The odds-on favourite to be the next Republican candidate for the White House, and already pulling ahead of Joe Biden in opinion polls for the presidential election in November 2024, all Ron DeSantis has to do now is fire the starting gun on his campaign.
The Florida governor was the biggest right wing winner in the 2022 midterm elections which provided a surprise lift for Biden’s Democrats. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post tabloid has dubbed him DeFuture, while pouring scorn on former president Donald Trump’s hopes of returning to the Oval Office. Trump has already announced his candidacy, and DeSantis could confirm his own as early as April. It will make for a lively showdown.
Though Trump’s MAGA base remains solid, he is being widely blamed for backing far right candidates in Republican primaries who were then roundly rejected by the wider electorate last November. Expecting a Red Wave to sweep Congress, the Republicans fell further behind in the Senate and only barely captured the House of Representatives. Those Trumpistas who were elected are now squabbling over who will lead them, and the Republican takeover of the House is being overshadowed by the case of congressman-elect George Santos, who won a key New York district but has since admitted that a string of claims in his biography were fake. He also faces a federal probe into his finances.
In contrast to all this craziness, DeSantis was a clear winner, multiplying his majority in Florida from less than half a percent four years ago to nearly 20, making historic gains among Hispanic voters and winning the normally Democratic Miami-Dade county. He boasts he can “rewrite the political map”.
He can also boast about being a fresh face. Biden is 80, Trump is 76. DeSantis, 44, is the same age as Trump’s oldest son, and closer in age to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama when they ran for office.
Even better — for him — DeSantis and his family are made for the media. He has a Hispanic background, a glamorous wife who has overcome breast cancer, adorable young children, and a military service record (albeit as an attorney) during the Gulf War. He is slicker, fresher, and a more exciting prospect for the keen post-Trump following he amassed in Florida. Elon Musk, who wants to turn Twitter back into something much more attractive for the libertarian Republican right, has backed him.
No wonder Trump – whose prospective third run may have more to do with avoiding a string of legal cases than a real desire to make America great again, again – wants his young rival off the field. This time cast as a “loser”, he has threatened a bloodbath of mudslinging, saying of DeSantis: “If he did run, I will tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering. I know more about him than anybody other than perhaps his wife, who is really running his campaign.”
Trump has nicknamed him Ron DeSanctimonious, an “average” politician who was “in desperate shape” in 2017 before Trump championed him. The Floridian upstart supported him in return, until it stopped being expedient.
Yet, while DeSantis is more polished, less off-message, superficially responsible and less of a loose cannon than the last Republican president, the two really aren’t as far apart as Trump tries to make out. DeSantis isn’t politically less extreme. In some cases, he’s even more — even Trump didn’t dump a group of legal asylum seekers in posh Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.
That boorish and likely illegal gesture was deliberate. By shipping vulnerable people who have fled foreign shores for refuge in the United States into the talismanic holiday resort for upmarket liberals, DeSantis signalled that he was exactly the kind of person a MAGA supporter who lost out on the American Dream should turn to. It was saying that, if you liked what you saw with Trump and wanted even more of it, you could safely pick DeSantis.
But DeSantis really cemented his position among the libertarian right with his response to Covid-19 in Florida. Pushing back against mask and vaccine mandates, he battled with and fined school districts and local authorities that made mask wearing compulsory. School board members he helped put in place are now purging educationalists who enforced Covid mandates.
DeSantis faced down and overturned requirements for people to be vaccinated before going into work for employers such as Disney or to events such as a Harry Styles concert. He offered to pay $5000 to unvaccinated police officers to work in Florida and appointed a controversial vaccine-sceptic doctor as the state’s new surgeon general. In this, he proclaimed that he was fighting a battle for freedom against a tyranny of safety measures— a now familiar populist mantra. He stands by his actions for Florida, where more than 82,000 people died, making it a top 15 state for deaths per capita.
“We were right and they were wrong. And millions of families in Florida are better for it,” he said during his 2022 state of the state address. Regardless of the human cost of his decisions, DeSantis earned hero status by reopening the state early — with much of the economy resting on tourism and the service industry, analysts believe this helped secure his impressive 60% support. To his backers, he defended the economy and the people’s freedom against the oppressive efforts of Biden, the non-partisan White House medical adviser, Anthony Fauci and a hysterical media. They cheer when he says, “in Florida, we will not let them lock you down. We will not let them take your jobs, we will not let them harm your businesses, we will not let them close your schools.”
But although his Covid stance defined him, took him out from under Trump’s shadow and made him the right wing’s darling, DeSantis had much more red meat to give them.
Educated at Harvard and Yale, DeSantis, whose parents are both descended from Italian immigrants, is nevertheless an enthusiastic participant in the culture war against elites and foreigners, chalking up easy wins by fighting with relish against anything “woke”. He opposes greater LGBTQ rights, and advocated Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. He wants harsher immigration measures, and taught children to “build the wall” in a campaign video. He forbade the taking down of statues and tried to ban teaching of US historic wrongs in schools.
It’s unlikely the far-right, MAGA, Q-Anon-loving voters or activists Trump cultivated will be driven away from the Republicans by his cheerleader-turned-rival. As the playwright Bonnie Greer wrote in this newspaper: “What DeSantis has done is to tap into the dark side of the American collective unconscious.”
But, while he might have lost the opportunistic support of the Republican establishment, Trump is experienced in causing damage. Unless some skeletons emerge from the DeSantis closet, he seems unlikely to crush his opponent as he did with Jeb Bush in 2016. But Trump’s strong base guarantees that he will be able to stick around in the campaign, and he must hope that other candidates emerge – Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, even his old veep Mike Pence – who can pick off votes from the Anyone But Trumpers and slow down the DeSantis rollercoaster.
Even if Trump loses the battle for the nomination, he could run as an independent, fight tooth and nail, and probably bring them both down. Does the touchy young pretender have what it takes to survive the many brickbats his former mentor will surely throw at him? And – perish the cynical thought – could he even put an end to Trump’s candidacy with the promise of a future pardon from president Ron DeSantis?