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Does DeSantis have a Florida problem? Trump dominates in the Sunshine State.

The warning signs were there even before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stepped onto the stage at a luxury hotel near Miami.

Ticket sales for the local Republican Party’s biggest annual fundraiser were down by two-thirds. One group of reliable supporters skipped the event entirely. The ballroom at the JW Marriott Turnberry Resort & Spa was far too big for the 380 people who showed up. Staff hustled to arrange paneled “air walls” around the room to make the space look smaller.

When DeSantis arrived at the gathering in early July, he gave what two people who attended described as a familiar and lackluster speech.

“It kind of came off like a bar mitzvah speech,” said a party member who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from Miami-Dade GOP leaders. “The only time people really applauded was when he was introduced, and when he was done. In between it was clanging plates and people talking to each other.”

That evening offered a snapshot into a conundrum for the DeSantis campaign: While the governor runs on a platform to “make America Florida,” his support in the Sunshine State is showing signs of teetering. The governor’s uphill battle in his own state is a troubling sign at a moment when his campaign is struggling to regain momentum.

If a GOP primary were to be held today, multiple polls show DeSantis would resoundingly lose to former president Donald Trump in the state both men call home.

A March survey of nearly 1,500 voters living in the state by the University of North Florida found Republicans favored DeSantis over Trump by more than 30 points. DeSantis had the support of 59 percent of those questioned, compared with 28 percent for Trump. But more recent polling has consistently shown him trailing behind the former president.

The most recent poll by Florida Atlantic University found that of more than 900 Republican voters questioned, 54 percent would vote for Trump if a primary were held immediately, compared with 37 percent for the governor in a one-on-one matchup.

Political analysts say Florida offers a litmus test for how well DeSantis can appeal to a larger audience beyond early primary states. In attempting to win over conservative voters outside the state, some supporters now fear he may have turned away those who propelled him to success in Florida.

DeSantis’s allies note his overall approval rating in Florida remains strong and say DeSantis is still finding his footing as a presidential candidate.

“It’s too early to write him off,” said Republican state Rep. Spencer Roach, who represents the Fort Myers area. “There’s still plenty of time for him to catch fire and get the momentum going.”

But even Roach said DeSantis would find a more receptive audience if he focused his message on the economy rather than “the woke war and covid.”

Several former DeSantis supporters echoed those remarks, with many expressing particular concern over policies like the state’s new abortion law. Surveys show most Floridians support access to the procedure, but DeSantis backed a six-week abortion ban recently passed by the legislature. Republican detractors also point to his ongoing feud with Disney and the amount of time he is spending out of state.

All of those concerns were on display at the Miami-Dade County GOP’s Lincoln Day Dinner. Many in attendance had volunteered on the governor’s reelection campaign last year. He’d flipped the county from blue to red for the first time in 22 years. Eight months later, sentiments had shifted.

Some were disgruntled by a last-minute DeSantis campaign request that the local Republican Party pay $25,000 for the private plane he used to travel to Miami for the event, according to a person with direct knowledge of the demand. Members of the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation’s oldest conservative LGBTQ+ organization, decided not to attend after DeSantis released a campaign video in late June attacking Trump’s past support for the community.

The DeSantis campaign did not return a request for comment on the governor’s poll numbers in Florida or the private plane travel payment request to the Miami-Dade GOP.

“We believe he is setting the wrong tone for the direction of the Party,” Joe LaFauci, chairman of Log Cabin Republicans Florida, said in a statement. “To alienate common-sense gay and swing voters is to reject the same people who carried DeSantis in 2022.”

DeSantis rode a wave of enthusiasm after his decisive 19-point reelection win over his Democratic challenger last November. Without even having announced his candidacy, he soared to the top of polls in the GOP presidential primary.

The governor frequently brings up his victory on the campaign trail.

“If people see that you’re willing to fight for them, if they see that you’re willing to take arrows for them, they will come out and support you,” DeSantis said in a recent speech to the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council conference. “They will be willing to crawl over hot coals barefoot to be able to support you.”

But voter surveys indicate that there were limits to how far that support might take him in a primary vote, particularly against Trump.

In the April FAU poll, 57 percent of the nearly 1,100 registered Republicans surveyed indicated they would vote for Trump, compared with 33 percent for DeSantis. The governor’s numbers improved in a late June survey, but the poll still showed Trump with a double-digit advantage over the governor.

The former president’s command over DeSantis in polls occurred as the governor was turning further right on a range of issues. The GOP supermajority in the legislature was moving quickly ahead with a slate of conservative bills banning gender-affirming care for minors, restricting drag shows, enacting tough new immigration restrictions and expanding a controversial education law that forbids instruction related to gender identity in the classroom.

DeSantis signed all into law.

Camille Fiveash voted for DeSantis twice and is now considering leaving the party to become a Democrat. She said the governor began losing her support with laws that led to books being removed from schools, and then with legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

When he signed the six-week abortion ban and then a law that eliminates permanent alimony, Fiveash was outraged.

“We didn’t elect him to do those things,” she said.

Fiveash is a member of First Wives Advocacy, a group for divorced women who have successfully fought — until this year — efforts to rewrite state alimony laws to make it easier for spouses to end payments to their exes, an issue that impacts women far more than men. DeSantis vetoed a similar bill last year.

The governor’s move right on two issues directly impacting female voters — alimony and abortion — is at odds with the more moderate stance most Republican women in Florida back.

First Wives Advocacy founder Jan Killilea said women from across the country reached out to share their thoughts since DeSantis signed both bills into law. Killilea voted for DeSantis twice but thinks he has probably lost the support of many GOP women — in Florida and beyond.

“I had a woman from Washington state tell me she was going to support him for president before, but now she’ll never vote for him,” she said. “A lot of my Republican friends on Palm Beach who left the Democratic Party say the abortion bill is going to make them go back. They have daughters, and they’re all concerned about that.”

Asked whether she’ll support DeSantis or Trump in the primary, Killilea pauses.

“There will be other names on the ballot besides those two,” she said.

Some Republican business owners, meanwhile, are questioning DeSantis’s meddling into the operations of private corporations. The governor’s feud with Disney has captured the most headlines, but tensions have been simmering since early in the pandemic.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings sued DeSantis in 2021 over a law that prohibits businesses from requiring proof of a coronavirus vaccine. Executives in the cruise line industry — which brings in an estimated $8.5 billion to the state — said they had the right to take action to keep their customers safe as the delta variant was sweeping across the nation.

DeSantis argued that nobody should be able to demand “vaccine passports” from people who did not want to get what he called “the jab.” A U.S. district judge sided with Norwegian, but that decision was later overturned in 2022.

Now as a presidential candidate, DeSantis has used his battle against Disney — and the “woke indoctrination” he says the company promotes in its content — as part of his stump speech.

The dispute erupted after Disney’s former CEO publicly criticized the bill opponents call “don’t say gay,” restricting lessons and discussion on gender identity in public schools. The bill was a signature piece of legislation during a reelection year. DeSantis responded by dismantling the special taxing district the company had used for half a century to build its theme park hub.

This year, he ramped up the feud by replacing Disney’s board members on the taxing district with his own handpicked appointees.

Disney CEO Bob Iger has called DeSantis’s actions “anti-business.” Two months ago, Disney canceled a $1 billion construction project in the state.

Some Republicans in the town of Celebration, built by Disney as a residential area close to the Magic Kingdom, say DeSantis has lost their support because he picked a fight that, if anything, spells financial uncertainty for local restaurants and businesses that rely on park visitors. The new DeSantis board members are now weighing cost-cutting measures like eliminating $8 million for overtime police protection on Disney’s properties.

A lobbyist in Tallahassee who mostly works with GOP clients said the Disney imbroglio — and DeSantis’s zeal for publicly chastising the company that many consider to be the keystone to Florida’s $102 billion tourism industry — has alarmed CEOs and tarnished the governor’s brand. He said a number of business leaders are no longer on “Team DeSantis,” but won’t admit it publicly, for fear of reprisals from the governor.

“The Disney fight was really a huge distraction,” said the lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, out of concern he would jeopardize his work with clients who have business before the governor. “It really undermines what people originally liked about him.”

One week after DeSantis spoke at the Miami-Dade County Lincoln Day Dinner, Donald Trump was 60 miles north, giving a speech in West Palm Beach. The crowd at the Turning Point Action Conference greeted the former president with raucous enthusiasm.

When anyone mentioned DeSantis — who skipped the event to campaign in Iowa — the convention center reverberated with boos.

“He ran to be our governor for the next four years. He’s getting paid by taxpayers, but he’s very seldom even in the state,” said Rocco Talarico, a Palm Beach County Republican and longtime Trump supporter. “He’s running against Trump, and I don’t like that. I feel like he’s kind of turned around and stabbed him in the back.”

Talarico said if DeSantis had waited until 2028 to make his presidential bid, he would have had the full support of most Trump Republicans in Florida. Trump won the Sunshine State in 2016 and again by a larger margin in 2020. In some parts of the state, it has already become common to see Trump 2024 bumper stickers and flags on vehicles.

“Most people feel that he’s betrayed Trump,” Talarico said of DeSantis. “That’s hard to forgive.”

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said Trump poses a unique challenge for DeSantis. On one hand, the governor has strong support in the state legislature — where 100 of 111 GOP members of the Florida House and Senate have endorsed his presidential bid.

“Rank-and-file Republicans went along with him because he was so powerful in Tallahassee,” Jewett said. “The fear of DeSantis was because he won by 19 points. He was so popular with voters.”

But outside Tallahassee, the picture muddies. At least 11 members of the Florida GOP congressional delegation have endorsed Trump. Most gathered with the former president at his Mar-a-Lago residence in April. A photo shared by one representative showed them seated at an opulent dining table.

DeSantis, meanwhile, has struggled to win endorsements from the Florida delegation. He recently became embroiled in an argument with the only Black member of the GOP delegation over the state’s new Black history school curriculum standards, which the governor has defended despite widespread outcry.

Alan Pincus, a Palm Beach County Republican who is running for Congress, said DeSantis, if he loses, may not have a political future in Florida, with some voters so turned off by his decision to take on Trump that they won’t vote for him again.

“DeSantis has no chance of winning,” said Pincus, who voted for DeSantis for governor. “He really hurt himself, maybe permanently.”

Longtime Florida political analyst Susan MacManus said it’s too early for DeSantis fans to give up on winning the state. His tepid poll numbers in Florida may show the support he got for his covid policies is “starting to wear off,” but she said most voters aren’t thinking about the GOP primary right now. The state’s Republican contest is slated for March 19.

“Summer vacations are ending, the kids are getting ready to go back to school, and people are not taking a hardcore look at who they’ll vote for next year,” said MacManus, a retired University of South Florida political science professor. “Floridians just don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the minutiae of politics in the summer. It’s too hot.”

In Miami-Dade, the local GOP is officially neutral on which candidate to support in the primary, despite having invited DeSantis as headliner to its annual fundraising bash. Kevin Cooper, vice chairman of the party’s executive committee, said that means the Florida governor isn’t the only one they hope to welcome for a visit in the near future.

“We’re looking forward to inviting President Trump to Miami-Dade County,” he said.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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