media can be toxic and none were better at displaying that reality than this sideshow act of a communications staff.

So they riled up the trolls and drove engagement, yes. But they did so in a subset (angry trolls) of a subset (people who engage heavily online) of a subset (Republicans) so small that, well, we see just how much support that really got the Governor.

Did they admit some humility and change course? Did they even have the decency to just be quiet for a few weeks and reorient their strategy? No. They went back to the same hateful trolling and misinformation that put them here.

The legacy of this crew will be to serve as a case study on how not to run a comms operation that will be studied by politicos for decades. Enjoy your coping sessions, friends.

The biggest loser: DeSantis. But in the end, the buck stops with the Governor. He’s the face of the campaign. He’s the one who hired the people who failed behind the scenes. He’s the name people will remember when they bring up the worst-run campaigns in history.

Everyone reading this has surely already consumed the DeSantis retrospectives galore. There will likely be more to come. So we don’t want to rehash how DeSantis blew an ungodly amount of cash, or his inability to do retail politics, or his utter aversion to taking on Trump until it was way too late, his weird smile.

It’s easy to kick someone when they are down. But if we can be serious here for a second, none of us are perfect. Does Jeb Bush deserve to be a punchline because he went up against a historic wild card in Trump and didn’t know exactly how to navigate it? Does John McCain deserve criticism for failing in 2008 while he was running during a historic financial collapse triggered during an already unpopular Republican administration?

Sometimes, you get dealt a bad hand. It’s hard to navigate it. DeSantis would surely admit he made some mistakes. It happens. No one is perfect.

So DeSantis does not strictly deserve a deluge of criticism for those mistakes or the historically epic collapse of his campaign.

But make no mistake, he does deserve the deluge. And he deserves it for making the decision to run to begin with.

Coming off his 2022 re-election win, DeSantis was as much of a lock for the 2028 GOP presidential nomination that you could possibly be five to six years out from Election Day. The guy was riding high as a Republican beacon not just in Florida, but throughout the country. He had a lock on Florida Republicans unseen in modern history. All he had to do was “kiss the ring,” endorse Trump and sit back until 2028.

Instead, DeSantis made the completely unnecessary (and retroactively, incredibly foolish) decision to enter the race now. But alright, that’s still fine. He must have recognized Trump has legitimate weak spots, both with the general electorate and among Republicans. DeSantis was polling competitively with Trump at times in Winter 2022.

Nevertheless, this was not something DeSantis had to do. So the only way to do it was to do it right. Instead, we got DeSantis’ bumbling operation that put him out after just one contest.

It’s not the bumbling in isolation that put DeSantis in the Mount Rushmore of disastrous presidential campaigns. It’s that the blunder-filled campaign shows he willingly decided to throw away a surefire road to the 2028 General Election with not a single, solitary clue of how he could make headway in 2024.

He has tanked his reputation with the GOP electorate in ways we could not have imagined two years ago. It may not be permanent, and maybe DeSantis can engineer a redemption arc of some sort. But this was a wholly unnecessary torching of his standing, and for what?

Trump began going after DeSantis as soon as 2022, as rumors swirled DeSantis was readying a 2024 run. That criticism even came as DeSantis ran up historic margins with his win over Charlie Crist.

Of course, DeSantis was too timid to hit back against Trump by name, but he did attempt a confident comeback against the former President: “I would just tell people to go check out the scoreboard.”

That same scoreboard after Iowa is now displaying a very different message for Florida’s Governor.

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected].


One comment

  • You never know…

    January 28, 2024 at 10:34 am

    It is unlikely DeSantis could mount a campaign worth paying attention to at end of his term in January ‘27 – just too far out with an inability to generate positive headlines, and inevitable comparisons to his current debacle. However, if he engineered a Casey succession as governor, it could put his presidential ambitions in actual play, since her news would be his news.

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