On Tuesday, the Sunshine State overperformed–and for great reasons.

Like many, I was casually surprised when the result started coming through Tuesday night, and we did not see the massive numbers of victories for the Republicans as promised. As Wednesday dawned, many were left perplexed about the very muted results, including me, for a very notable reason. Here in Florida, we had grand expectations about the election and experienced something unique, as it turns out – the Florida Republicans actually overperformed, and therein lies where lessons are derived.

Coming into Tuesday, the major races looked to be sewn up, with the only question being what the spreads might be. Governor Ron DeSantis was assured reelection, with some guessing his huge cushion might reach 15 percent. It turns out he crushed Charlie Crist like a beer can at a tailgate party, coming in decimal points shy of a 20 percent blowout. Senator Marco Rubio was facing a year of media speculation he might be ousted by the well-financed Val Demings campaign. But as I was expecting something like a five to seven-point win, Rubio managed to beat Demings by double-digits.

So as Florida was delivering better than expected, why did the national returns become so dismal, and how did the Sunshine State follow the projections? It comes down to leadership.

In many of the national races people are focused on, one thing you see is that personalities were the driving force of those selected. Former President Donald Trump loomed over much of the political landscape with chosen endorsees on many ballots, and when looking over the middling performances in many races, a critical eye needs to be applied. The GOP in this environment should have romped, with so many focused on a dismal economy. That is the very making of a motivated voting base, and yet those disgruntled independents actually failed to cast enough votes for significant change.

In too many instances, what you see is Trump picking flashy names, not those with an established resume and an image of leadership. In Pennsylvania, a TV doc was tapped, and in Georgia, a former pro football star was placed on the ticket. These were regarded as sufficient names in a fertile environment for change, yet they failed to deliver. That Mehmet Oz could not rise above a candidate who is visibly addled and can barely speak is a shameful result. In Georgia, Herschel Walker has banked on his name to get him past a Senator with a weak record and many critical challenges, and they stand at parity.

Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, has surged to numbers never before reached in Florida. He and Rubio both won in Miami-Dade County, a huge liberal enclave in this state–where Rubio hails from, while not previously winning there. They did this by displaying tangible conservative leadership, giving the people a reason to vote for them. It is not a case of name recognition, but proven political delivery.

Look at what DeSantis faced throughout 2022, in terms of issues. He was battled by the Disney corporation. Then he was demonized in the press over a parental rights bill, as the news outlets colluded to call it a homophobic ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill.’ He was dubbed a racist over the flights of immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard. The governor even absorbed criticism for his handling of Hurricane Ian – before the storm even made landfall.

In each case, DeSantis held firm – and persevered. The Disney Company suffered strong negative PR and stock losses. The Parental Rights bill not only passed but was favored by voters. Polls showed support for the immigration stunt that highlighted the border issue — backed even by Hispanics. And the hurricane response was impressive enough that the critical press corps ended up dropping coverage entirely; they feared casting Governor DeSantis in a positive light.

The end result was a show of voter support that had to impress even his harshest critics. That leadership momentum carries through even today, as one Florida newspaper describes the state now as a “crimson hellscape,” and the editor’s board was cowed into quietly editing the piece to remove that biased assessment. This is what the national party should be focusing on to win over supporters – deliver results, not flashy names. Two other Trump picks who performed better did so by showing leadership, not just showing up.

In Ohio, J.D. Vance–an author with Hollywood credentials–did not rest on those laurels, but instead campaigned fiercely against the well-established Tim Ryan, laying out an agenda voters could both understand and latch onto. In Arizona, Kari Lake overcame a large, initial deficit to pull even, by showing her experience in television news equipped her to both deliver a firm message and also combat the media working against her. The frustrating thing is the examples these candidates set are more seen now as the exception. 

In the cases of Oz and Walker, they appeared to mostly deliver a platform of “I’m not like that other guy.” This does not distinguish a candidate; it merely props them up as an option. In too many cases, Republicans were arriving as a checkbox selection and not a motivator.

Florida has been showing the way for the national party. I was at one DeSantis campaign stop in a deeply blue county, and the only people expressing opposition to the idea of his running for President said they opposed it because they did not want him leaving Florida.

That is the level of motivation a candidate needs to deliver, and it is done through staunch leadership and giving people a reason to vote for them. Too often, the GOP candidates arrived as a default selection against the status quo, and it was not enough to get those independents and moderates to even go to the polls. 

In the formerly battleground purple state of Florida, DeSantis won by 1.5 million votes. He did this through the provable direction. He shows people the way, and then leads them through that passage. Marco Rubio has been embattled in the press but has not bowed to the media pressure, and the result was a resounding victory in the face of predicted demise.

Gina Carano
Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File

This is the way, and the national party needs to look at the numbers – both from Florida and then the national stage – to get their direction.