It was one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets and on Wednesday it finally became official: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has joined the field of Republican presidential candidates challenging Donald Trump for the 2024 nomination. But will DeSantis, who has cast himself as a more electable version of Trump, be able to convince the GOP?
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has all the elite credentials of a prototypical US presidential candidate, from graduating with honours from Yale and Harvard Law School to earning a bronze star for meritorious service in the military. And Trump – who announced his presidential bid back in November – is certainly sensing danger.
For months now, the former president has tried to pre-empt a potential DeSantis presidential bid by trying to undermine him with verbal assaults. Amid reports the Florida governor was only hours away from announcing his candidacy, Trump launched a new round of attacks on Wednesday, calling DeSantis “disloyal”.
“He was, and is, a disciple of horrible RINO (Republican in name only) Paul Ryan, and others too many to mention,” Trump wrote.
“Also, he desperately needs a personality transplant and, to the best of my knowledge, they are not medically available yet. A disloyal person!”
But DeSantis has been gearing up for the fight. In the weeks leading up to the announcement he has toured the United States, notably visiting states that hold early nominating contests, including both Iowa and New Hampshire.
But perhaps more importantly, he has waited for the Florida Legislature to hand him a series of policy victories to lend him conservative credibility – including a six-week abortion ban, making it easier for Floridians to carry concealed weapons, and eliminating funding for diversity programmes at public universities.
In late April he also made his first overseas trip since 2019 to meet with Japan’s prime minister, a move The New York Times labelled as an effort to “buff up his foreign policy credentials” ahead of a White House run. DeSantis had faced a barrage of criticism from fellow Republicans after having called Russia’s war in Ukraine a “territorial dispute”. The outrage forced DeSantis to quickly backtrack on the comment.
While in Japan, the Republican hopeful said he hoped the United States would stand by Japan “every step of the way” as it faces rising challenges from both North Korea and China.
Walking a fine line
To win the Republican race, however, DeSantis will have to walk a fine line, given that Trump still wields some influence as a kingmaker.
DeSantis has, for example, skillfully dodged the question of whether he believes the 2020 election was stolen from Trump but has also embraced some of the more extreme ideas put forth by election deniers. In a November 6, 2020, interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel – three days after the presidential vote and the day before it was called for Joe Biden – DeSantis suggested that state legislatures could override the results by naming pro-Trump electors regardless of the outcome of the vote.
But DeSantis also needs to keep enough distance from Trump to appeal to the voters who have turned their back on him.
He might be able to rely on support from the numerous “Never Trumpers” of the Republican Party – some of whom have since voted for Democrats – giving him broader national appeal.
During his tenure as Florida governor, the 44-year-old also embraced many of the “culture war” arguments of the far right, going full anti-mask during the Covid-19 pandemic and banning schools from teaching critical race theory (CRT) – the idea that racial inequality is systemic and thus intrinsic to, for example, the US criminal justice system – despite CRT having no official place in school curricula.
He was behind a push to ban math books in his state deemed to be too “woke” and a controversial Florida bill that limited discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
DeSantis is currently in a pitched battle with Walt Disney Co over the company’s criticism of the law and has filed a federal lawsuit accusing DeSantis of weaponising state government to punish its operations.
And even before the US Supreme Court moved to overturn Roe v Wade, DeSantis weighed in on the abortion debate by signing legislation banning the procedure after 15 weeks – and has since signed a bill banning them after six weeks.
In September last year, DeSantis came under fire for transferring unsuspecting migrants to Democratic states in an expensive – and for many critics, cruel – political stunt designed to play to the anti-immigration right wing. DeSantis faced a subsequent investigation by the Treasury Department into whether he had misused federal pandemic relief funds to fly two planeloads of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
DeSantis has embraced Trump’s combative style and many of his policies, but there are also notable differences. DeSantis has publicly voiced concern about the growing US deficit, which began ballooning while Trump was in office. Although both men downplay the effects of global warming, DeSantis has supported legislation to combat a rise in sea levels and protect the Everglades.
Trump, for his part, has criticised DeSantis’s abortion ban as being “too harsh”.
The fact that DeSantis waited to throw his hat in the ring has, however, lent Trump extra time to publicly attack him – which may have cost him in national polls.
In a May 24 survey released by CNN, Trump still held the lead with the support of 53 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters in the primary, while DeSantis secured less than half, or 26 percent.
From Harvard to Gitmo
When DeSantis was sworn in as governor in 2019 he was, at 40, Florida’s youngest governor in a century. His official biographies invariably describe him as a “native Floridian with blue collar roots” who went on to follow a top-flight trajectory leading from Yale University to Harvard Law School (he graduated with honours from both).
DeSantis completed Naval Justice School in 2005 and was assigned the following year to serve as a military lawyer at the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where his responsibilities included ensuring detainees were treated in accordance with the law, according to an account in the Tampa Bay Times. He subsequently served as a legal adviser to the SEAL commander in charge of a special operations force in Fallujah during the 2007 “surge” of US troops in Iraq.
After his active-duty service, DeSantis was an assistant US attorney for the Middle District of Florida.
A former guest columnist for right-leaning periodicals like the National Review and the Washington Times, DeSantis sought to detail how former US president Barack Obama was departing from American foundational principles in his 2011 book, “Dreams from Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama“.
DeSantis was first elected to Congress in 2012 as a representative for Florida’s Sixth District. During his first term he co-founded the Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-right conservative lawmakers. He also became a frequent guest on Fox News and earned the support of the Tea Party, a virulently anti-Obama right-wing movement, before winning re-election in 2016.
By the time Trump became president in 2017, DeSantis was one of his most vocal supporters. And he had Trump’s backing when he announced that he was running for governor of Florida, winning the post the following year.
But the two men’s similarities, once a source of affinity, soon turned sour.
Multiple US media outlets have cited sources in Trump’s circle as saying he is displeased with DeSantis’s ascent. The Washington Post reported that Trump has dubbed the governor “ungrateful”, telling advisers: “I made him.”
And in what was widely seen as a snub during last year’s mid-terms, Trump announced he would speak at a Miami rally for Senator Marco Rubio on the weekend right before Election Day but made no mention of addressing Florida crowds in support of DeSantis.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, Reuters)