The new center of the Republican Party universe: Florida

The old Republican Party is dead. And no state is more responsible for ushering it to its grave than Florida.

From Florida man Donald Trump’s presidential nomination comeback to Sen. Rick Scott’s just-announced dark horse bid for Senate GOP leader, Florida politicians are leading the charge to completely rid the GOP of its pre-Trump vestiges of “establishment” Republicans. And the state under Gov. Ron DeSantis has served as a blueprint for the new form of pugilistic Republican governance, from attacking “woke” corporations to outlandish stunts on immigration.

California was the launch pad for the Republican Party in the Nixon and Reagan eras, followed by Texas in the age of the Bushes and Tom DeLay. But now, Florida is shaping up to be the dominant force not only in the Republican Party, but in the nation’s politics more broadly for the foreseeable future.

“Florida is having its day, and it’s about time,” said former Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.). “Florida is coming into its own.”

Trump is considering Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Byron Donalds, both of Florida, as possible running mates. Even after losing the GOP nomination, DeSantis remains one of the most influential conservative governors in the U.S. who’s made it clear his quest for the presidency isn’t over. And it was one of the most prolific rabble-rousers in the House, Rep. Matt Gaetz, who led the ouster of then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy last year.

Florida — once viewed as the biggest battleground state in the nation — started its transformation to conservative epicenter during Trump’s presidency and especially the coronavirus pandemic. Trump made the Sunshine State his residency midway through his presidency and stayed there after leaving the White House. DeSantis hailed the state as a conservative bastion free from lockdowns, mandates and the “liberal ideology” that he said permeated businesses and schools.

It drew a surge in new residents who registered Republican, as well as conservative commentators, TV hosts, authors and radio hosts — DeSantis guest hosted new Florida resident Sean Hannity’s radio show on Wednesday. That’s not even counting the pilgrimages Republicans make to appease Trump at his Mar-a-Lago club.

“For all my life we were always also-rans,” said Brian Ballard, a prominent national Republican fundraiser and lobbyist from Florida who is close to the former president.

Ballard argues a handful of Floridians on both sides of the aisle already hold prominent positions in Washington. But he concedes this year’s election could expand that influence. “This election could make Florida even more relevant and important on a national scene,” he said.

LeMieux, the former senator, said the state’s economic boom and surge in residents helped its image evolve.

“It used to be all about ‘Florida man’ and jokes about Florida,” LeMieux said. “You don’t hear that as much anymore. You hear about Ken Griffin moving Citadel to Miami and Jeff Bezos moving back home to Florida. … You hear a lot now about the Florida success story.”

Amid all the changes happening in the state, Republicans down-ballot have been able to gain a foothold in Florida’s elevated profile, one that is more conservative and more outspoken, said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.).

“They are just riding the wave,” he said. “They are benefiting from all the attention, the political support that comes with it, the notoriety in conservative media.”

A lineup of Floridians in the upper echelons of politics would help shed the “Florida curse” that has dogged the state’s reputation. Out of America’s 10 largest states, Florida is the only one that has failed to send anyone to the White House. Its pols have never held the top leadership jobs in Congress. They even hold no leadership posts when drilling down to House committees.

“We’re one of the biggest delegations, so I think that the fact that we don’t [have someone in leadership] is pretty alarming,” said Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.). “I’d say though, we have the talent.”

To Democrats, Florida’s image is very different. It now serves as a right-wing hellscape and foil to criticize ahead of the November election. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have both used the state to rail against abortion bans, too-loose gun laws and anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Florida Democrats continue to insist that the state isn’t as red as it appears on paper, a claim that will be tested in the forthcoming elections.

“We as Florida Democrats know this is ground zero for extremism,” said Nikki Fried, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party. “It makes logical sense that they would want to take this to the national stage, which is why we are working hard to make sure what happened here doesn’t happen in the rest of the country.”

There is a bit of irony, however, that the ascendancy of Florida is happening now.

Scott was part of the tea party movement that helped upend GOP politics back in 2010 when he took out an establishment-backed candidate for governor.

But DeSantis — who narrowly won his first run for governor in 2018 — was the first politician to demonstrate how red the state could turn. In the run-up to his presidential campaign, DeSantis wrote a book that was part memoir, part policy briefing paper that he subtitled, “Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.” But even as that message did not appeal to far-flung early-voting states, DeSantis’ Florida has continued to be the leading policy laboratory for conservative causes.

As DeSantis remains in Tallahassee, however, it is other Republicans from the state — many of whom backed Trump over DeSantis — who could be primed to ascend to other plum positions. There’s speculation that Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, could be a high-ranking committee chair in the next Congress.

“If you’re looking for someone in a leadership lane, being from Florida has an advantage,” said David Johnson, a Florida-based Republican campaign consultant. “Voters are looking at Florida differently when it comes to conservative credentials. … They will use the word ‘freedom,’ but it’s really the assertion of individual rights and getting government out of your life that hits at the core of the Republican spirit.”

This isn’t the first time that America’s third-largest state seemed positioned for national influence. It came close in 2016, when Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush both tried — and failed — to win the Republican presidential nomination. Bush came into the race as a heavy favorite in the polls and among the donor class, and Rubio was viewed as a rising star. Neither was prepared to be obliterated by then-Manhattanite Trump.

“I would have to think the odds are high that someone is going to advance into a position of leadership,” Johnson said. “Is it all the way to the White House? I don’t know. There is always somebody ready to come down their own golden escalator.”

Mia McCarthy contributed to this report. 

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