The moment was lost on no one: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaking at a lectern bearing the presidential seal. Behind him stood the actual president, Joe Biden, awaiting his turn.
The two men, Republican and Democrat, were appearing in storm-ravaged Fort Myers earlier this month in a rare display of rise-above-it-all comity, pledging cooperation after the deadliest hurricane to hit Florida since 1935.
But it’s Governor DeSantis who’s getting the credit for Hurricane Ian response. Nationally, even 43% of Democrats approve of his storm performance, according to an Economist/YouGov poll. Always favored in his Nov. 8 reelection bid, he now appears a virtual lock. Which means the buzz about a likely 2024 presidential run is about to go into overdrive.
Why We Wrote This
The 2024 campaign is already quietly underway. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is courting Donald Trump’s supporters, while trying not to draw the former president’s ire.
“Of any living American today, Ron DeSantis has the hottest hand in politics,” says David Jolly, a former GOP congressman from Tampa who is now an independent, and not a DeSantis fan.
Mr. DeSantis catapulted onto the national stage early in the COVID-19 pandemic when he fought mask mandates and pushed hard on businesses – and especially schools – to reopen. Later, he also vocally opposed vaccine mandates.
Since then, he has shown a keen ability to retain the spotlight, picking culture war fights by flying Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and taking on Disney over LGBTQ issues. At the same time, he’s demonstrated a technocratic competence as governor, for example rapidly rebuilding washed-out bridges in the wake of the hurricane.
Political analysts note that Mr. DeSantis remains, in key ways, untested.
“Everybody has an Achilles’ heel,” says Brad Coker, managing partner at Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, based in Jacksonville, whose latest poll has Mr. DeSantis winning reelection by 11 percentage points. “What happens when he faces what most people consider a setback?”
Governing a state, albeit one as big and complicated as Florida, is one thing; simultaneously running an effective presidential campaign is another. While longtime observers say he’s improved on the stump, he’s not a natural glad-hander. Some see parallels to past rising stars – such as former Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin – whose White House bids crashed and burned.
Then there’s the “elephant” in the room. Former President Donald Trump has strongly suggested he intends to run in 2024 and is reportedly irritated that his onetime protégé hasn’t promised to stand aside if he does. Right now, national polls show that Mr. Trump would beat Mr. DeSantis handily in a GOP primary, though it’s early. Mr. Trump has been quoted privately mocking Mr. DeSantis’ voice and appearance, but he has not yet subjected the Florida governor to the withering treatment given to former rivals like “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz or “Little Marco” Rubio.
Still, DeSantis supporters argue that in presidential politics, it’s imperative for candidates to seize their “moment” – since lightning rarely strikes twice. And there are reasons to believe the ex-president may be weaker than he appears. Mr. Trump is facing multiple expensive legal challenges that could complicate a 2024 bid. And after his one tumultuous term, some supporters seem ready for a fresh face – suggesting there could be a market for a Trump 2.0 without the baggage.
“DeSantis has enough of Trump’s ‘own the libs’ style to appeal to the base, without being too much for women and other Republican-leaning swing voters,” writes Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor based in Arizona and a DeSantis ally, in an email. “He’s more low-key than Trump. But he’s also more disciplined.”
How Mr. DeSantis manages this relationship will be crucial, as he attempts to convince the MAGA base it’d be better off with a new standard-bearer. An ugly primary fight could damage his political career. But if he wins it, he’d be seen as a giant slayer – an enviable position for an underdog, as Barack Obama could attest.
“DeSantis has a lot going for him,” Mr. Eberhart adds. “He’s got a great résumé. He can’t afford to wait to see whether Trump is in or not, and he knows it.”
Who is Ron DeSantis?
Mr. DeSantis grew up in Dunedin, Florida, a modest suburb of Tampa. His father installed Nielsen TV rating boxes; his mother was a nurse. A top student and star athlete, Mr. DeSantis graduated from Yale and Harvard Law. He then served in the Navy as a judge advocate general, earning a Bronze Star for meritorious service in Iraq.
His political career began at age 34, when he won the first of three terms in Congress, representing a district south of Jacksonville. In 2018, he became Florida’s 46th governor.
Described from an early age as disciplined and studious, Mr. DeSantis appears to have retained those habits into adulthood. People who know the governor say he reads voraciously and absorbs vast amounts of information. Those around him say that as a politician, he harnesses reams of data to inform his decisions.
In baseball and other competitive pursuits, the young DeSantis achieved an unusual degree of success. At age 12, his team made it to the Little League World Series. Friends from Dunedin High, where his team played in the state championship, recall his focus and determination – both as a ballplayer and as a member of the debate team.
At Yale, he was captain of the baseball team his senior year, like former President George H.W. Bush decades earlier. In a 2018 interview, coach John Stuper spoke glowingly of Mr. DeSantis’ work ethic.
“You look at his transcript his last two years, there wasn’t a B on it,” Mr. Stuper told the Tampa Bay Times. “How he could work 20 hours a week at baseball, probably that many hours a week at various jobs, and still kill it in the classroom like he did is pretty amazing.”
Mr. DeSantis was an outfielder, a position that requires watching how the ball is hit and quickly getting there – not a bad metaphor for his career in politics. Lawmakers who served with Mr. DeSantis describe an instinctive politician who could see early on where his party was headed and position himself accordingly.
“He’s not a hard-line conservative, nor is he transforming the party,” says Mr. Jolly, who spent nearly three years in Congress with Mr. DeSantis before leaving the GOP in 2018. “He’s a mirror to the party.”
In 2012, in his first, successful congressional campaign, Mr. DeSantis ran as a tea party candidate, advocating for low taxes and small government. In Congress, he was a co-founder of the far-right Freedom Caucus. Still, he wasn’t above reaching out to a more moderate Republican, Carlos Curbelo of Miami, and helping him raise funds for his first House race in 2014.
“We had a good relationship, but we didn’t have a close relationship,” former Representative Curbelo says, adding, “I don’t think he had a close relationship with anyone [in Congress]. When people ask me who he was close to, I say Casey [his wife], and that’s it.”
Florida political players credit the governor’s wife, Casey DeSantis, a former Jacksonville TV host, with helping him improve his public presentation skills, particularly in front of crowds. In small settings, conservative activists say, he can come across as uncomfortable and aloof.
But Ms. DeSantis’ role goes far beyond media training: By many accounts, she is his top adviser. In the wake of the hurricane, the governor put her in charge of raising money for a state disaster relief fund, and took the unusual step of giving her a prominent speaking role at recent storm briefings.
Like many political spouses, Ms. DeSantis helps soften her husband’s image. She appears in a recent campaign ad called “That Is Who Ron DeSantis Is,” speaking emotionally about how he helped her get through a breast cancer diagnosis. Along with their three young children, the DeSantises present a family portrait that his unmarried Democratic rival, former Gov. Charlie Crist, can’t match. But a sympathetic spouse can only do so much.
“You want the candidate to be the likable one,” says a conservative political strategist speaking on background to preserve his relationship with both Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Trump. “If you look at candidates who’ve won for president, the more likable one wins in almost every case.”
A pragmatist turned culture warrior
In 2016, as Mr. Trump made his first bid for the White House, Mr. DeSantis ran for the Senate. He dropped out of the primary after the incumbent, Senator Rubio, quit his presidential bid to run for reelection – and quickly set his sights on the 2018 Florida governor’s race.
Not the Republican favorite to begin with, Mr. DeSantis made multiple appearances on Fox News, where he caught Mr. Trump’s attention and, eventually, his endorsement in the primary. He went on to win the general election by fewer than 34,000 votes.
Mr. DeSantis began his governorship as a coalition-builder, surprising some by prioritizing the environment. But by the end of Mr. Trump’s term in the Oval Office, it was clear the Florida governor was building a record that would appeal to a national Republican primary electorate.
His breakout moment came with the pandemic. After imposing a 30-day stay-at-home order in the spring of 2020, he quickly pivoted to lifting restrictions. Late that summer, Mr. DeSantis pressured superintendents to reopen schools, bucking federal health guidance, and threatening to withhold state funding in some cases.
He then took on the cruise ship industry, championing a state law that banned verification of vaccination for passengers. Critics charged that his policies would result in widespread deaths. As of this month, Florida had the 13th-highest COVID-19 mortality rate. Its economy, on the other hand, bounced back more quickly.
Since then, he has used his bully pulpit to rebrand what used to be the nation’s biggest battleground state into a national headquarters of conservatism. He regularly refers to Florida as a “free state.”
As governor, Mr. DeSantis has frequently focused on education, an issue where Democrats have lost much of their political advantage. His administration collaborated on school civics curricula with conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan. Last spring, he signed legislation that supporters dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act” – critics labeled it “Don’t Say Gay” – which aims to regulate how schools and businesses address race and gender. He led the charge in banning the teaching of critical race theory in Florida schools, and earned headlines when the state subsequently banned certain math textbooks for “indoctrinating” students.
Mr. DeSantis’ aggressive posture as a culture warrior may seem out of step in a state where Republicans only overtook Democrats in voter registration last November. At times, he has faced repercussions for his actions – as with the migrant flights, which are facing legal scrutiny by the Justice Department.
But among the Republican primary electorate, the pushback may be a plus: He’s seen as a fighter. His campaign ad “Top Gov,” highlighting his famously contentious relationship with the news media, captures the vibe. Last May, he drew criticism after scolding high school students for wearing masks – only to double down in a tweet, referring scornfully to “COVID theater.”
DeSantis critics see his pugilism as bordering on bullying. Mr. Jolly, his former House colleague, calls him “angry” and “temperamental.”
Still, the governor has also shown a savvy instinct for which fights to avoid. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Mr. DeSantis has declined to advocate for a ban on abortion. Instead, he signed legislation that allows abortions until 15 weeks’ gestation, and allows some abortions after that point, such as to save the life of the mother, but not in cases of rape or incest.
Mr. DeSantis has also not explicitly referred to the 2020 election as “stolen,” though he has endorsed and campaigned for candidates who do.
On climate change, Mr. DeSantis signed a bill dedicating $640 million toward preparing communities for sea level rise and flooding. Climate advocates say he needs to address the root causes of the problem, namely greenhouse gas emissions. But at least, they add, he improved on former GOP Gov. Rick Scott’s position, which included forbidding the state Department of Environmental Protection from even using the words “climate change” or “global warming.”
DeSantis vs. Trump
“Who do you want for 2024?” At a recent meeting of the Republican club in Hallandale Beach – an oceanfront community in deep-blue Broward County – Joe D’Uva doesn’t hesitate.
“Donald Trump needs another four years to get the job done,” says the retiree from Long Island, who’s vice chair of the Broward Republicans. “No. 1, finish the wall. No. 2, make us energy independent again, the way he had us before these people took over. No. 3, require kids to have a semester of civics before they finish high school.”
Dolores Leon, who divides her time between Hallandale Beach and Virginia’s Fairfax County, is also on Team Trump.
“Even with all his legal challenges, the momentum for Trump down here is like a freight train,” says Ms. Leon, president of an organization that helps military spouses. “No matter what they throw at him, nothing will stick.”
If Mr. Trump doesn’t run for some reason, she adds, “then yes, I would love to see DeSantis run. Though that would be chaos down here.”
Many Florida conservatives say they shouldn’t have to choose: If Mr. DeSantis stays on for a full second term as governor, then he can run for president in 2028 or 2032. After all, at just 44, he’s the youngest governor in the country.
One Republican connected to both camps suggests that Mr. DeSantis should defer to Mr. Trump in the name of party unity. But others with dual loyalties don’t see the governor standing down.
Still, 2024 is a long way away – and anything could happen. There’s even the possibility a new rising star gains traction.
“It could be Kari Lake’s party by 2028,” says Mr. Jolly, referring to the charismatic Republican gubernatorial candidate in Arizona. Others see Ms. Lake as a potential running mate for Mr. Trump.
The former president and Mr. DeSantis have been circling each other for months. Mr. Trump has not endorsed Mr. DeSantis’ reelection bid – because he hasn’t been asked to, says a source familiar with that dynamic. And Mr. DeSantis isn’t inclined to ask, because he doesn’t need the help and doesn’t want to feed Mr. Trump’s belief that he owes him.
A prolific fundraiser, Mr. DeSantis has brought in close to $180 million, outraising Mr. Crist 11 to 1. The governor is reportedly working out a legal way to repurpose excess campaign cash toward a presidential run.
And like Mr. Trump, Mr. DeSantis has been in high demand for campaign appearances around the country. The most personally meaningful may have been a trip to Nevada in April to campaign for Senate candidate Adam Laxalt, Mr. DeSantis’ former roommate at the Naval Justice School.
Such campaign appearances have given Mr. DeSantis the opportunity to build a national network and test-drive a presidential stump speech. For Mr. Trump, the MAGA road show never seems to grow old. But the slogan Make America Great Again has come to stand for a larger movement that will live on whenever Mr. Trump departs the political stage.
For now, though, Mr. DeSantis is walking a fine line.
“He is trying to stay on Trump’s good side while keeping the base energized for him,” writes Mr. Eberhart, the Republican donor. “He’s a pragmatist who understands the value of following the populist zeitgeist.”
“Trump definitely set the stage for DeSantis’ rise to the national stage,” he adds. “But DeSantis has the skill to stay there.”