“You have a choice: You can accept responsibility or you can blame others,” said state Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican who flipped his endorsement from DeSantis to Trump and
found himself drawing the ire of those in the governor’s circle. “I don’t know which he’ll choose. I hope he uses it as a learning experience.”

One Tallahassee political operative, who was granted anonymity in order to avoid drawing DeSantis’ wrath, put it this way: “Will it be the prickly, thin-skinned vengeful guy we have learned to love or can he learn he has to build rather than burn bridges?”

Fears of a vengeful DeSantis aren’t unfounded. He went after Disney after the corporate giant vowed to undo a law limiting the classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity that critics called “Don’t Say Gay.” DeSantis had a falling out with Susie Wiles, his 2018 campaign manager who is now a top adviser to Trump, that led him to advocate for her removal from Trump’s reelection campaign in late 2019. Last year, state Sen. Joe Gruters, a former chair of the Republican Party of Florida, contended that DeSantis used his line-item veto
to wipe out funding for projects backed by Gruters because he endorsed Trump.

More than a dozen legislators, lobbyists, political operatives, members of the DeSantis administration and Republican members of Congress said in interviews that they’ve discussed or questioned how the governor will act when he returns.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who was once part of DeSantis’ inner circle during his early days as governor but has backed Trump, said that DeSantis does not linger on the past and is pragmatic.

“I don’t think he’s going to be governing with any sense of vengeance toward the Trump people because he’s very forward looking,” Gaetz said. “He has a career where he sets his eyes on a goal and he pursues that goal.”

The first signs of DeSantis’ reengagement with Tallahassee politics came on Monday night when the governor posted on X, the platform formally known as Twitter, that he was opposed to legislation that would have taxpayers help pay for Trump’s legal bills. The GOP Senate sponsor of the bill, within an hour of his announcement, said she was withdrawing the bill — a stinging blow to Jimmy Patronis, the state’s chief financial officer and a member of the state Cabinet, since Patronis had been pushing for the legislation for months. Patronis never endorsed DeSantis’ presidential bid and instead endorsed Trump right after DeSantis ended his campaign.

DeSantis’ fiercest critics predict he could lash out at those he faults for his failure. Nikki Fried, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, feuded with DeSantis when she was the state’s agriculture commissioner — and sole Democrat in DeSantis’ cabinet — during the governor’s first term.

“It depends on who he blames for his downfall,” Fried said. “If he’s frustrated and he’s angry, he may come back and try to burn it all down.”

DeSantis has enjoyed tremendous sway and power during his time as governor and went from someone who worked collaboratively with legislators in his first year in office to being able to get GOP lawmakers to
endorse nearly everything he asked for, from redistricting to culture war battles over
education, gender identity and abortion. DeSantis used those legislative victories on the campaign trail but they did not win widespread support from GOP voters he and his team had expected.

Yet the governor has widespread authority and famously knows how to use it. DeSantis can threaten to veto bills or budget projects. He can wade into Republican primaries as he did during the 2022 election cycle, when he used his endorsements to
boost his political allies and sink the chances of some Republicans who had the backing of the party’s leadership. In the immediate aftermath of Fine’s flip, some in the DeSantis camp, for example, discussed whether or not they would get involved in the GOP state senate primary he’s running in. But his endorsement may not mean quite as much as it once did given his current status.

DeSantis has been in politics a little more than a decade, but he has never lost a race during his ascent as a member of Congress to governor of the third largest state in the nation. His lone political setback came in 2016, when he dropped out of the race for U.S. Senate after Marco Rubio decided to run for reelection in the aftermath of losing to Trump in that year’s presidential primaries.

DeSantis has given little indication on what he’ll do or how he’ll act as governor. Unlike past years, DeSantis did not give the Legislature a robust agenda to consider for the 2024 session. He made it clear, however, that he won’t accept the participation trophy of being vice presidential candidate.

“I’m running for president because I think we need someone who can win and get the job done,” DeSantis said on Fox News right before a January campaign stop in Dubuque. “I would much rather do my final two years as governor in 25 and 26 than be vice president. I don’t think it’s a position that offers much.”

He also told conservative radio show host Steve Deace on Tuesday that he was eyeing ways to hold the federal government accountable in court for promoting and “coercing” Covid vaccines.

Jeremy Redfern, a spokesperson for the DeSantis administration, said the premise of the story — that DeSantis could seek vengeance — was “rather ridiculous.”

“Governor DeSantis was re-elected by a historic margin in 2022, and he’s been delivering results as he promised, with the most substantial legislative session in Florida’s history in 2023,” he said in a statement.

One long-time supporter and fundraiser of DeSantis, granted anonymity to speak freely, when asked about how the governor will move ahead said: “I don’t know. This is uncharted territory. He’s never taken a loss.”

DeSantis narrowly edged Democrat Andrew Gillum in 2018 and in his first year in office he concentrated on spending more on the environment and teacher pay and he brokered deals with legislative leaders. His national prominence grew, however, with his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which included his opposition to mask and vaccine mandates and lockdowns. DeSantis followed that with legislative proposals tailored to a GOP electorate as he embraced contentious legislation dealing with race, gender identity, guns and abortion.

DeSantis used his executive power in ways beyond that of his Republican predecessors, including suspending from office two Democratic prosecutors that he contended were failing to properly do their jobs. DeSantis lashed out at the administration of President Joe Biden over border policies and spent money flying migrants from Texas to places such as Martha’s Vineyard and California. The move brought sharp criticism and condemnation from Democrats including Biden.

His strongest supporters contend that regardless of what happens to his presidential campaign that DeSantis will act the same.

“If it doesn’t work out, I think we see the same Ron DeSantis as in years past,” said state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, a Republican from Spring Hill, before DeSantis dropped out. “Somebody who is going to remain aggressive, someone who is going to be put his imprint on the future of Florida. He’s going to be the same Ron DeSantis. If anyone thinks differently they obviously don’t know the man.”

Kimberly Leonard contributed to this report.

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