DeSantis and Rubio lead the Florida GOP to the biggest wins in the country with a show of power

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis won reelection to a second term Tuesday in a dominant victory over Democrat Charlie Crist, bolstering his rise as a prominent GOP star with potential White House ambitions.

DeSantis’ win continues a rightward shift for what was formerly the nation’s largest swing state, with voters in even the once-Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County embracing a governor who framed his candidacy as a battle against what he characterized as the “woke agenda” of liberals.

“We fight the woke in the Legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die,” DeSantis told elated supporters during his victory speech, telling the crowd in closing, “I have only begun to fight.”

In the lead-up to the election, DeSantis harnessed the power of incumbency to assemble media, often on short notice and far outside major markets, for news conferences where he would spend significant time honing critiques of Democratic President Joe Biden, liberal policies and the mainstream media, delivered before cheering crowds.

He gained significant national attention during the start of the coronavirus pandemic through his outspoken opposition to continued lockdowns and to mask and vaccine mandates, and eventually displayed an eagerness to wade into nearly any cultural divide.

His ceaseless combative posture, and ability to leverage the power of state government to his will, endeared DeSantis to major GOP donors and built him into a natural heir to former President Donald Trump in the minds of some Republican voters.

Weeks before the election, DeSantis directed the state to fly groups of migrants from Texas to the upscale liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, as a protest over the federal government’s immigration policies at the southern border. DeSantis said the move was a way to make immigration a “front-burner issue” before the midterms, with his critics questioning the legality of the flights as they accused officials of lying to the passengers.

The victory is certain to further speculation of a potential DeSantis presidential run. DeSantis has so far dodged questions on his possible Washington aspirations, skirting the subject repeatedly during his only gubernatorial debate with Crist in late October.

Trump, who credits himself for propelling DeSantis to a first term in the governor’s office, has teased a third presidential run and grown frustrated with DeSantis’ refusal to rule out a 2024 campaign, according to people familiar with Trump’s thinking. Late Monday, Trump told Fox News that DeSantis could “hurt himself badly” by running for president. Trump suggested he would reveal things about DeSantis “that won’t be very flattering,” while also saying he wasn’t in a “tiff” with the governor.

Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has won a third term, defeating U.S. Rep. Val Demings and holding a key seat as the GOP tried to regain control of a closely divided Senate.

Rubio, 51, faced perhaps his toughest battle since he was first elected in 2010 after serving as the Florida House speaker. Once a presidential hopeful in 2016, Rubio’s name is less often mentioned as a potential 2024 candidate.

Rubio ran a campaign pulled from the Republican playbook, tying Demings to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden and hammering her on issues like spending, rising inflation and a crisis at the southern border.

The Republican was helped by shifting voter registration numbers in Florida. The last time Rubio ran for reelection, Democrats had about 327,000 more registered voters than Republicans. That has since flipped, with the GOP now having a nearly 300,000 advantage over Democrats.

Demings, 65, outraised Rubio and built a national profile by playing a prominent role in then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment and being on then-candidate Biden’s list of potential running mates. But it wasn’t enough, and Rubio acknowledged that in his victory speech in Miami-Dade County — a traditionally Democratic stronghold that he won Tuesday.

“They wasted a lot of money, and I’m glad they wasted it here and not in these other states where we have a chance to win,” Rubio said. He continued: “I knew that no amount of money — no amount of money — was gonna convince convince people that escaped Marxism and socialism that America should embrace Marxism and socialism.”

Much of Demings’ criticism of Rubio centered on a poor attendance record, his backing of a national abortion ban and questioning his honesty. She accused him of lying about her record and using GOP buzzwords like “socialist” and “radical” to condemn her.

Demings is finishing her third term in the U.S. House, but focused most of her campaign on her career in law enforcement, which included serving as Orlando’s first female police chief.

Rubio had relatively easy paths to his first two Senate victories, winning a three-way race in 2010 when sitting Republican Gov. Charlie Crist ran as an independent and peeled away votes from Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek. Rubio then defeated U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy in 2016 by nearly 8 percentage points.