Few knew what to expect from Ron DeSantis when he was first elected Florida governor in 2018 as a little-known congressman. He had barely eked out a victory. He had almost no ties to the State Capitol. His policy agenda seemed unclear.
But he knew, at least, how he wanted to govern: He directed his general counsel to figure out just how far a governor could push his authority. He pored over a binder enumerating his varied powers: appointing Florida Supreme Court justices, removing local elected officials and wielding line-item vetoes against state lawmakers.
Then he systematically deployed each one.
Four years later, Mr. DeSantis is on the verge of entering the 2024 Republican presidential primary race with a promise that he would make the country more conservative — just as he did Florida, using nearly every means necessary to muscle through his right-wing vision.
“What I was able to bring to the governor’s office was an understanding of how a constitutional form of government operates, the various pressure points that exist, and the best way to leverage authority to achieve substantive policy victories,” Mr. DeSantis, a Harvard-educated lawyer, wrote in his recent book, “The Courage to Be Free,” which described his systematic approach to using executive power.
Mr. DeSantis’s willingness to exert that power in extraordinary ways has led him to barrel through norms, challenge the legal limits of his office and threaten political retribution against those who cross him. Unlike former President Donald J. Trump, the 2024 Republican front-runner who considers the governor his top rival, Mr. DeSantis is a keen student of American government who has expanded his influence tactically and methodically, using detailed knowledge of the pliable confines of his office to his advantage.
“He’s the most powerful governor Florida has ever seen,” said Jeff Brandes, a former state senator and a rare Republican who has raised concerns about Mr. DeSantis’s use of power. Democrats have been scathing in their assessment, describing the governor with words usually reserved for foreign demagogues.
“Americans want to live in a democracy with freedoms,” Nikki Fried, the chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, wrote this week on Twitter, “and not under an authoritarian regime.”
Jeremy T. Redfern, the press secretary for the governor’s office, rejected the assertion that governor has pushed the boundaries of his authority, calling it “nonsense” and a “leftist talking point.”
Removing elected officials
Mr. DeSantis was elected by a mere 32,463 votes in 2018 — a margin so narrow that it required a recount and could have prompted him to not “rock the boat,” the governor wrote in his book. Instead, three days after being sworn into office in January 2019, he suspended the elected Democratic sheriff of Broward County over his handling of the Parkland high school shooting a year earlier.
That moment put the state on notice that Mr. DeSantis did not intend to govern like his predecessors, who typically suspended elected officials only if they had been charged with crimes.
“I earned 50 percent of the vote,” Mr. DeSantis told Republicans at a dinner this month, “but that entitled me to wield 100 percent of the executive power.”
Mr. DeSantis has continued targeting local, elected officials. In 2019, he removed from office the Democratic elections supervisor of Palm Beach County for her handling of the 2018 recount. Mr. DeSantis called the suspensions necessary for accountability.
Last August, Mr. DeSantis suspended four members of the Broward County school board — citing a special grand jury investigation on school security failures that he had requested from the Republican-majority state Supreme Court. All four of those ousted were Democrats who had been elected since the shooting; Mr. DeSantis replaced them with Republicans.
That same month he suspended Andrew H. Warren, the top prosecutor in Tampa, after Mr. Warren, a Democrat, vowed not to criminalize abortion. The governor did not cite any specific case that Mr. Warren had failed to prosecute, and records showed that the removal had been fueled by politics.
A federal judge ruled that while Mr. DeSantis went too far in suspending Mr. Warren, the court had no authority to reinstate him. Mr. Warren has appealed.
Amassing power during a pandemic
While Mr. DeSantis showed an early interest in consolidating power in his office, the Covid pandemic allowed him to centralize and expand his authority. During the declared emergency in 2020, the governor had the authority — and used it — to spend $5 billion in federal aid without legislative approval.
He went beyond that, prohibiting local mask and vaccine mandates, calling the Legislature into special session to write those bans into law, and threatening to withhold pay for administrators of public school districts that tried to defy him.
His hard line helped him build a larger national profile and appeared to propel Mr. DeSantis to govern more assertively, especially when it came to heated cultural issues popular with his political base. He reached deep into his administration to compel obscure agencies and boards to enact his policies.
The governor filled state boards for hospitals and colleges with like-minded appointees, eventually orchestrating a takeover of New College of Florida, a public liberal arts school in Sarasota that he and his allies hope to turn into a conservative bastion. Two state medical boards whose members were appointed by the governor prohibited gender-transition care for minors and education regulators expanded a prohibition on classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.
More recently, he has used the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to try to take away the liquor licenses from a Miami restaurant, a Miami hotel and an Orlando theater because children have attended drag shows at the venues.
“What is scary in Florida is that we’re seeing the governor’s continued efforts to consolidate power under himself so that there are not any checks and balances for what he does,” said Kara Gross, the legislative director and senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
Mr. DeSantis has also relied on raw political power and threats of retribution — often aimed at allies.
He has intervened in legislative races, where his endorsements have helped him stack the Legislature with loyal Republicans and sent a clear message to lawmakers to get in line or possibly face a primary challenge. Last fall, he turned to school board races, working with Moms for Liberty, a right-wing group, to publish a list of endorsements for seats that are technically nonpartisan.
During redistricting last year, when senators drew a congressional map not to Mr. DeSantis’s liking, he vetoed it and forced the lawmakers to adopt a map that he had put forward — the first time anyone in the State Capitol could remember a governor taking such a brash step.
The Senate initially resisted Mr. DeSantis’s map, which eliminated a majority Black district in North Florida and effectively gave Republicans four more seats in Congress. But lawmakers knew that Mr. DeSantis could use endorsements and primaries as a cudgel. In fact, he did not back the Senate president’s campaign for state agriculture commissioner until after the chamber gave the governor his map. (The map still faces a court challenge.)
Yet the episode that most crystallized the Legislature’s deference to Mr. DeSantis involved a foe that Florida Republicans would have previously been loath to take on: the Walt Disney Company, one of Florida’s largest taxpayers.
When Disney’s chief executive at the time opposed legislation last year restricting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, Mr. DeSantis did not hesitate to push back. He called on lawmakers to strip Disney’s special tax district from many of its powers, pitting traditionally business-friendly lawmakers against Florida’s most famous corporate giant.
The standoff has spilled over into this year, with Disney making moves to limit the state’s new oversight board and the state countering to undo Disney’s plans. Disney recently sued Florida in federal court and canceled a $1 billion development near Orlando.
It’s far from clear Mr. DeSantis will win his battle with Disney. Still, he sees political upside in boasting that he did not bow to corporate pressure.
After the sugar industry backed his opponent in the 2018 Republican primary, Mr. DeSantis, in his first week in office, signed an executive order on water quality that took aim at some of the industry’s polluting practices.
“While Big Sugar did not like it,” Mr. DeSantis wrote in his book, “most people across the political spectrum in Florida were thrilled.”
Legislators have been so quick to do Mr. DeSantis’s bidding that they have had to repeatedly return to the State Capitol to retroactively give the governor authority for actions already taken.
“We had a recent seventh special session — which is supposed to be an extraordinary measure — basically to clean up all of the outstanding issues,” State Senator Jason W.B. Pizzo, a Democrat, said earlier this year. “A colleague referred to it as ‘cleanup on aisle five’ for the governor.”
During that session, held in February, lawmakers passed legislation detailing their authority over Disney’s special tax district. But they also amended laws passed last year that had mired the DeSantis administration in court.
Mr. DeSantis created an office of election crimes in 2022 that brought fraud charges against people who may have inappropriately cast ballots. But judges threw out case after case, saying that statewide prosecutors lacked the authority to bring those charges. Lawmakers changed the law this year to explicitly empower the prosecutors.
Legislators also did away with language that had complicated the governor’s legal justification for flying Venezuelan migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts last summer. The original language adopted in 2022 gave the DeSantis administration the authority to transport migrants “from this state” — not from Texas, Mr. Pizzo argued in a lawsuit after the Martha’s Vineyard stunt. In the special February session, lawmakers scrapped that phrase and expanded Mr. DeSantis’s authority to transport migrants from anywhere in the country.
“He completely controls the Legislature,” Mr. Pizzo said.
Last week, Mr. DeSantis used his influence to line up endorsements for his presidential campaign. His political team announced the backing of 99 of the state’s 113 Republican legislators, even as some said privately that they felt pressured to support Mr. DeSantis for fear that he might otherwise veto their bills or spending projects.
Were Mr. DeSantis to win the White House, he would likely face tougher opposition in Washington than he has in Tallahassee. There have already been signs of division: Last month, 11 of 20 Republican representatives in Florida’s congressional delegation endorsed Mr. Trump over Mr. DeSantis.
Alexandra Berzon and Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting.