Ron DeSantis Welcomes You to Florida, America's New Texas | Opinion

For conservatives all over the world, Texas has long been something of a promised land, boasting decades of government policy hospitable to freedom and the kind of straight-talking, kind people who'd greet you warmly even on a busy street. It's a place well-known for a rugged toughness, an embrace of tradition and a fearless independent streak.

Considering also the romantic notions that have attached to that state since films began to romanticize the Wild West over the last century, it's remarkable that Texas' once-nonpareil position in the conservative imagination has been displaced so quickly—and by a place that was long thought of as a blue-leaning swing state.

By last week, when Governor Ron DeSantis gave his State of the State Address in Tallahassee, Florida had already eclipsed Texas as the most energetic, forward-looking red state in America, having captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of conservatives who have flocked here—and millions in other states and countries who are watching, often jealously, from afar. (Even from Texas.)

DeSantis' insistence on protecting normal life in Florida through the COVID insanity of the last two years has distinguished him in American politics. Through his own stubborn resistance to what he has called "blind adherence to Faucian declarations," he has made Florida a true beacon of sanity. By now, every Floridian knows how this happened, and most will never forget it.

In March 2020, the nation was in the grip of COVID hysteria, and America was locked down. In every state, stores, offices and factories closed as workers and business owners struggled to prove to nameless mandarins that their very livelihoods qualify as "essential." President Donald Trump, while skeptical of Anthony Fauci's edicts, nevertheless cowed to the pressure of the media and allowed his chief medical advisor to promote draconian lockdown policies.

Absurdly, gyms and even public beaches and parks boarded up. Violators of local COVID-inspired rules and closures were slapped with massive fines. As crime initially dropped during the lockdowns, municipalities repurposed their police forces as lockdown enforcers—levying massive fines on businesses that dared to open or allow customers to enter without masks.

Conservatives were shocked that, even in the liberty-minded Lone Star State, people's lives were being crushed by power-mad politicians. In Dallas, Shelley Luther was issued a large fine and was then jailed merely for keeping her hair salon open. Fearing the backlash from a lockdown-obsessed national and local media, Texas Governor Greg Abbott vacillated, failing to decisively bring the state back to normal.

As every conservative knows, things unfolded differently in Florida. By mid-June 2020, Governor DeSantis had had enough—both of lockdowns and the local municipalities that were raising millions in punitive fines for violating the lockdowns and mandates, especially in blue-leaning parts of South Florida.

DeSantis couldn't order those municipalities to relax their COVID restrictions, but he could make it impossible for the offending towns to profit from them. The governor's Executive Order 21-133 gave amnesty to thousands of businesses and individuals that had been swamped with millions in debilitating local fines.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waits to present
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waits to present a check to a first responder during an event to give out bonuses to them held at the Grand Beach Hotel Surfside on August 10, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Immediately, even the last cities that were holdouts to draconian COVID restrictions began to relax. Restaurant owners could begin to operate without the local police looking over their shoulders; gyms could be free of law enforcement spot-checking mask compliance. Florida, suddenly, was open for business again.

"In Florida," the governor said last week, "we have protected the right of our citizens to earn a living, provided our businesses with the ability to prosper, fought back against unconstitutional federal mandates and ensured our kids have the opportunity to thrive." By design, his state has "become the escape hatch for those chafing under authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions."

Watching DeSantis' example in Florida—and in the absence of leadership in the White House—voters in Texas and other red states slowly began to demand similar measures. It's not an exaggeration to postulate that, had DeSantis not been as decisive and fearless in his own early-stage COVID actions in Florida, governors and other officeholders in even the most conservative states would not have had the courage to open and return to normal for many more months.

Of course, the governor's leadership on COVID has defined his first term in office, but that alone doesn't account for his near-universal popularity with Republican voters. Several clips from DeSantis' speech last week spread far and wide on social media. Thanks to his competence and resistance to intense pressure from Democrats and the corporate media across a whole host of issues, the governor has become America's de facto conservative leader. Accordingly, his State of the State Address last week was greeted—especially on Twitter—like a national event.

Troublingly for Trump loyalists in Mar-a-Lago, the enthusiasm with which Republicans across the country greet a new statement or memorable, combative press conference from DeSantis indicates that the governor has filled the void in what was previously seen as the party of Donald Trump.

DeSantis has taken the reins with creative, aggressive policy solutions to many of the issues left unaddressed over the four years of the Trump administration. The governor's tangible solutions to hot-button issues such as critical race theory indoctrination, election integrity, Big Tech censorship, protecting the unborn and immigration—all elaborated in his State of the State Address—stand in stark contrast to the former president's notable inability to do more than simply talk about them.

In a way, DeSantis' recent speech brought back memories of early 2009, when, also left without a national Republican figure in office, conservatives thrilled to the late Rush Limbaugh's speech at that year's Conservative Political Action Conference. That speech didn't catapult Limbaugh to national political office, but it did signal that what Rush called the "titular head of the Republican Party" was up for grabs.

What the political future looks like for Florida's governor is hard to tell. DeSantis isn't running for president—as far as we know. And Trump hasn't specifically announced his intentions. But in the last two years, the governor has captured the imagination and support of many millions, both inside and outside Florida.

Even as many blue state conservatives (and especially Californians) decamp to Texas, with both Trump and DeSantis in Florida, there can be no denying the gravitational pull the Sunshine State now has for the American Right. There is a sense here that this place is the future, especially as GOP voter registration has now overtaken Democratic voter registration for the first time in the state's history. Most Florida Republicans have no doubt who to thank for that.

David Reaboi, a fellow at the Claremont Institute, writes at Late Republic Nonsense. He lives in Miami Beach. He is on Twitter: @davereaboi.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.