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What DeSantis' exit from the presidential race means for Florida

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Matt Dixon is an NBC senior political reporter and author of "Swamp Monsters."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis crashed out of the Republican presidential preference primary after the Iowa caucuses. NBC's Matt Dixon explains what that means for voters and lawmakers in the Sunshine State.

The choice of candidates for Republican voters in the presidential preference primary has dwindled to just two - former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and former president Donald Trump, the front-runner in the race.

That was not what Florida voters - and especially supporters of Gov. Ron DeSantis - would have expected eight months ago when he launched his presidential campaign.

DeSantis had a huge amount of campaign cash and political capital within the Republican Party. He had momentum from a comprehensive victory in his reelection as governor, and grabbed national attention with a series of culture war policies targeting immigration, education, and LGBTQ+ rights.

But it all came crashing down after the Iowa caucuses. NBC senior national politics reporter Matt Dixon, whose book 'Swamp Monsters' examines the rivalry between DeSantis and Trump, talks with Florida Matters host Matthew Peddie about what the collapse of DeSantis's presidential campaign means for Florida voters, and for lawmakers who had anticipated a legislative session with DeSantis out of town on the campaign trail.

A book cover depicting Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis facing each other and shouting
Little, Brown and Company | Hachette Book Group

Listen to the interview or read highlights from the transcript below:

With DeSantis dropping out of the presidential preference primary after the Iowa caucuses, when you reflect on this and think back to last May, when DeSantis launched his campaign, would you have expected this to happen at this stage?

No. I think that the idea that he could lose to former President Trump in a primary is very much something that people thought could happen, and to some degree expected. But if we go back to that moment in time, when he had won reelection in November of 2022, he [was] America's governor, that was his nickname, he had more money than the rest of the presidential field combined, and a ton of momentum, going into what we all thought was going to be a presidential election cycle that was going to feature him as if not the front-runner, among the front- runners. So to watch it sort of collapse so quickly and spectacularly on the national stage is not something I had expected. At that moment in time when this all started, he seemed to have the perfect recipe for running a presidential primary. And, you know, the best laid plans, and Donald Trump came back with, you know, especially after he was indicted four times, that really energized his political base. Whether you agree or disagree with whether that should energize a political base, the reality of the moment is, it did. And after the indictments were in play, it seemed like it was nearly sort of impossible to run against Trump in any effective way.

What does this now mean for Florida voters? Republicans in Florida, in DeSantis's home state, won't even be able to cast a ballot for DeSantis - although there could presumably be some write-ins. But what does this all mean for them?

I mean, it means that the Florida Republican Party is Donald Trump's party. I know Ron DeSantis leads the state as governor, but for the most part, any indicator when you look at Florida Republicans, be it just the electorate, the primary electorate itself, or the formal Republican Party of Florida, which is the title of the actual statewide party, everyone in unison is now you know, holding hands and behind former President Trump. The formal Republican Party of Florida plans on voting next month to formally endorse him whether the primary's over or not. There had been infighting, you know, between Trump supporters and DeSantis supporters some months ago, as they tried to, you know, figure out the direction of the party and who they were going to, at least quietly align with. That is effectively gone. And the Republican Party of Florida, you know, in this moment in time, belongs to Trump.

What about the impact on the legislative session, then? I mean, how different will this be with DeSantis in Tallahassee rather than out on the primary campaign trail?

Yet to be seen, because we're about halfway through and it is important to note the stark contrast between the past, let's say, maybe two legislative sessions versus this one. Going into the past two, DeSantis, even before session began, would hold, you know, daily, big time splashy press conferences to roll out his policy platform. He had a Republican-dominated legislature that wanted to take those policies that that governor was forcibly advocating for and make them law. Most Republican lawmakers who didn't want to stand in the way of a home state governor as he tried to run for president. So he's really dominated the session conversation, the legislative conversation in recent years. And right now, in Tallahassee, there's a bit of a power vacuum. And that's not because Ron DeSantis has gone, obviously, but he's been in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, he's been focused elsewhere. So it's just a much different feel, and sort of a much different pace, whether he comes back to this legislative session, which is now half over and you know, the character of session is already starting to take shape, and enforces these guys to do things, you know, that they might not want to do is yet to be seen. But I do think in his final two, and it's important to remember he's got two more legislative sessions, he's not remotely close to being done as governor, I think the guy we've seen the future is going to certainly resemble the guy we've seen the past few years, as far as being a more forceful governor, I think that guy will return. I just don't know if it's going to be immediate, I guess, because we're already a few weeks into session.

What about the background to this hostile relationship between Trump and DeSantis? How far back beyond the start of DeSantis's presidential campaign does that actually go?

I think, almost from the beginning. Gov. DeSantis was elected in 2018. And we have stories in the book I've written up going back to 2016, 2017 area, where the two camps quietly and behind the scenes sort of had some tension and weren't exactly always on the same page, they did a really good job when DeSantis was elected of working together as president and governor of Florida, got all the federal money requested. And there was this forward facing projection of two very, very close political allies. And to some extent they were, but if you peel back the onion just a little bit, I think there was always a bit of mistrust. It wasn't as though that the two are besties and having picnics in the park together, it was sort of a marriage of political convenience. And for a while I think that went very, very well until DeSantis decided that he wanted the same goal as Trump, and that's the White House. And that's when things really changed drastically.

Hypothetically, Nikki Haley drops out of the race at some point in this primary, potentially, before South Carolina. So with that in mind, with Haley out, what does that now mean for Florida voters in this GOP presidential preference primary?

I think right now, we're already, if not officially, we're functionally entering the general election. And certainly all those states, including Florida, are still going to take their votes. There's certainly a choice left, I guess, I don't want to say there's not a choice. But the decisions have functionally been made by the Republican Party, that they know who their nominee is going to be. Even if, you know, a whole bunch of states haven't voted yet, because the field pretty much doesn't have anyone left who's even remotely competing with the former president. I think the thing that everyone should keep their eye on is how DeSantis sort of reasserts himself as governor, is it going to be the same forceful guy we've seen with an eye towards 2028, or something different? I tend to think it's going to be the same guy we have seen, but that's certainly not a set in stone environment. So I think watching how he becomes governor, again, once he's off the campaign trail is going to be something that everyone should keep their eye on.

I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.