Ron DeSantis announced his long-anticipated 2024 U.S. presidential campaign Wednesday evening in a glitch-plagued Twitter broadcast that repeatedly crashed and started more than 20 minutes late.
It made official the most serious Republican challenge to former president Donald Trump’s comeback attempt, even as the popular and controversial Florida Governor has slid in recent polls on who should be the party’s nominee.
“In Florida, we chose facts over fear, education over indoctrination and law and order over rioting and disorder,” Mr. DeSantis said when the announcement, hosted by billionaire Twitter owner Elon Musk, finally got under way. “We held the line when freedom hung in the balance.”
Mr. DeSantis is betting that his brand of non-stop culture-war combat will rally the conservative base. During his more than four years in office, he has cracked down on discussion of LGBTQ issues and structural racism in classrooms, made abortion illegal after six weeks, legalized carrying concealed guns without a permit and wielded the power of government to punish critics, most famously in a fight with Disney.
In the broadcast, Mr. DeSantis lamented that “our southern border has collapsed,” took aim at “gender ideology and pronouns” and described the country’s cities as “inmates running the asylum.”
But his hard-line persona risks alienating moderate voters: There is majority public support in the country for abortion rights and uneasiness among some free-market Republicans with his interference in the private business of Disney and others.
On the right, meanwhile, he has faced a barrage of attacks from Mr. Trump and his allies – including an ad this week labelling him “Ron DeSalesTax” over his previous support for such a levy – that have steadily pushed down his polling numbers. The former president’s criminal indictment last month also helped coalesce flagging Republican support around him.
Mr. DeSantis has a reputation for being aloof and awkward in person, a personality that will now be tested in debates and campaign stops.
On Wednesday, the Governor fired back without naming Mr. Trump, deriding the former president’s obsession over relitigating the 2020 election and referencing last year’s midterm losses by his candidates. “We must end the culture of losing that has infected the Republican Party in recent years,” he said. “We must look forward, not backward … no excuses.”
Nick Iarossi, a Florida lobbyist and long-time fundraiser for Mr. DeSantis, said the Governor’s path to the nomination lies in having proven himself effective in advancing the causes Republican voters care about.
“No one has better conservative political chops than Ron DeSantis has. No one has passed more conservative legislation than he has. No one has taken on corporate wokeism and cultural wokeism more than DeSantis has,” Mr. Iarossi said in an interview. “What he’s done on those issues is what voters want to see.”
Even Mr. DeSantis’s choice of launch pad appeared to be a subtle jab at Mr. Trump: the former president used to use Twitter to great effect before he was banned from it in 2021.
But the shaky tech and Mr. Musk’s mumbling delivery may put into question efforts to build the site into a right-wing media powerhouse. At one point, the broadcast turned into an extended back and forth between the business magnate and his co-host, David Sacks, about COVID-19 and the media, while Mr. DeSantis remained mostly silent.
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Mr. Musk and Mr. Sacks said Twitter did not have the capacity to handle the nearly 500,000 listeners who tuned in. “We are kind of melting the servers,” Mr. Sacks said at one point.
“Glitchy. Tech issues. Uncomfortable silences. A complete failure to launch. And that’s just the candidate!” Mr. Trump’s campaign said in a statement, which seemed to reference Mr. Musk’s SpaceX company, whose most high-profile recent launch attempt ended with the rocket crashing back to Earth.
A former U.S. military prosecutor, Mr. DeSantis was elected to Congress in 2012 and the Governorship in 2018. He shot to national prominence during the pandemic by keeping his state relatively open and refusing to institute masking and vaccine mandates. Re-elected by 19-point landslide last year, Mr. DeSantis managed to win over Latino and urban voters, demographics other Republicans have struggled with.
The Governor has drawn accusations of authoritarianism over his punishment of critics. After Disney spoke out against his anti-LGBTQ law – labelled “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents – Mr. DeSantis ended Disney World’s special tax status and mused about taking over land around the park to build a prison. He has also fought with sports teams and government employees.
This month, Mr. DeSantis changed Florida law to allow himself to remain in office as governor while running for president.
Mr. DeSantis has polled far ahead of other Republican challengers to Mr. Trump, including former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. Both Mr. Trump and President Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee, have underwater approval ratings, seemingly opening up an opportunity for Mr. DeSantis and other contenders.