JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mark Schaefer is a moderate Republican who voted, reluctantly, for President Donald Trump in 2020. His wife, Deb Schaefer describes herself as a lifelong Democrat who supported President Biden.
But when it comes to Florida politics, the couple is united in their excitement over Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. “We love him,” Deb Schaefer said outside her house in Jacksonville’s waterfront Riverside-Avondale Historic District.
They know DeSantis, who has blazed a national profile as he seeks reelection this November, isn’t perfect. Deb, 52, worries about abortion rights, and Mark, 54, fears he is making Florida less tolerant of his gay and lesbian friends. But they said that probably won’t impact their vote for him this fall.
“He has made a huge difference in the quality of life here in Florida,” Deb said. “He took a big chance and kept things open [during the pandemic] … and I don’t want to see things shut down again.”
The Schaefers’ enthusiasm highlights the way DeSantis has grown his appeal in this perennial swing state. After narrowly winning the governorship in 2018 by four-tenths of one percent and with 49.6 percent of the vote, DeSantis is cruising toward November’s election with an approval rating hovering around 55 percent, a war chest of more than $100 million total raised and buzz about a potential presidential bid in 2024.
Though DeSantis has governed as a conservative firebrand — leading efforts to restrict abortion access and limit conversations about race and sexual orientation in the classroom — he has built support among some political moderates with his hands-off approach to covid-19.
“Our view was while all of these other states were locking people down it was our responsibility to lift people up,” DeSantis said last month in Miami at an event marking the National Prayer Breakfast. “That meant protecting their freedoms, their right to worship, the right to earn a living, and the right to send their kids to school five days a week.”
DeSantis’s success foreshadows his potential strategy for winning the White House in two years. And the governor’s ability to attract a spectrum of voters — and his approach to the pandemic — face a crucial test in November, especially in heavily populated communities like Duval County, home of Jacksonville.
A small majority of voters in this growing and diverse region supported DeSantis’s opponent, Andrew Gillum in 2018. But the governor’s supporters believe he’ll be able to win here this time, buoyed by his “freedom first” agenda.
Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the governor’s fiery and culturally divisive approach will backfire, particularly among the area’s younger or more moderate voters.
“DeSantis says Florida is the ‘freest state in the nation.’ Well, apparently not if you are a woman and want the right to choose, apparently not if you are Black and want to cast your ballot, and apparently not if you are LGBTQ and don’t want to be harassed,” Rep. Charlie Crist (D), who is running against Nikki Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner, for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
After being out-organized by the GOP for the past two years, Florida Democrats are slowly becoming more engaged for the fall campaign, veteran Florida political analyst Susan MacManus said. She also sees signs that issues such as abortion rights and the fight over gun control have energized core Democratic supporters, she added.
Yet, MacManus said DeSantis still benefits from public perception that the state’s economy remains relatively strong due to his approach to the pandemic, she said. The governor also has solid support from suburban women, she said, many of whom back his education policies.
And MacManus remains skeptical that Democrats have a strategy for wining back South Florida Latino voters who shifted to the right during the 2020 presidential election.
“Democrats have rallied their base a bit, and now the base is paying more attention than they were,” MacManus said. “But now Democrats have to capitalize on it.”
Treating Floridians ‘like grown-ups’
For decades, Duval County was a Republican stronghold as White religious conservatives and military families delivered decisive margins for GOP candidates. But over the past decade, as the county added 150,000 new residents and Democrats stepped up their efforts to turn out Black voters, Duval County has become more competitive in statewide races.
In 2018, Gillum, who was running to become the state’s first Black governor, became the first Democrat since 1986 to carry Duval County in a governor’s race, defeating DeSantis there. Two years later, even as much of the rest of the state trended to the right, Biden carried Duval County with 51 percent of the vote.
Jacksonville City Councilman Rory Diamond, a Republican, believes DeSantis will carry Duval County this year because of his economic record and political skills.
“I think he is going to win in Duval County by a large margin, probably the biggest margin in a generation for any gubernatorial candidate,” said Diamond, who represents heavily Republican Jacksonville Beach. Diamond believes DeSantis will inspire presidential election-level turnout among Republicans and win back suburban Independents who trended left in 2020.
In the southern part of Duval County, a 40-year-old housing development named “Secret Cove” exemplifies the passion that Republican-leaning voters feel for DeSantis this year. While most people here voted for DeSantis in 2018, many residents say their support for him has only grown since then.
With 380 houses clustered around the bass-filled lake, some Secret Cove residents refer to their community as “Little Mayberry,” a reference to the idyllic community portrayed in the 1960s sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show.”
And DeSantis, many residents here say, is just the sort of politician they have been waiting for.
Even as they watch crime rates surge in other parts of the nation, Secret Cove remains largely crime-free. Most residents here remain on sound financial footing, thanks in part to rising home values.
As he stood in front of his house recently, 70-year-old Tom Sikes said he’s waited decades for a Florida governor like DeSantis to “fight back” against corporations and liberalism. Like Trump, DeSantis has learned a politician doesn’t need to be liked to be effective, Sikes said.
“Trump came in and said, ‘You are a jerk. You are a jerk. And you are a jerk,’” Sikes said. “DeSantis is the same way, and he is not going to take crap from anyone anymore … and if you just stand up to [liberals], a lot of them will back down.”
The portrait of DeSantis as a fearless fighter was widely repeated in interviews with Secret Cove voters. Many here also praised the governor’s covid policies and his support for restrictions on the teaching of LGBTQ issues in schools.
Florida has seen 350 covid-19 deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 304 per 100,000 residents. Even though doctors and scientists have widely rebuked DeSantis’s approach to the pandemic, many Floridians say the governor’s stance closely tracks with their own views.
Colleen Lumley, 58, said she began admiring DeSantis during the pandemic because he treats Floridians “like grown-ups.”
“If you want to wear the mask, wear it. If you don’t, don’t,” said Lumley, who lives in a lakeside home. “You got options in Florida, as opposed to someone saying, ‘You can’t go to this restaurant because it’s closed, and you can’t go in because you won’t wear a mask’.”
As he washed turnip greens that he plucked from his garden, Secret Cove resident John Norse credits DeSantis for tackling “political correctness” in schools and employers, including his decision to challenge Disney’s self-governance status after the company spoke out against his parental rights bill that limits how teachers discuss LGBTQ issues with elementary school students.
“This is where Democrats go overboard where they just can’t even be half-normal,” said Norse, 58, who described himself as a devout Christian.
A mixed reception
Yet amid explosive development in southern Duval County, DeSantis will also have to make inroads with voters in the new apartment communities that surround Secret Cove, as well as in the racially diverse neighborhoods closer to Downtown or along the St. Johns River.
And there, views of the governor are more mixed.
In the Schaefers’ Riverside-Avondale community, century-old houses have been restored and residents congregate at garden parties or eclectic neighborhood eateries. The neighborhood leans left, but it has become a magnet for covid-era newcomers from northern states.
In an interview, Mark Schaefer said he didn’t like everything about DeSantis. He said the governor’s tone with Disney appeared “a little too un-governor-like” and “childish.” He was also initially skeptical of the “Parental Rights in Education” legislation, a measure critics refer to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“But then I read the bill, and was like, ‘I also don’t want kids in grades kindergarten through third grade being taught that they may be another sex’,” said Schaefer, a pharmaceutical sales agent.
Deb Schaefer, who also works in pharmaceutical sales, added that her support for DeSantis stands in sharp contrast to her views about Trump, whom she viewed as uncouth. She believes DeSantis is better-read and more intellectual than the former president.
One potential complication is the debate surrounding abortion. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Deb Schaefer said she could reconsider her likely support for DeSantis, especially if he supports an effort to outlaw abortion here.
“Would it make me shift all the way back [to Democrats]? I don’t know,” she said.
Two doors down from the Schaefers’ house, the couple’s neighbor and friend Richard Ceriello said he can sum up his own view on DeSantis in less than a dozen words.
“I think the man is really quite evil,” said Ceriello, 71, a former public school teacher and longtime Jacksonville community and LGBTQ activist. “He has clearly taken a lesson from Trump and others, and his agenda is to vilify educators, vilify intellectuals.”
Ceriello, who lives in a historic farm house that was built around 1878, said he rarely talks about politics with his neighbors. To do so would run counter to the notion of Southern charm and sensibility, he said.
But Ceriello worries about a rise in hate crimes in Jacksonville — including the recent theft of a memorial that had stood in a park to honor the memory of a victim of the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando — that he said coincided with the state’s push to restrict LGBTQ teachings this spring.
“He is using the LGBTQ community as a whipping boy, so he can gain some sort of traction for his campaign,” said Ceriello, who is active in several local gay rights and civic organizations.
In Jacksonville, Ceriello predicts DeSantis’s policies will backfire with voters.
“The whole demographics of this city are changing, and all of these people from the Northeast are moving here,” said Ceriello, noting that at least four openly gay candidates are running for seats on the Jacksonville City Council this year.
A fight for Black voters
Democratic officials agree. Many here say they believe they’ll be able to win in Duval County this fall. DeSantis’s rhetoric around race and gender — along with his hard line on abortion rights — will help them turn out voters, they say.
They also argue that they have an advantage on the ground. Even as Florida Republicans have made steady gains on Democrats in voter registration in Florida since 2020 — there are now 135,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the state — Duval County Democrats maintain an advantage of about 33,000 voters.
The 2020 Census also showed Duval County is on the cusp of becoming majority-minority county, as both the Black and Latino populations continue to grow.
“For DeSantis to win Duval County this time, our voter turnout on the Democratic side will have to completely collapse,” said Daniel Henry, chairman of the Duval County Democratic Party.
Henry said Duval Democrats will be focused on mobilizing Black voters, who make up 31 percent of the county population and have traditionally voted for Democratic candidates.
Those voters, Henry said, have felt targeted by some of DeSantis’s most divisive policies, including his proposal to eliminate a North Florida congressional district that had a Black representative.
Republicans, however, argue that some Black voters will give DeSantis credit for keeping Florida’s economy largely open during the pandemic. They believe they can make small inroads with this community.
In February, the Republican National Committee opened a “community center” on Jacksonville’s west side to reach out to Black voters. Located in a shopping center and wedged between Roxy’s Beauty Supply and DT Nail Supply stores, the community center offers visitors free classes on gardening, makeup, resume writing, automotive repair and financial literacy.
In neighborhoods nearby, some Black voters said they are willing to consider the GOP message this year, especially amid widespread concerns about inflation.
“The costs are just getting too high,” said Ida Lynn, who emigrated from Haiti in 1994. “I always vote for the Democrats, but this year I don’t know.”
But Dwight Whing, 67, said he and most of his Black neighbors will be out to vote this year to send a message to DeSantis and the GOP.
“The way he governs, he just acts like, ‘I am the governor’ and if anyone opposes him he just goes into attack mode,” said Whing, who recently retired from the tire industry. “I can’t say I oppose everything he’s done. … But the last couple elections have been very eye opening to people about how important their votes are.”