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The Rise of the DeSantis Democrats


The Free Press Olivia ReingoldMon, Dec 19, 6:20 AM (1 day ago)
Like Reagan Democrats once upon a time, these voters have already reshaped the political landscape in Florida. Can they do the same nationally in 2024?OLIVIA REINGOLDDEC 19∙GUEST POST SAVE▷  LISTEN (Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images)MIAMI—It’s almost 11 p.m. on a recent Friday night at ONE Gentlemens Club, and it’s dead except for the girls in their thongs, sitting on pleather couches, waiting for someone to give a lap dance to. No one can talk to anyone else. It’s too loud for that, what with the electronic drum, the incessant rapping. The rap is supposed to inspire twerking—and tens. Tonight, no one’s twerking. Tory Williams is alone at the bar in fishnets and boots. She should be mixing drinks. “Did you vote in the recent election?” I write in my notebook, then pass it to her.She nods. When I ask who she voted for, a grin appears. “DUH-SAN-TIS,” she mouths. “Why DeSantis?” I shout. Williams is a black woman who looks to be pushing forty. She has a fiancé and, after two slow years, a job. It was her brother, she says, who made her rethink her politics. Finally, she shouts back, over the bar, through the din: “Money.”Upgrade to paidWilliams is one of the DeSantis Democrats: Florida voters who, until recently, identified as Democrats but in November opted to reelect Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis—he who resisted the Covid lockdowns, tangled with Disney, and governed with a record budget surplus—in a landslide. It’s unclear how many DeSantis Democrats there are: DeSantis’ vote count jumped from roughly 4 million in 2018 to 4.6 million in 2022. Lots of those voters are presumably independents or Republicans who didn’t vote last time. But some are disaffected Democrats alienated from the party they once belonged to. That’s evident from the longtime Democratic strongholds that DeSantis flipped, including Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, where DeSantis skyrocketed from a 21-point loss in 2018 to an 11-point win in 2022—a net gain of more than 30 percentage points. Democratic Palm Beach County Commissioner Dave Kerner says he identifies as a DeSantis Democrat, “and I can tell you I’m not the only one.” “As I traveled around the state and throughout my county over the past several years, at first it was quiet, you know, ‘This governor is doing a great job’—and this is amongst my Democratic colleagues,” he told me. “Then I started hearing it more and hearing it more. And then I saw my own county—which has been majority blue throughout probably its entire history—we saw more people vote for the Republican candidate over the Democratic candidate.” Kerner is 39, a former cop, and a former member of Florida’s House of Representatives. He’s best known for successfully strangling a bill, strongly backed by the National Rifle Association, that would have made it harder to prosecute anyone in a Stand Your Ground-related shooting. In 2022, he says, he backed DeSantis because he’s not anti-cop. And because, Kerner says, he makes things happen. “It wasn’t necessarily about partisan identity but the man himself—even if you didn’t agree with his policies, the way that he was so effective,” he says.The big question is whether people like Kerner are just one-time Republican voters, or if they’ll become permanent Republicans. Whether people Tory Williams can be convinced to keep voting for a party that, until a few months ago, she never imagined voting for. Helen Aguirre Ferré, a former DeSantis spokesperson who is now the executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, tells me: “We’ve had this great, big historical result, and it’s on us now to continue and make sure that this is something that transcends beyond just one election.”In other words: Are there DeSantis Democrats elsewhere in America waiting to vote for the man in 2024?These voters are not all that dissimilar to the Reagan Democrats who fueled the Republican’s 1980 White House victory.Like the Reagan Democrats, the DeSantis Democrats feel condescended to, abandoned by the progressive elites who bankroll Democratic candidates and shape the party’s agenda.Then, like now, inflation was out of control. Then, like now, the leadership in Washington seemed tired, out of ideas. Then, like now, the country seemed adrift. In 1980, America was losing ground to the communists in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, to the mullahs in Iran. In 2022, it is gripped by a polarization and economic stratification that have been building for years, with eight in ten Americans dissatisfied with how things are going, and two in five fearful a second civil war is on the horizon.But the DeSantis Democrats, unlike Reagan Democrats, who were mostly white with blue-collar jobs and high school degrees, are not an easily identifiable species. They are not confined to any class, constituency or ethnic category—although Democratic pollsters say Latinos were more likely to flip for DeSantis. They stretch across the city, from Little Havana east to Miami Beach, and south toward Palmetto Bay, and north, to the Cubans and Dominicans and Colombians in Hialeah. DeSantis led the Latino vote by almost 20 points, according to CNN exit polling.DeSantis, unlike Ronald Reagan, is a supremely practical man. To the two dozen Floridians interviewed for this story, the governor is more defined by his actions than his ideology: He kept the schools open and taxes low. Period. Even the culture-war bombs he’s tossed—like going head to head with the Magic Kingdom over the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill—served to squeeze tax dollars out of a massive corporation. (This is, in fact, disputable. The showdown, which led Florida to strip Disney World of its independent status, may force nearby county governments to pay for services once covered by Disney.)While Reagan was a mythical figure, a movie star who trafficked in big, sweeping ideas, who liked to tell big, Hollywood-esque stories about himself and America, DeSantis is none of that. When you talk to people who like DeSantis, they use words like “effective” and “chief executive”—boring words, words that feel, in this moment of great national stasis, kind of reassuring. “He’s the good parts of Trump without that cockiness,” says Andres Arcila, who was born in Colombia but has been here for the past three decades. For the last 26 years, Arcilla has run a pawn shop called Daddy’s Cash, in hip, colorful Wynwood. “He defends his priorities,” Arcila continues. “It may not be the ones that some people like, but he has those priorities.” That’s more or less how Felipe Valera sees it. The 54-year-old perfume peddler spends all day trudging around Little Havana with his cart full of bottles of J.Lo perfume and Versace, and he’s basically a one-issue voter by now. His issue is inflation, which makes sense: No one struggling to fill up their tank or buy groceries or make rent buys J.Lo Perfume. He used to identify as a Democrat, and then the price of pretty much everything skyrocketed. (Valera starts every sentence with, “You know how much a Coca Cola cost in the 1960s?”)He calls the politicians, all of them, Democrats, Republicans, “blah blah blah’s,” and he calls DeSantis “a businessman”—he’s actually never been in business, but no matter—and “the opposite of a blah blah blah,” meaning, an operator.The thing about DeSantis the Operator is his voters don’t feel judged. No one feels like he’s wagging his finger at them, telling them to mask up, or stay six feet away, or pray, or eat vegan, or be inclusive. (Even his much talked about scolding of the college kids wearing masks, in which he said it was time to dispense with the “Covid theater,” wasn’t exactly scolding as much as it was scolding the scolders and the people who took the scolders seriously.) He’s too busy pushing back against the school lockdowns or shipping illegal migrants to Martha’s Vineyard—a move that horrified liberal elites but that many of his Latino supporters supported because they’re tired of the preening, the signaling.“I was a Democrat when I first came here,” Claudia Cruz tells me. It’s just after sunset on South Beach, and Cruz is smoking a cigarette—there’s a pink bow in her hair, and we’re surrounded by women scurrying in heels to get to their dinner reservations. “I’m an immigrant, and they’re the ones who want us here,” she adds, referring to her thinking back then. In November, she voted for DeSantis. She says the Democrats are right about the environment, and she’s not really a Republican. More libertarian; whichever party keeps the government small.  “You have to have a big tent that’s actually diverse, and you don’t do that by calling people with different viewpoints evil,” Daren Dillinger, 54, an IT specialist from Tampa, tells me. Dillinger misses Democratic Senator Russ Feingold—the only senator who, in the aftermath of 9/11, mustered the cojones to vote against the inaptly named Patriot Act—and he recalls, with great longing, Barack Obama campaigning to end the Iraq War, and Howard Dean, in 2004, saying gun regulation should be left to the states. He’s nostalgic for the days when you could disagree with your party on an issue or two and still call it home. He’s gotten three doses of the Covid vaccine, and he’s all for transgender rights, but he’s tired of other progressives looking for all the ways he’s not perfect, the wrong words that slip out of his mouth, the incorrect opinions he’s voiced. That’s why he formed a Facebook group for other disaffected Democrats. Which makes him sad. He feels like he used to belong to something, and he’s definitely not a Republican, at least not yet. He’s just in between.Carolina Castillo used to be what you’d call a progressive activist. She volunteered for groups like Florida Rising, which advocates for zero waste and believes for-profit housing—i.e., most housing—is “a human rights violation.” She was 1,000-percent for the Democratic Party.“I was their biggest advocate,” she says. She’s not sad like Dillinger. She’s angry. It started when people at Florida Rising told her to check her privilege, because she looks white. (Her mom, she said, is Colombian and “Indian looking”; her father was from Spain.) Her parents were waiters. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’m Latina—what are you talking about?’” Then there was the Biden administration cozying up to Colombian President Gustavo Petro, whom Castillo detests, and the delisting of FARC as a foreign terrorist group. Did the White House really not know these were Marxist guerillas? It pained her to say it, but you know what? Ron DeSantis knew exactly what FARC was all about. “To elect a former narco-terrorist and a Marxist to lead Colombia is going to be disastrous, and so we stood with the people here in Florida that have ties to Colombia,” DeSantis said in June. He was at a barbecue restaurant in Nassau County, reacting to the recent election in Colombia. It was like music to Colombians across Florida who thought the world had gone mad. The Colombia stuff, she says, “started opening my mind.” We’re eating plantain chips at a restaurant called Little Havana that’s not actually in Little Havana—chickens in the yard, with a hole in the wall (literally). She’s brought her middle-school daughter with her. “I was just like, ‘No, I am aligned with Ron DeSantis. I’m aligned with him against these socialist dictators. I’m aligned with him with Covid.”Democrats who know Castillo, including Evelyn Pérez-Verdia, a local Democratic consultant, think it’s a pose. A way to get followers. It’s true—ever since Castillo started tweeting about this stuff, her audience has grown. But Castillo denies there’s anything inauthentic about her new politics. “Those people don’t know me,” she says. “Anyone who knows me knows this is real for me.”There’s something telling about the way that Democrats like Pérez-Verdia—who calls Castillo “a GOP plant”—have reacted to her defection. They can’t fathom a universe in which Democrats feel so put off that they vote Republican. “Anyone with principles—you don’t go to the Republican Party right now in the form that it is,” Pérez-Verdia tells me. “You don’t.” When I ask Democrats why Ron DeSantis won big in 2022, they insist it was all a matter of tactic or turnout. It had nothing to do with DeSantis the man, or the Democratic agenda, or the people and values behind that agenda.“The base just did not come out,” says one-term Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Marcus Powell, who represented the district stretching from southwest Miami all the way down to the Keys until 2020, when she lost to her Republican rival by three points.In 2022, Christine Alexandria Olivo, a teacher, tried to retake the district for the Democrats. This time, they lost by more than 40 points. When I ask what happened—how she explains not winning thousands of voters who voted Democratic two years ago—she says simply, “Democrats did not come out to vote.”That is true. Just like it’s true that Florida Republicans spent nearly $90 million in 2019 and 2020 on a voter-registration drive, flipping the Democrats’ 257,000-voter edge to a Republican advantage of nearly 300,000.But that doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. The plates have been shifting, and the things people care about, the things they expect from their government, are not what they were in 2020 or 2016. The Democrats, Dave Kerner says, are “just not willing to be honest with themselves when they blame it all on the turnout or the fundraising gap.”Even Pérez-Verdia acknowledges other Democrats aren’t seeing what’s happening to their base. “There’s a lot of denial, and they act like it’s only MAGA people,” she tells me. “There are a lot of people who feel like this.” Castillo, the former Democratic activist, tells me she’s thinking of running herself, which makes sense. There’s no evidence she’s a fake, as some of her former progressive allies insist—she shows me her 2020 Miami-Dade Voter Information Card, which indicates she was a Democrat; and her Voter Information Card from this year, which shows that, as of June 16, she’s a registered Republican.But her story sounds a little pat, as if it were crafted with an audience in mind. Her Twitter bio proclaims that she’s an anti-communist and that she’s been a Republican—at least in spirit if not according to the powers that be in Miami-Dade—since #20deMayo2022. “I remember thinking and crying, ‘Oh my God, the irony that today is Cuban Independence Day, and they’re still under a communist regime, and Biden didn’t do shit,’” Castillo tells me. “I thought, ‘No, I’m done.’” She’s taken to retweeting the likes of pro-Trump activist Charlie Kirk and Newsmax host Benny Johnson (who lives in Tampa and tells me his neighbors are all DeSantis Democrats).All of which is to say Castillo is a political entrepreneur, an opportunist, and she’s tapping into an opportunity the Florida governor created for her and every other would-be politician testing the waters in anticipation of 2024.Olivia Reingold’s last piece for us was about attacks on pro-life activists. Read it here.And support our reporting by becoming a subscriber today: