Florida Politics

DeSantis quits Congress, launches bid for Florida governor in Little Havana

U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis submitted his resignation letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan on Monday, saying he was leaving Congress “effective immediately” to save taxpayers money while he campaigns for his next job.

“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. “Under these circumstances, it would be inappropriate for me to accept a salary.”

The letter asks that the resignation be retroactive to Sept. 1 so DeSantis is not paid for the month of September.

Although Florida has a resign-to-run law that prohibits officials from holding two elected offices in the state at once, DeSantis’ move to leave Congress in the middle of the election is highly unusual and hasn’t happened in years. (In 2006, then-U.S. Rep. Mark Foley quit in September ahead of the November election after it was revealed that the Palm Beach County Republican had been sending sexually explicit messages to congressional pages.)

DeSantis was in his third term in Congress. Absent his resignation, he could have remained in office until the date his successor was sworn in, which will be Jan. 3, 2019 — just before Florida’s next governor takes office on Jan. 8.

The decision is consistent with the strict ideology DeSantis has espoused as a congressman. He declined to take part in the federal pension and healthcare plans shortly after he was elected in 2012. However, it could also indicate that he is feeling pressure from the campaign of rival Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.

The Real Clear Politics average of two polls taken between Aug. 29 and Sept. 3 shows Gillum ahead in the governor’s race by 2.5 points.

Democrats pounced on DeSantis’ resignation, alleging it was timed intentionally to “distract” from a Sunday night report from the Washington Post revealing DeSantis had spoken four times at a racially charged conference hosted by a right-wing activist who has tweeted that the “only serious race war” is against whites.

A spokeswoman for DeSantis’ congressional office, Elizabeth Fusick, has said he is not “responsible for the views and speeches of others.”

“Ron DeSantis’ entire political career has been about helping one person: Ron DeSantis,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo wrote in a statement. “Ron DeSantis can abandon his post, but he can’t avoid questions about why he chose to associate himself with hateful, fringe organizations.”

Gillum tweeted Monday evening that DeSantis’ “actions and words are deeply troubling” but his campaign declined to comment further on the resignation.

During his three terms, DeSantis had a low absentee rate for most of his tenure representing the Palm Coast area. However, GovTrack, which tracks Congressional votes, shows that he missed 53.8 percent of the votes from July to September, a considerable spike.

Monday evening, DeSantis spoke to a packed room at the Bay of Pigs Museum and Library in Little Havana to launch his general election campaign. He was flanked by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and his lieutenant governor pick, Republican state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez.

He addressed his resignation after his speech, telling reporters he was able to juggle his role in Congress during the primary campaign, when Congress was out of session for its summer break. But when Congress returned last week, he realized he couldn’t split his time between Florida and Washington.

“There’s just no way I could’ve gone. I had all this stuff,” he said. “So I took an honest look at it and said look, if I’m going to be missing 70, 80 percent of the votes — not just before the election, because we’re going to have a transition afterward … Can I take a paycheck if I’m not really doing it?”

DeSantis also responded to the Washington Post report, saying he “totally rejects” white supremacy, has “zero interest” in racial discrimination and called the story a hit piece. He also noted that at one of the events, he spoke one day after Medal of Honor recipient Clinton Romesha gave a keynote address.

“It’s absurd,” he said. “They’re just trying to form a narrative.”

DeSantis was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about three dozen conservative House members that has been one of Congress’ loudest voices criticizing the special counsel’s investigation of alleged Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. The group also has taken a hardline stand on immigration.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Fort Walton Beach Republican who has campaigned with DeSantis and is one of his closest allies in Congress, said he feels like “Robin without Batman.” He said he spoke to DeSantis about his resignation Monday morning.

“While Ron ran in the primary he was running against someone who had a government job who spent every day campaigning,” Gaetz said. “He felt like it would have been hypocritical for doing what he criticized (Agriculture Commissioner) Adam Putnam for.”

DeSantis defeated Putnam in the Aug. 28 Republican primary for governor.

DeSantis traveled back and forth from Washington to Florida while the House was in session.

DeSantis’ absence from Congress comes three weeks before lawmakers must pass a spending package to keep the federal government running past Sept. 30. DeSantis has typically bucked GOP leadership to vote down the budget proposals amid concerns of what he believes is out-of-control federal spending.

President Donald Trump has hinted that there may be a federal shutdown in October, though congressional Republicans are expected to at least pass a short-term spending bill to keep the government running before the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

As of Monday, there are six vacant seats in the U.S. House whose constituents will have no representation until after the November election. DeSantis represented the 6th Congressional District, which runs from southern Jacksonville to New Smyrna Beach. Fusick did not respond to questions about whether DeSantis’ constituents will still be offered services such as help with Social Security checks.

Running to take over DeSantis’ potentially vulnerable seat is Republican Mike Waltz, who bears many similarities to DeSantis as a former Green Beret, adviser to Dick Cheney and Fox News contributor. The Democrats have fielded Nancy Soderberg, a former ambassador who served as an alternate representative to the United Nations and a deputy national security adviser to President Bill Clinton. She easily won her primary.

McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.

Emily L. Mahoney at emahoney@tampabay.com.Follow @mahoneysthename.