By Steve Contorno, CNN
Shortly after winning the GOP nomination for Florida governor in 2018, Ron DeSantis decided it would be too much to serve in the US House while campaigning to become the state’s top executive, so he voluntarily resigned from his congressional seat.
“As the Republican nominee for governor of Florida, it is clear to me that I will likely miss the vast majority of our remaining session days for this Congress,” DeSantis wrote in a resignation letter to then-House Speaker Paul Ryan. “Under these circumstances, it would be inappropriate for me to accept a salary.”
More than four years later, a bill awaiting the now-governor’s signature makes clear DeSantis does not have to take similar steps if he runs for president. Florida lawmakers last week moved to exempt candidates for president and vice president from a state law that says elected officials there must resign to run for another office, clearing the way for DeSantis to seek the White House without giving up the governor’s mansion.
DeSantis has not publicly addressed the measure. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
All spring, DeSantis’ likely 2024 campaign for president has lurked behind many of the bills Republican lawmakers have pushed through the GOP-controlled state House and Senate. DeSantis has put off an announcement about his future until after his state’s legislative session, scheduled to end Friday, and he is stacking GOP policy victories to potentially run on, including a six-week abortion ban and a permitless concealed carry law. It’s an advantage DeSantis has maximized against a field of candidates that currently includes three people with “former” in their title.
But changing the rules for candidates to the benefit of one person — DeSantis — has put the Republican’s political ambitions nakedly on display for Democrats to criticize and future rivals to potentially seize on.
Democratic lawmakers took turns during debate on the bill teeing off on Republicans for giving DeSantis a green light to govern the country’s third-largest state from the campaign trail.
Allies of former President Donald Trump, currently the front-runner for the GOP nomination, have in recent weeks targeted the governor’s extensive travel as evidence that he should have already stepped down. Stand For America — a super PAC tied to another potential 2024 rival, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — is already plotting how to exploit DeSantis’ maneuvering around the state law, a source with knowledge of their plans told CNN.
A frequent criticism
Sitting officials who run for president often must confront the optics of skipping out on their day job while crisscrossing the country to win a new one. Sen. Marco Rubio faced regular attacks from opponents for his absences while campaigning for the GOP nomination in 2016; so did former President Barack Obama, who missed hundreds of Senate votes amid his 2008 campaign for the White House.
Unlike past situations, though, DeSantis himself will weigh in on a matter that will eliminate questions about whether he can remain in office if he jumps in the race. Under Florida’s Constitution, a governor can sign a bill into law, decline to sign it and it becomes law without their signature seven days after it reaches their desk, or veto it.
DeSantis’ own words may also complicate his defense should he decide to remain in office. He was under no obligation to resign in 2018 — the state’s resign to run law does not apply to federal office holders — but he suggested in his letter to Ryan it was the right thing to do to “honor my principles and protect the taxpayer.”
The letter shows DeSantis’ mindset has already evolved on other matters related to elected office. He lays the groundwork for his resignation by noting his rejection of taxpayer-funded benefits for members of Congress. He slept in his office and turned down a congressional pension, he said to Ryan.
“I believe members of Congress should not be treated any differently than those they govern,” he wrote. “I’ve done my best to live these principles.”
DeSantis has upgraded his digs from an office couch on Capitol Hill to the state’s governor’s mansion, where he resides with his wife and three young children. Though he once eschewed a government pension, that changed when he was elected governor, according to the financial disclosure forms he files with the state. In his most recent form submitted last June, DeSantis counted $48,226 in the Florida Retirement System among his assets.
A legislative tweak
Republicans in Florida have defended changing the laws to accommodate DeSantis, who would be the first president to emerge from Tallahassee if he wins.
“I can’t think of a better training ground than the state of Florida for a future commander-in-chief,” Republican state Rep. Tyler Sirois said.
The change, if it becomes law, would eliminate a dispute that has not been previously resolved. The law says that “no officer may qualify as a candidate for another state, district, county, or municipal public office” without resigning from their current office. However, it leaves unclear at what point that would apply to a presidential candidate — when they file paperwork to run, when they qualify for the ballot in any state or just in Florida, or when they are nominated by their party.
Democrats said the law should have been changed to simply define the point in time Florida officials should resign if they run for president. They noted that DeSantis this year has already spent much of the year outside Florida — embarking on a national book tour, attending GOP dinners and fundraisers and globetrotting throughout Asia and Europe — and he’s not even officially a candidate yet.
“If you believe that you can win, then go ahead and do it, but don’t hold us hostage while you fulfill your ambitions,” state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Miami Democrat, said before the bill passed the Senate. “You cannot have your cake and eat it too. Be confident that you’re going to win but don’t change the law because we all are a part of your fallback plan.”
It’s not the first time Florida Republicans have tweaked the law to help one of their own make the leap to Washington. Similar action was taken in 2007, a move widely seen as an assist to then-Gov. Charlie Crist’s chances to become the running mate on the 2008 GOP presidential ticket.
Florida lawmakers, in the last decade, reversed the action passed under Crist, but Republican legislative leaders had for months indicated their willingness to once again eliminate this potential hurdle for DeSantis.
But for most of their 60-day legislative session, the promise didn’t materialize as a bill, a sign of the uncomfortable politics behind the move. A source with knowledge of the legislative negotiations told CNN that House and Senate leaders were paralyzed by the lack of direction from the governor’s office, which was averse to the expected political fallout.
The provision finally emerged last week — with DeSantis overseas and lawmakers careening toward the end of their legislative calendar — tacked onto a fast-moving 96-page elections bill that otherwise created new restrictions on casting a ballot by mail and registering voters.
Rumors swirled in Tallahassee, fanned by Trump allies, that the former president might journey to the state capital to upend the vote on the measure. A Trump adviser told CNN that there were no concrete plans to actually visit the Capitol building, but the chatter went unchallenged publicly by his team as DeSantis loyalists braced for the possible chaos.
The state Senate passed the measure on Wednesday and the state House gave final approval on Friday. If signed, it will take effect on July 1 — ahead of what will be a busy time on the presidential campaign trail.
A super PAC supporting Trump, Make America Great Again Inc., had previously alleged in a state ethics complaint DeSantis was a defacto and violating the state’s resign to run law. The state ethics commission voted last month to dismiss the complaint for lack of legal sufficiency.
Even if DeSantis signs the law, nothing would prevent him from resigning after winning the nomination, just as he did in 2018. A spokesman for his political operation did not respond when asked by CNN if that is an outcome DeSantis has considered.
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CNN’s Kristen Holmes contributed to this report.