Florida shines under DeSantis' leadership. His liberal critics should learn from him.

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If you've wondered why folks are flocking to Florida and presume it's the sun, sand and surf, I have a better reason. Florida has much more to offer than its superior location and warmth. It has a great governor.

Florida has become one of the most popular and conservative states in America. Those two things are intertwined. While governors in blue states are losing residents by the thousands, hiking taxes and unable to fix crime, unemployment and homelessness, Gov. Ron DeSantis has turned the former swing state into a solidly red state.

That's exactly why Florida and its residents are thriving. The Republican party and voters should take note − and so should DeSantis. Their dance with each other may not be over yet.

DeSantis steers Florida's success in a masterclass of governing

Data shows that Florida is the second most popular state to move to, trailing Texas, and folks are coming from blue states like New York, Illinois and California. From 2022-2023, Florida gained 194,000 people from other states. While undoubtedly, some are retirees looking forward to spending their golden years on a beach somewhere, it looks like people are moving because they appreciate Florida's politics, spearheaded by DeSantis.

Though his presidential candidacy never really took off, it should have.

The Republican party dismissed DeSantis for two reasons: Trump's chokehold on the GOP and the awkwardness DeSantis displayed during debates. Trump's not much better in debates, but he wasn't there, so the GOP had to compare the debate performances of DeSantis, who is odd in public and seems anxious or stressed, to the version of Trump that lives voters minds.

Trump has such an obsessive hold on the party they couldn't forgive DeSantis' superficial flaws, like launching his campaign in a weird way online or smiling angrily during a debate.

DeSantis has led Florida's growth, pushing the state to new heights in the economy, education, low taxes and even crime. He's been so effective he's a prototype for other GOP governors to follow. Blue-state governors − Jared Polis (D-CO), Gavin Newsom (D-CA) and Kathy Hochul (D-New York), to name a few − should take note of what's working in Florida versus what's failing in their states. They just might see a better blueprint to use.

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When DeSantis won the governorship again in 2022, a massive red wave was predicted across the nation but didn't materialize, except in Florida. That year, DeSantis won by more than a million and a half votes, the largest margin of any Florida governor in 40 years. Incredibly, he flipped the solid-blue Miami-Dade County red − the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to win that county in 20 years. When he took office in 2018, Florida had 300,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Today, Republicans hold a more-than 850,00 voter lead in the state.

Florida is a bastion of conservative policies that work

Florida basks in conservative policies, helmed by the former Naval officer who went to Harvard and Yale. He might have the pedigree of an "elitist," but he has the heart and soul of a conservative. Florida has no income tax, and just last week, he signed additional tax relief for corporations. He touts what he calls pro-family and anti-woke policies on education that families love. Together, these have boosted Florida's growth and economy.

For the second year in a row, U.S. News has ranked Florida No. 1 in education, specifically higher education. On violent crime, Florida is ranked 25th in the nation, somewhat below the national average. DeSantis is known for publicly and repeatedly backing law enforcement.

Florida's economy is a huge draw. Its private sector job growth rate increased in January at double the national rate and Florida’s workforce grew by 2.2 percent (+243,000) − faster than the national over-the-year rate. Democrat governors refuse to implement policies like lower taxes or ideas that promote job growth because they can't fathom such ideas actually work. It's anathema to their mindset. This is where they go wrong and why so many people are fleeing blue states.

Why critics are wrong or don't understand how DeSantis is effective

Critics quickly point out that DeSantis can be a lightning rod, instituting ideas they say are blatantly bigoted, far-right, unconstitutional or unreasonable. But those policies appeal to conservatives and haven't curtailed Florida's growth.

DeSantis signed laws that Vox declared "go further even than other red states" like banning gender-affirming care for minors, establishing a six-week abortion ban and permitless carry. While looked down upon in blue states as too traditional, alarming or scary, conservatives often want to live in a place that matches their values.

Leaning into his constituency and offering and implementing sound policies is where DeSantis is light-years ahead of liberal governors. While Newsom might find favor with his constituency, his policies are poor and continue to hurt California.

People, mostly newly arrived migrants, receive an afternoon meal from Trinity Services and Food For the Homeless, across from Tompkins Square Park on January 24, 2024 in New York City. T
People, mostly newly arrived migrants, receive an afternoon meal from Trinity Services and Food For the Homeless, across from Tompkins Square Park on January 24, 2024 in New York City. T

Same for Hochul. New York offered itself as a sanctuary state for migrants, which sounds altruistic, only to find itself overrun and New York Mayor Eric Adams stating angrily that they would destroy the beautiful city. Progressive policies often sound good, but Republican policies actually are.

DeSantis got a lot of heat for passing what critics called his “Don’t Say Gay” law. Dubbed dangerous and homophobic, the Parental Rights in Education Act required district school boards to adopt procedures that reinforced parental rights but also banned teaching about sexual identity to younger students. Critics said the language was vague and seemed to prevent teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ issues in class. In March, a settlement was reached and clarified the law. Teachers can discuss LGBTQ issues outside of formal instruction. Both DeSantis' office and LGBTQ+ allies dubbed the settlement a win.

DeSantis isn't just fighting 'wokeness.' He's fighting for policies that help his state thrive.

The Florida governor's most famous feud was probably with Florida's most famous corporation, Disney. After the company criticized DeSantis's parental rights law, he tried to strip Disney of its status as a special tax district. Two years of litigation later, the two reached a settlement in March over how Walt Disney World would develop in the future. While it's possible Disney should not have enjoyed its special tax status, and its progressive views infuriate Republicans, DeSantis does seem to have reached too far in suing the company in the first place. It looks too much like overreach and payback, something conservatives don't like when Democrats in power do it.

Still, DeSantis brags that he's fighting "wokeness," but in reality, his policy war has been so much more. He's really gone to fighting liberal policies that keep residents from paying high taxes, fumbling in a struggling economy, and failing to benefit from a good education. "Wokeness," in his mind, is the symptom, not the disease.

Florida is doing well because DeSantis embraced ideas that help Floridians thrive. Florida's example is why Republicans should have looked beyond DeSantis' superficial flaws and focused on what he's implemented. A DeSantis/Nikki Haley ticket could have rid the party of Trump, a fraudulent pariah, and paved the way for a new path forward.

Now, instead of seeing Florida-like policies everywhere, you have to move to the Sunshine State to benefit.

Nicole Russell is an opinion columnist with USA TODAY. She lives in Texas with her four kids.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is proving Republican policies work.