Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference in the cabinet room at the close of the 2023 Florida legislative session on May 5, 2023. Associated Press
Expanding gun rights, defunding diversity programs and banning books, Ron DeSantis has become a darling of US conservatives for his embrace of an “anti-woke” agenda that has fueled his rise in the Republican Party. The Florida governor — who will announce that he is running for president, ending months of feverish speculation — has spent four years molding his state into the front line of the battle for the soul of America. As he steels himself for an 18-month campaign against his one-time cheerleader Donald Trump, the 44-year-old is offering Republicans a version of Trumpism without the chaos that often accompanies the twice-impeached former president.
Over recent months, DeSantis’s unofficial campaign has been dented by the Trump juggernaut, but he has won some important converts. “I was honoured to advocate for president Trump... I now believe that this is the next natural phase of that movement,” key former Trump aide Steve Cortes told CNN. “Governor DeSantis is the most electable, most conservative candidate out there who can both win the general election, as well as govern effectively.”
DeSantis appears almost daily in the national media to lock horns in the cultural wars against “woke” politicians, businesses and professors he accuses of forcing their progressive ideology on Americans. His most headline-grabbing initiatives have included allowing Floridians to carry concealed guns without a permit, imposing one of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws and banning classroom discussion of sexuality and gender identity.
He has also barred universities from spending public money on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and liberals have lamented education policies that have led to dozens of books being removed from school libraries.
But the outrage has been matched by applause in America’s most conservative circles, and media coverage that has brought him national exposure. Little remains of the political ingenue who pulled off a shock victory in the 2018 Florida gubernatorial election, after his gushing praise of Trump was rewarded with the Republican kingmaker’s endorsement. DeSantis’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic, pushing for a rapid reopening of the economy, and his opposition to the shutdowns of President Joe Biden’s administration made him an instant hit. He won a landslide reelection as governor in 2020, and has since sought a national platform, setting out his political vision in speeches in a number of the early voting states he will need to win the nomination.
In his memoir — “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival” — DeSantis writes about the struggle of “we the people” against the “entrenched elites who have driven our nation into the ground.” Born in Jacksonville, Florida, on September 14, 1978 to a middle-class family with Italian roots, DeSantis went to Yale University, where he was a standout baseball player, before attending Harvard Law School.
He practiced law in the US Navy and entered politics in 2012, winning a seat in the House of Representatives before his narrow election as governor in 2018. Underscoring his alignment with Trump, the candidate released a fawning campaign ad in which he is seen with his daughter, building a wall of toy blocks in reference to the then-president’s plans for a border wall with Mexico.
But the relationship soured with the governor’s comfortable reelection. Trump, rattled by a potential rival, began attacking the upstart daily, calling him “Ron DeSanctimonious.” Doubts over Trump’s electability continue to mount following his indictment on felony financial charges, a finding of liability in a civil sexual assault case and criminal probes into alleged election interference and mishandling of government documents.
But DeSantis has failed to capitalize, making missteps that have raised red flags over his own readiness for the highest office, as his 76-year-old rival has opened an average polling lead of close to 40 points.
A bitter and avoidable feud with Florida’s biggest private employer Disney over its politics has bewildered champions of the free market, while the six-week abortion ban has moderates worried that he is out of touch with public opinion.
DeSantis has also been accused of appearing lightweight on foreign policy, taking hits for downplaying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and delivering “low-wattage” speeches during a recent trip to Britain.
Analysts are warning against counting DeSantis out just yet, pointing to his popularity among the suburban women who see Trump as toxic and to the governor’s status as a winner — something Trump has not been able to claim since his 2020 defeat to Biden. “You have basically three people at this point that are credible in this whole thing — Biden, Trump and me,” DeSantis said on a May 18 call to donors, according to The New York Times. “Of those three, two have a chance to get elected president — Biden and me.”
If DeSantis hopes to defeat Trump and win the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, he will ultimately have to bring every possible anti-Trump voter he can into the fold. But even that likely will not be enough, political analysts say. DeSantis will also have to pull some supporters away from Trump - and that could make for a tricky balancing act that DeSantis is already struggling with. “You can’t court MAGA while courting the rest of the party,” said Chris Stirewalt, a Republican analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, referring to Trump’s diehard supporters in his Make America Great Again movement. “That’s a difficult decision he is going to have to make.”
The Florida governor is expected to announce his presidential bid this week after months of speculation. With deep financial resources and a growing national profile, DeSantis will quickly become Trump’s top rival in the race. But he will have much work to do: Reuters/Ipsos polling conducted this month showed Trump backed by 49% of Republicans and DeSantis 19%. DeSantis’ initial challenge is that the anti-Trump field is fractured. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, and Tim Scott, a US senator from South Carolina, among others, are already in the race, with more candidates such as Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, perhaps to follow.