Study. Plan. Execute. Can the DeSantis way beat Trump?
Ron DeSantis wades into a crowd of Republicans in a hotel ballroom in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and presses the flesh. He signs a book here, a baseball there. He asks folks how they’re doing. He smiles.
For most any other prominent Republican making a play for the presidency, the scene would be unremarkable. But this is the governor of Florida, a known introvert but ever the student, trying to get better at what should be the easy part of politics – engaging on a personal level with activists and donors.
This is the DeSantis way: Study the problem, make a plan, and then follow through.
It’s a modus operandi that has served the governor well as the two-term leader of the third-largest state. It made him a conservative hero early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when he defied the guidance of Washington experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and reopened businesses and schools after just a few months of lockdown. And it helped him transform Florida from a political battleground into a laboratory for conservative policies – all the while positioning himself as the strongest challenger to former President Donald Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination.
“He’s very strategic in the policies he tackles and how he plans to get them implemented,” says Susan MacManus, professor of political science emerita at the University of South Florida.
Yet that deliberate approach – and confidence in his own judgment – has also arguably led to political missteps. He picked a fight with the Walt Disney Company, one of Florida’s largest employers, over free speech around LGBTQ+ issues, dismaying at least some pro-business Republicans. He has largely refused to engage with the mainstream press, even as his poll numbers have slipped and new rivals entered the field.
Most head-scratching was Wednesday’s official presidential campaign launch – a glitch-filled livestream discussion on Twitter with the site’s eccentric owner, billionaire Elon Musk, that may well go down as one of the all-time campaign kickoff belly-flops.
It was an embarrassing stumble for a candidate whose main selling point is that he’d be more competent than Mr. Trump. Indeed, where supporters see a methodical and effective executive, critics see a rigid and untested politician who refuses to take advice and is struggling to make the transition to the national stage.
Still, the campaign is just getting going, and while Mr. DeSantis has his work cut out for him, he also has room to grow. Polls show GOP voters remain open to a Trump alternative – and many are still getting to know the Florida governor, who, in his mid-40s, is a generation younger than Mr. Trump and has an attractive young family. With degrees from Yale and Harvard, a Bronze Star from his service in Iraq as a Navy judge advocate general, and three terms in Congress, he’s got the golden résumé.
The next few months will show whether he can make his message resonate nationally, and overcome the large field dominated by the more charismatic Mr. Trump.
“I like what he has to say,” offers Jim Heavens, the former mayor of Dyersville, Iowa, after seeing Mr. DeSantis speak in Cedar Rapids. Mr. Heavens, whose town is home to the “Field of Dreams,” the baseball diamond built on farmland for the 1989 movie, says he isn’t ready to commit – not even to the former captain of the Yale baseball team – but he’s “open” to a DeSantis ticket.
“We just have to make sure we win,” he says.
Campaigning by governing
While Mr. DeSantis became an official candidate only this week, he’s been running a shadow campaign for months now – essentially campaigning by governing.
DeSantis advocates tout Florida’s strong economy and robust in-migration – making it the fastest-growing state in the country – as proof of his effective leadership.
In four-plus years as governor, Mr. DeSantis has turned the nation’s biggest political battleground state into a haven for conservatives, winning reelection last November by 19 percentage points after barely squeaking by in his first election.
The recent session of the Florida legislature was a juggernaut of social conservative activism, aided by new supermajorities in both houses. Mr. DeSantis signed bills prohibiting gender-transition procedures and medication for minors, banning abortion after six weeks’ gestation with some exceptions, barring children from attending drag shows, expanding the death penalty to include child rapists, and allowing Floridians to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.
Last year, he captured headlines when he banned the teaching of critical race theory in schools, signed legislation that made it easier to restrict access to books that some deem inappropriate for children, and used state planes to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, via Florida.
The Parental Rights in Education Act – which critics labeled “Don’t Say Gay” – demonstrates Mr. DeSantis’ skill at using the levers of power. The original legislation, which he signed into law in April 2022, banned classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade.
Last month, the state Board of Education – at Mr. DeSantis’ behest – expanded the law to cover grades 4 through 12, a more controversial move that impacts teens who are becoming aware of their sexuality. Now at least a dozen other states are considering similar legislation, with Texas close to passing a bill – a demonstration of Mr. DeSantis’ national influence.
His solidifying image as a culture warrior could cut two ways. It may endear the Florida governor to social conservatives, whose support is key to the GOP nomination. But it could also leave others wondering if he’s ready to tackle weightier national issues like the economy and foreign policy.
On fiscal matters he’s largely untested – since under Florida law, the governor is required to balance the state operating budget, unlike in the federal government. On foreign policy, Mr. DeSantis has said little beyond an early gaffe when he called Russia’s war on Ukraine a “territorial dispute” and not a national security threat to the United States. He later walked back the comment after fellow Republicans expressed concern. A recent trip to Japan, Britain, Israel, and South Korea seemed aimed at bolstering Mr. DeSantis’ foreign expertise, but it’s not clear if Americans were paying attention.
One element of Mr. DeSantis’ record that’s lesser known – and could be more helpful in a general election – is his pragmatic side. In Florida, protecting the Everglades is seen as essential by many on both the right and left, as is effective handling of hurricanes.
When Hurricane Ian slammed southwest Florida last fall at Category 5 strength, Mr. DeSantis swung into action in what was generally praised as a textbook case of competent emergency management. Now he cites completion of a temporary bridge to Pine Island in just three days as an example of his effectiveness, touting a “no bureaucracy, no excuses” approach in his stump speech.
Within Florida, Mr. DeSantis’ pragmatism has likely helped boost his popularity among independents; 59% approve of his job performance, according to the latest Mason-Dixon Poll. But as he emphasizes far-right stances for the primaries, that could become a harder line to walk.
Longtime Florida political observers say the governor’s evolution in many ways tracks the evolution of the Republican Party.
When Mr. DeSantis was first elected to the House in 2012, he was a Tea Party Republican and joined the Freedom Caucus, focused primarily on keeping taxes low and cutting government spending.
“I used to say, ‘I’m a governing Republican and he’s a shutdown Republican,’” says former GOP Rep. David Jolly, a fellow Floridian who served in Congress with Mr. DeSantis and is now an independent.
“As the chief executive officer of the state, he’s happy to use tax cuts as a way to incentivize activities he wants,” Mr. Jolly says. “And he’s happy to use Biden money and then celebrate victories around the state for infrastructure.”
Some observers trace the governor’s more recent emphasis on culture-war issues to the crucible of pandemic politics. After deciding to reopen the state in 2020, he also began pushing hard against mask and vaccine mandates – a stance that generated sharp criticism from the left.
“He was getting attacked so much for those positions that he just leaned into that, then started leaning into all these other conservative social issues,” says Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.
As a presidential candidate, Mr. DeSantis has yet to fully flesh out his platform. At events, his culture-war rallying cry is that Florida is the state “where woke goes to die.” That’s a reference to his successful elimination of liberal social initiatives in public institutions, such as DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) programs at state colleges and universities and ESG (environmental, social, and governance) standards in state investment strategies.
Mr. DeSantis’ political path has also tracked with the rise of President Trump – a onetime ally whose endorsement boosted him in his first run for governor.
He’s aligned with Mr. Trump on many issues – but not all. In his campaign announcement Wednesday, Mr. DeSantis echoed Mr. Trump when he said he would reverse many of President Joe Biden’s border policies: “declare a national emergency on Day One,” build a border wall, reinstate the Remain in Mexico policy, and crack down on the cartels.
Notably, where the two diverge, the governor is most often to Mr. Trump’s right. Abortion is a key example. Last month, Mr. DeSantis signed the six-week ban passed by his legislature, doing so late at night and without fanfare – suggesting he may not feel it’s a winning position in a general election campaign.
Mr. Trump takes credit for nominating three of the Supreme Court justices who voted last year to overturn the nationwide right to abortion but has avoided getting specific about abortion policy. Only after being pressured by a major anti-abortion group did he say he’d consider signing federal legislation that bans the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy. After Mr. Trump suggested that many opponents of abortion feel the DeSantis legislation is “too harsh,” Mr. DeSantis has retorted that “it seems like he’s running to the left.”
The importance of Iowa
Outflanking Mr. Trump on the right is really a play for Iowa, which will kick off the GOP nomination process with caucuses in January. Iowa Republicans – many of whom are strong social conservatives – appear open to considering Mr. DeSantis, if not already supporting him. Flush with cash, Mr. DeSantis’ allies are building an army of volunteers with a plan to knock on every potential supporter’s door in Iowa and other early states multiple times.
Mr. DeSantis’ Iowa team showed its effectiveness recently, quickly assembling an event with the candidate at a barbecue place in the capital, Des Moines, after Mr. Trump canceled a rally there at the last minute, citing severe weather warnings. Mr. DeSantis and his wife, Casey, addressed a cheering crowd from atop a picnic table.
If Mr. DeSantis can win Iowa, or even come close, that would rock the field, not least Mr. Trump.
“Presidents should have morals,” says a longtime Iowa Republican activist, speaking not for attribution, who voted for Mr. Trump twice but says he won’t again. “If [Trump] had the right values, and a bit of ‘Iowa nice,’ he’d be finishing the second term of one of the great presidencies.”
For Mr. DeSantis, the still-unanswered question is how to navigate the “Trump dilemma,” in a primary battle that is starting to look like 2016 all over again – many candidates in the hunt, and a solid Trump base that could hand him the GOP nomination with just 30% or 35% of the vote.
Over the past two months, Mr. Trump’s average lead over Mr. DeSantis has more than doubled – from 16 percentage points to 34 – as the former president and his allies have gone on the attack, without much pushback from the Floridian.
During his shadow campaign, Mr. DeSantis avoided going after Mr. Trump by name, even as he faced criticism for looking “weak.” Now he appears to be engaging more directly – attacking, for example, the former president’s reliance on Dr. Fauci during the pandemic.
One outstanding question is whether he will state outright that Mr. Trump lost the 2020 election. So far, Mr. DeSantis has only referenced Mr. Trump’s defeat obliquely, speaking generally of a “culture of losing” that has cost the party in the last three election cycles.
To some Republicans who like Mr. Trump’s policies but are tired of his baggage, including a raft of legal problems, Mr. DeSantis already looks like the future of the party.
“Trump was an outstanding president, in terms of his policies, but all his extracurricular activities have been distracting,” says Brian Elsasser, a farmer and DeSantis backer, speaking after a recent Lincoln Day dinner featuring the Florida governor in Peoria, Illinois, that drew a record 1,100 attendees for that event. “I’m just worried about whether Trump can win.”
But getting enough soft Trump supporters to actually shift allegiances won’t be easy.
Back in Cedar Rapids, Rowdy Templer, a retired window washer in a cowboy hat, came to see Mr. DeSantis after the Trump rally in Des Moines was canceled – still sporting his Trump event wristband. When asked whether he might caucus for Mr. DeSantis, he shook his head.
“I’m going to support President Trump,” Mr. Templer says. “He’s already been elected twice.”
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