By some measures, Ron DeSantis is Donald Trump’s carbon copy. The Florida Governor achieved a national profile by rejecting social distancing, masking and vaccination mandates during the pandemic. He launched a culture war in his state, cracking down on discussions of racism and LGBTQ issues in schools. And he has shown a penchant for using the power of his office to punish those who defy him, from corporations to sports teams to government employees.
In other ways, Mr. DeSantis is the former president’s opposite. Those who have crossed his path, both allies and opponents, describe him as well-prepared, with a detailed understanding of legislation and a scripted communications style. In social situations, he eschews glad-handing, typically coming across as wooden and awkward. He has also occasionally flirted with policy moderation, pouring money into restoring the Everglades.
After Mr. DeSantis’s blowout re-election victory in November – and the defeat of Mr. Trump’s highest-profile chosen candidates in the midterms – the Florida Governor is rapidly building support to challenge his former benefactor for the 2024 Republican presidential nod. The idea is that he can do nationally what he did in both men’s home state: craft a hybrid between the sharpest aspects of Trumpism and a more disciplined political style.
“Folks who were with Trump had already started to migrate to DeSantis over the last couple of years, but the midterms accelerated that migration dramatically,” said Nick Iarossi, a 44-year-old lobbyist who has worked as a fundraiser for Mr. DeSantis, at his office near the Florida state capitol in Tallahassee.
“It’s not that they dislike Trump. They are just doubting his ability to win a general election. Republicans are tired of losing.”
A Florida native and Harvard-educated lawyer, Mr. DeSantis served as a prosecutor and legal adviser in the U.S. military before his election to Congress in 2012. In 2018, he leveraged an endorsement from Mr. Trump to narrowly win the governorship.
At first, Mr. DeSantis’s signature policies were anything but Trumpian. He launched a US$3.3-billion project to protect the Everglades, his state’s iconic and shrinking wetlands. He increased teacher salaries.
Then, during the pandemic, something shifted. After initially issuing a stay-at-home order, Mr. DeSantis quickly moved to reopen the state, getting businesses running and children back in schools. He refused to implement both mask and vaccination requirements.
Next came the culture wars. Mr. DeSantis backed the Parental Rights in Education Act, labelled “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents, which restricts talk of sexual orientation and gender identity at school, including a complete ban on the topics up to Grade 3. Another law, which Mr. DeSantis nicknamed Stop Woke, bars schools, universities and companies from teaching about structural racism.
“COVID created this perfect storm. People took notice of their lack of personal freedoms, and also the type of content and education their kids were seeing on TV and receiving at school,” Mr. Iarossi said. “It created this big snapback to the right.”
C.J. Walden, who led protests against Mr. DeSantis’s anti-LGBTQ law last year, said the Governor’s policies forced teachers at his Boca Raton high school to stop offering support for LGBTQ youth for fear of getting in trouble with the state. The teacher who sponsored Mr. Walden’s gay-straight alliance could no longer actively participate during meetings.
“When students were talking about it in class, teachers would say, ‘Everyone, we need to stop having this conversation right now,’” he recalled.
The rise of the law also gave licence to bigots to step up their hateful rhetoric, he said, accusing schools of “turning our kids gay” and equating LGBTQ people with pedophiles. It made many of his friends afraid to come out publicly and prompted others to try to conceal their sexual orientation.
“I still see people being scared of being who they are, being openly gay, because his governance has stoked hatred,” Mr. Walden, 18, said.
Mr. DeSantis has pursued a string of other similar wedge issues.
In protest over President Joe Biden’s handling of the Mexican border, he had 48 Venezuelan asylum seekers rounded up in Texas and dropped on Martha’s Vineyard, a wealthy liberal island in Massachusetts. After the George Floyd protests, he passed a law making it easier for police to arrest demonstrators. He has pledged to loosen gun restrictions to allow people to carry firearms without a permit.
The Governor has repeatedly taken reprisals against those who oppose him.
He stripped Disney of a special tax status because the company spoke out against the anti-LGBTQ law. He blocked funding for the Tampa Bay Rays after the team announced its support for tougher gun control. He threatened to fine the Special Olympics until they dropped a vaccine mandate. When Andrew Warren, a Tampa prosecutor, said he would not pursue charges related to abortion or providing gender-affirming care for transgender people, Mr. DeSantis had him suspended.
Lucia Baez-Geller, a member of Miami-Dade’s school board, says this behaviour has cast a chill over her colleagues.
Last school year, when Ms. Baez-Geller moved a motion for the school system to recognize LGBTQ history month, it passed seven votes to one. This past September, the same motion, voted on by the same board members, failed, with only Ms. Baez-Geller supporting it.
Her colleagues were cowed by Mr. DeSantis’s willingness to mete out punishment and fear of being targeted by the far right, she said. During the meeting, protesters drove around the building with a billboard truck bearing a picture of her face captioned “ok, groomer.”
“The culture wars have caused much fear among the people I have been serving with – they went against something that, just a year ago, they agreed with,” Ms. Baez-Geller, a 39-year-old former high-school English teacher, recounted on a coffee-shop patio in her Miami Beach neighbourhood.
All of this has made Mr. DeSantis wildly popular with Mr. Trump’s base. He has nonetheless been careful in his courtship of them. The Governor has refused to say, for instance, whether he believes Mr. Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen and has been cagey about everything from his own vaccination status to U.S. military aid for Ukraine. Such ambiguity allowed Mr. DeSantis to keep his MAGA bona fides while giving conventional Republicans permission to support him.
Over the past four years, Republicans have built a structural advantage in the state. In 2018, registered Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by 300,000. Now, Republicans hold an edge of 500,000. This success is partly a function of people moving to Florida during the pandemic to escape restrictions in other states. The party has also made inroads among Hispanic voters, with Mr. DeSantis the first Republican in a generation to win the popular vote in Miami-Dade.
“A lot of residents of the State of Florida are happy with his administration, Democrats and Republicans,” said Victor Medel, 74, a Cuban-American Republican organizer in Miami Springs. “A lot of voters transferred from other states, mainly from states that are high in taxes, have leftist policies, strict situations and wasteful budgets.”
One little-discussed factor is the rise in Miami’s Spanish-language media of far-right radio hosts and often-conspiratorial political advertising. Such messaging tends to equate Democrats with authoritarian communists and, sometimes, pedophiles.
Florida’s economy last year had the country’s sixth-highest growth rate and Mr. DeSantis’s administration posted a nearly US$22-billion budget surplus.
Some metrics, however, suggest the state is far from achieving the potential its size would indicate. Per-student education spending is sixth lowest in the country, behind much poorer places such as Alabama. Average teacher pay in 2021 was third lowest, even after Mr. DeSantis’s much-touted raises. GDP per capita is a modest 34th nationwide. Freedom during COVID was purchased at a price: Florida has logged more than 83,000 deaths, a per capita toll that is 14th in the country.
It remains an open question whether the factors that led to Mr. DeSantis’s victory can be replicated on a larger scale. For one, Hispanic voters in Florida are largely Cuban-American, already more receptive to the Republicans than other Latino communities over the party’s staunch opposition to the dictatorship in Havana. And on a national stage, the Governor’s choreographed style may falter. In election debates, he sometimes seems to have trouble improvising.
“He’s a squat, square, dour-looking man who always appears on the edge of anger,” said Mac Stipanovich, 74, who spent nearly four decades as a Florida Republican strategist. “Some politicians are artists, they read their audience, they have charisma. Donald Trump is an artist. Ron DeSantis is an accountant.”
A former Democratic political staffer in Tallahassee recalled that Mr. DeSantis always appeared to hate working the room during events. Instead, he would repeat a handful of rehearsed comments and try to get back to his office as quickly as possible. Still, the ex-official said, Mr. DeSantis came across as smart and organized in a way that Mr. Trump does not.
Mr. Iarossi, the DeSantis fundraiser, said the Governor simply refuses to be an “inauthentically jovial political type” and “doesn’t consider it his job to put on a charm offensive.” His focus, instead, is on his goals. “He asks tough questions. If you talk to him about an issue, you better be really well-prepared, because he will be. His retention level is very high. He reads non-stop,” Mr. Iarossi said.
In contrast with Mr. Trump’s wild personal life, Mr. Iarossi characterized Mr. DeSantis’s as sedate. Outside work, he spends his time at home with his wife, Casey, and their three children. His primary interests are talking sports and playing golf.
Mr. DeSantis has clearly rattled the denizen of Mar-a-Lago. The former president has given his rival a belittling nickname, “Ron DeSanctimonious.” In one lengthy, aggrieved statement, Mr. Trump took full credit for Mr. DeSantis’s political success and accused him of lacking “loyalty and class.”
To some observers, Mr. DeSantis’s pitch – a figure who can rally Mr. Trump’s base, but without Mr. Trump’s erratic style – is the wrong way around. Rather, they see Mr. DeSantis as someone with the downsides of Mr. Trump’s incendiary policies without the former president’s stage presence.
Mr. Stipanovich, a moderate conservative, is skeptical voters in the Philadelphia or Detroit suburbs like the idea of, say, dropping asylum seekers on an island. He sees both men on the same political continuum of autocratic populism.
“DeSantis is not dumb as a box of rocks like Donald Trump, but he has many of the same tendencies. The propensity to be a bully that slaps people around when they’re not sufficiently deferential,” Mr. Stipanovich said. “He is a demagogue and he is an authoritarian.”
Whatever the criticisms, Mr. DeSantis is charging ahead with his brand, which he distilled most succinctly in his election-night victory speech. It was a culture-war credo by way of written-for-TV sound bite.
“We fight the woke in the legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations,” he thundered. “We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob.”