fb-pixel Skip to main content

DeSantis has promised to make every state like Florida, but Iowans say he’s a little late

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed copies of his book at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines last week.JORDAN GALE/NYT

DAVENPORT, Iowa — He arrived on a frozen morning, under a steely gray sky, to tell Iowans of a special place he described as the “promised land,” a “citadel of freedom,” and a “refuge of sanity.”

He was speaking, of course, of Florida.

“We’re the fastest-growing state in the country,” said Governor Ron DeSantis. “That is the result of leadership. That is the result of vision.”

DeSantis, the governor of the Sunshine State, is road-testing a likely presidential campaign that seems all but certain to feature his home state as his wingman. His new memoir, which he is ostensibly traveling the country to promote, pitches the state as a “blueprint” for the country — the conclusion is entitled “Make America Florida” — and his truculent governing style as a model to be emulated.


It is a novel strategy, and a risky one, even as Florida looms ever larger in the GOP imagination. No one has ever become president by playing up their status as a full-time Florida man. And DeSantis’s two stops in this early-voting state last week offered an early glimpse into whether Iowans actually want to be more like Florida — and the pitch played well, even in a state with a lot of political self-pride.

“Skeeters? No,” said P. Alan McGary, an Iowa Republican sipping a drink at an Irish bar the night before DeSantis visited this city last week. He made the reference to mosquitoes as he considered the relative merits and demerits of Florida while the snow fell outside.

But politically, he said, he already feels the similarities between his state and DeSantis’s — and that’s part of why he is inclined to back him when it’s time to vote next year. “It’s really not that much of a stretch,” McGary said.

Shortly after the onset of the pandemic, DeSantis generated headlines by banning mask mandates, defying public health advice, and reopening schools over the protests of teachers unions — steps that Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds was quick to take, too.


Both Iowa and Florida turned redder in November, with DeSantis winning reelection by almost 20 points and Iowa banishing the remaining Democrat from its congressional delegation, bucking a national trend in which Democrats fared better than expected.

“With absolutely no playbook, we both focused on protecting the lives and livelihoods and the freedoms of our citizens,” Reynolds said when she appeared on stage with DeSantis at his book events last week, eagerly highlighting what the two have in common.

There is more. Just last week, Iowa lawmakers passed a law banning gender-affirming care for minors — something a Florida medical board has already done after encouragement from DeSantis. Reynolds has introduced a “parental rights” bill modeled on one DeSantis passed in Florida, which is sometimes referred to as the “don’t say gay bill,” which limits what public school teachers in younger grades can say about sexual orientation or gender identity. Reynolds signed a bill earlier this year dramatically expanding school vouchers; a similar measure recently advanced in Florida.

“I always tell my legislators, watch Iowa, do not let them get ahead of us on this stuff,” DeSantis told the jubilant crowd in Davenport last week.

Those perceived similarities could give DeSantis a leg up in a crowded field that also includes former president Donald Trump, a Florida resident since 2019 who visited the state on Monday.


“I think Iowa is a lot like Florida,” said Carl Cleveland, 72, a retired educator who came out to see DeSantis in Des Moines on Friday, citing Reynolds’s handling of COVID and school choice.

But few voters were willing to credit DeSantis directly for that transformation, heaping praise on their own governor instead.

“I don’t think they want to be Florida, I think they want to be the best version of Iowa they can be,” Iowa GOP strategist David Kochel said tactfully. But, he added, “I think a lot of that ‘freedom agenda’ really appeals to Republican caucus-goers in Iowa.”

It was not so long ago that Texas, and California before that, was where Republicans looked for their luminaries, but Florida has arguably supplanted them. There is Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s opulent beach club that was known as the “Winter White House” during his presidency and has since drawn a parade of Republicans who visit to kiss the former president’s ring, as well as a rush of donor retreats and political events.

“You read about all these political groups that would hold events at Mar-a-Lago — that became kind of a center for GOP politics,” said James Clark, a historian at the University of Central Florida.

It is home — or at least, second home — to right-wing media personalities like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson , according to a 2021 Vanity Fair story that called Florida “a tabloid state for tabloid people.”


DeSantis has been able to capitalize on both developments, wielding the rush of Republican attention Trump drew to the state to benefit his own ambitions. The state historically has a weak governorship, but he has used the support of the Legislature to make himself the most powerful governor in state history, transforming the state into a policy laboratory for a muscular conservatism under which the governor has rammed through his agenda and picked — and often won — fights with political figures, unions, and corporations he does not like.

“I may have received 50 percent of the vote,” he said in Iowa of his election in 2018. “But I earned 100 percent of the executive power, and I intend to use that.”

The approach has reshaped multiple aspects of life in Florida and turned DeSantis into a political rock star with influence well beyond his state’s borders.

“He calls it the Florida blueprint — it’s really the DeSantis blueprint. Nobody was talking about parental rights, drag queens, all these things until DeSantis brings them up,” said Clark.

Yet some well-known Florida residents are bristling at DeSantis’s sunny talk about his state’s “blueprint,” which has eroded protections for gay and transgender people, women seeking abortions, and even local governments that want to do things the governor does not like.

“When you talk about a swamp — we obviously have a real swamp in the Everglades — but I will tell you that the swamp in Tallahassee is much deeper and much more dangerous,” said Carl Hiaasen, the Florida novelist. “The idea that he is the great promoter of personal freedoms is a joke.”


That skepticism of Florida was palpable in Davenport, where Khristi Moore was packing a dozen freshly made doughnuts into a box at Tommy’s Cafe. She does not want Iowa to be more like Florida, she said, because her pregnant daughter who lives there has struggled to find good health care.

“Florida can stay Florida, and Iowa can stay Iowa,” Moore said. But, she added, “I’d take their weather.”

Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.