National News

Ron DeSantis Seeks Softer Tone From Trump

Posted November 17, 2018 8:41 p.m. EST

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Since Election Day, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has been privately exhorting President Donald Trump to Twitter-bomb his opponent, Sen. Bill Nelson, in hopes of muscling the incumbent Democrat out of a tight Senate race tangled in a recount.

Ron DeSantis, a Trump acolyte who finally prevailed Saturday in the governor’s race against the Democratic nominee, Mayor Andrew Gillum of Tallahassee, has urged the opposite.

While the president was in Paris last week, DeSantis let the White House know, through intermediaries, that Trump’s incendiary tweets accusing Democrats of trying to steal the election were hurting and not helping, according to Republicans and administration officials with knowledge of the situation.

The difference may be not only in style but in mission: Scott believes he is preparing to stride into the fractious partisan battleground of the U.S. Senate. DeSantis is preparing to govern the nation’s third-largest state — Gillum conceded the race Saturday after a recount.

Breaking with the most powerful Republicans in his state, DeSantis has grown frustrated with the bombastic attacks on Democrats launched by Trump, Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio, believing they will erode confidence in elections and spark a Democratic backlash, according to two Florida Republicans who have spoken with him in recent days.

Trump, for the moment, seems to have gotten the message. “Congratulations to Andrew Gillum on having run a really tough and competitive race,” the president said Saturday on Twitter.

DeSantis, 40, is intent on turning down the temperature in perpetually overheated Florida. The former congressman, who was rattled by charges he cultivated the support of white supremacists and criticized for a quip his opponents interpreted as a veiled racial slur, is eager to move on. He is seeking a quick rapprochement with Gillum, who has yet to accept DeSantis’ offer to discuss their differences, people close to the two candidates said.

A spokesperson for DeSantis denied any tension between him and Scott.

But DeSantis — a relative unknown before this even to those in his own party, although he served three terms in Congress — is seeking to assert his independence.

“He ran as a conservative in the mold of a Rick Scott and a Donald Trump. But I also think that he’s making it clear that he plans to be independent, that he is going to do some things differently,” said Joe Gruters, a Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives from Sarasota who co-chaired Trump’s campaign in the state in 2016.

Privately, Florida Republicans said he ran a lackluster race for the governorship, and Democrats — who know him mostly from his frequent appearances on Fox News in recent years defending Trump — expressed skepticism that he would reach across party lines as he has promised.

“Right now a lot of people, and I’m talking about Republicans as well as Democrats, see him as an appendage of Trump,” said state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, a Democrat who represents Coral Gables and Key Biscayne. “We all know very little about him. His platform during the campaign was virtually nonexistent. So I hope he’s serious when he talks about reaching out to all Floridians.”

Unlike Scott, who has been on television leveling accusations of elections fraud and exhorting his opponent to step down, and Gillum, who launched an oratorical tour of black churches across Florida in the wake of the campaign, DeSantis has remained largely out of public view since Election Day. He traveled to Tallahassee to set up his transition team and delivered a single statement on video ahead of the litigious recount, noting his lead in the first batch of unofficial results posted a week ago.

He will have to manage a more partisan Statehouse, where Democrats gained some seats this year, and a more evenly divided state Senate, which traditionally has acted as a moderating chamber. Scott was first elected during the Tea Party wave of 2010 and tried to pass a hard-line immigration bill the following year; the Senate kept him from doing so. DeSantis met Thursday with state Sen. Bill Galvano, the incoming Senate president, who told reporters on Friday that the governor-elect will inevitably face a learning curve.

“There’s a big difference between what we do here in Tallahassee and what they do in Washington,” he said. “I’m confident he’ll get his footing as we go. But there are some things that I think he will have to discover.”

Tackling the state’s election laws is a possibility, given the weaknesses in the system exposed by the roller coaster of a recount.

“We’ve had too many problems through too many cycles,” said Galvano, a Republican who represents the Bradenton area.

DeSantis is expected to begin his term with at least one important political victory.

He will be able to appoint three justices to the state Supreme Court, a coup for conservatives. The three term-limited justices scheduled to leave the court are relatively liberal; the court ruled before the election that Scott would not be empowered to replace them and that the task of naming new justices would fall to the next governor. DeSantis campaigned on the appointments, promising to give the moderate court a hard conservative bent.

The appointments, which his aides said are likely to take place on the same day DeSantis is sworn in, will give conservatives a 6-to-1 advantage on the state’s highest court. This would likely remove a final barrier to the Republican-controlled Florida legislature and give the party a potentially insurmountable edge on likely battles of reapportionment stemming from the 2020 census — although Florida’s constitution requires the drawing of “fair,” nonpartisan districts.

“People have no idea how huge that is,” said Gruters. “He’s going to appoint people in their 40s, and they are going to be on the bench for 20 years.”

In Washington, DeSantis was known as a loner who did not make many close friends on Capitol Hill. He has little firsthand knowledge of Tallahassee, having never served in state government or spent much time wooing the Republican establishment in the state Capitol, which overwhelmingly favored his primary rival, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Still, he could rely on his well-liked lieutenant governor-elect, state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez of Miami, to navigate the statehouse. Of course, Tallahassee insiders thought Scott would do that, too, in his second term, with Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a former state representative.

Instead, Scott, the Senate seat likely already in his sights, mostly sidelined Lopez-Cantera and kept the power and spotlight for himself. The postelection period has gone a lot more smoothly for DeSantis than did the campaign itself.

After pulling off an impressive upset over Putnam, he kicked off the first day of the general election by declaring on Fox News that in view of the Republican-led state government’s economic successes, “the last thing we need to do is monkey this up.” That was seen as a reference to Gillum, the first African-American candidate a major party has nominated for governor in the state’s history.

It prompted a shake-up of his campaign. But the low point for DeSantis came at a debate with Gillum in October, when he mishandled a question about his refusal to return a campaign contribution from a donor who had used a racial slur to describe President Barack Obama.

“I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist,” Gillum said, as DeSantis stood stunned at the platform.

That moment seems to have strongly influenced DeSantis’ behavior since the election, according to people in his orbit.

On election night he declared himself the “unambiguous” winner but added, “It is important that everyone involved in the election process strictly adhere to the rule of law, which is the foundation for our nation.”