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For most of the last year, Ron DeSantis would not indulge the speculation. Yes, he made clear to donors, he might seek the presidency. But pressed with the obvious follow-up — would he still run in 2024 if Donald Trump does? — DeSantis, the governor of Florida, begged off. “He’ll be completely, completely open about whatever, but then the Trump stuff — he suddenly starts to act like he’s being recorded,” Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor and a DeSantis ally, told me in March.
By the summer, though, the governor seemed to be testing the beginnings of a pivot in private settings. He would praise Trump’s record — “You think Ukraine would have been invaded if Donald Trump were president?” — suggesting the former president would win a rematch with President Biden decisively on the policy merits. “But it’s not going to be just the record,” DeSantis has added, according to a person present, performatively ruing this fate. “And that’s a shame.”
Left unspoken is the figure DeSantis believes is best suited to carry the party’s banner without the former president’s baggage. Across the Republican factions unsure if they are approaching an eventual Trump-free future or still living in an interminable Trump present, DeSantis has been permitted to subsist as a kind of Schrödinger’s candidate, both Trump and Not Trump. He can present as an iron-fisted imitation, touring the country in August with a slate of Trump endorsees who lie about the 2020 election. He can cosplay as the post-Trump choice for those desperate for a post-Trump party — a Yale- and Harvard-educated man of letters just winking at the party’s extremes. He can pitch himself, especially, as the “Trump, but …” candidate — an Evolutionary Trump, the 2.0 — defined most vividly by what DeSantis has learned by watching: Here is Trump, but more strategic about his targets; Trump, but restrained enough to keep his Twitter accounts from suspension; Trump, but not under federal investigation.
“It’s like going to the races and watching a race, but you don’t have to make your bet until your horses are coming around the turn,” John Morgan, a Florida Democratic megadonor who has praised DeSantis’s savvy and appeared at an event with him early in his tenure, told me. “That’s how he does it. He watches Trump like a hawk.”
In an extensive examination of his life and record — across more than 100 interviews with aides, allies, antagonists and peers who detailed several previously unreported episodes spanning his decade in elected office — the most consistent appraisal was that DeSantis, who turns 44 this month, believes his raw instincts are unrivaled and that he may well be correct. He has for years merrily shunned the perspectives of moderating influences and gentle dissenters and found himself validated at every turn, his recent history a whir of nominally risky choices — expert-snubbing Covid policies, an uppercut at one of his state’s largest private employers, a long-shot bid for the office he holds — transmogrified to pure political upside as he seeks to position himself as his party’s rightful heir.
“You have a moment,” Casey DeSantis, his wife and closest adviser, has said privately in recent months, nodding at past would-be candidates who failed to seize their chance. The person speaking to her interpreted the remark unambiguously: The DeSantis family thinks this moment is theirs.
Before the F.B.I.’s search and document seizure at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, DeSantis allies expected the governor to run for president no matter what Trump decided. While the episode at least initially rallied the party to Trump’s defense, with DeSantis joining the chorus of Republicans scorning “the raid” as the stuff of banana republics, there is little to suggest that the governor’s plans have changed. He still appears poised to capitalize on perceptible shifts inside Republican power centers that Trump often frustrated but generally tamed while in office. From the cable airwaves to the New York Post editorial page, Murdoch media properties have betrayed an interest in moving beyond the former president, at one point in July posting an indiscreet Fox News Digital montage of erstwhile Trump voters defecting to DeSantis. “I had a guy here in Utah who just came up to me and said, ‘DeSantis 2024,’” Jason Chaffetz, a Republican former congressman and a Fox News contributor, told me. “That doesn’t happen in Utah.”
Republican donors, a reliable party weather vane, have likewise turned his way. Some, leery of missing their chance to ingratiate themselves early, have offered the ultimate good-will gesture: submitting to a midsummer day in North Florida. “National donors are wanting 15 minutes in front of DeSantis more and more, and people are willing to fly to Tallahassee to do that,” Eberhart told me. “It almost feels a bit like the period right before Trump won the nomination in 2016. There was a moment when the donor class was like, ‘Oh, wow, the train is leaving the station.’”
DeSantis, who was never considered a leading culture warrior as a young congressman — once privately dismissing the party’s old-guard preoccupation with sexuality — has steered his state to the vanguard of right-wing social causes, responding nimbly to political market forces and enlisting a small conservative college in Michigan to help guide Florida classroom standards. He has proved willing to stir the far-right fringe, raising conspiracy theories about the F.B.I.’s “orchestrating” the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and saying of the federal medical official Anthony Fauci, whom he has suggested belongs in jail, “Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.” Matt Gaetz, the trollish Florida congressman, was a friend and a close adviser, but DeSantis has kept a public distance amid a sex-trafficking probe into the legislator. (Gaetz has denied wrongdoing.)
On and off camera, DeSantis has forged relationships not only with Fox, where a producer once gushed to a member of the governor’s staff that he could host a show, but with edgelord media types who have flocked to his state and boosted him online. (A former aide told me DeSantis regularly read his Twitter mentions.) In January, invitees to a dinner at the governor’s mansion included Dave Rubin, a popular right-wing web talk-show host, and Benny Johnson, a Newsmax host. Fellow DeSantis-heads from the Extremely Online right include Alex Jones — who in August declared him “way better than Trump” before begging the former president for forgiveness — and Elon Musk, with whom the governor has dined.
DeSantis’s canniest feat as a shadow candidate has been dazzling this sphere of Republican influence while heartening party elites who see him as one of their own, celebrated by throwback organs like The National Review and the Club for Growth, where one of his former top congressional aides now works. “There’s a lot riding on trying to make Ron DeSantis happen,” Sarah Longwell, a Republican operative and publisher of the anti-Trump conservative site The Bulwark, told me. “They see him as somebody who gets them out of having to defend Trump.”
DeSantis is already beloved in right-wing legal circles. He recently told the radio host Hugh Hewitt that he had moved Florida’s courts to the right in part with out-of-state help from “pretty big legal conservative heavyweights.” DeSantis’s general counsel is a former clerk for Justice Samuel Alito. His chief of staff is a former Trump Commerce Department counsel and an alumnus of Jones Day, a firm with deep ties to Republican power. Justice Clarence Thomas has communicated a number of times with DeSantis, according to an email to the governor’s staff from Thomas’s wife, Ginni Thomas, obtained by the watchdog group American Oversight. Her message, sent in June 2021, invited DeSantis to address a “cone of silence coalition” of “conservative patriots.” She noted that her husband had contacted DeSantis “on various things of late.” Introducing Thomas at a Federalist Society event in Florida in 2020, DeSantis called him “our greatest living justice.”
Yet what distinguishes DeSantis, elevating him for now above the Cruzes and Cottons and Mikes Pompeo and Pence, is a central insight into where the party is and where it is headed. If a DeSantis campaign would be a referendum on which parts of Trumpism voters value most — the burn-it-all fury at elites? The perpetual grievances? The blunt-force magnetism of Trump himself? — DeSantis’s read is that the signal trait worth emulating, and then heightening, is more elemental. It is about projecting the political fearlessness to crush adversaries with administrative precision.
Perhaps no current officeholder has been more single-minded about turning the gears of state against specific targets. Trump groused about local Democrats who defied him; DeSantis dug up a 1930s precedent in suspending an elected prosecutor who, amid the overturning of Roe v. Wade and a state crackdown on providing gender-affirming treatment to minors, vowed not to criminalize abortion or transgender care. Other governors denounced Covid-vaccine mandates; DeSantis’s administration threatened the Special Olympics, hosting a competition in Orlando, with tens of millions in fines if the organization refused to lift a requirement for athletes and staff. (The group backed down.) Conservatives have long condemned creeping progressivism in classrooms and boardrooms; DeSantis last spring signed the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” (short for “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees”) aimed at race-conscious teachings. “For years, many conservatives understood culture war as lamentation: They believed that complaining about progressive ideology and hypocrisy was a victory in itself,” Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who by invitation advised DeSantis’s policy team on “Stop W.O.K.E.” and appeared with the governor to promote it, told me. “Governor DeSantis understands culture war as public policy.”
That DeSantis has made enemies in these endeavors is clearly part of the point. He has become Democrats’ favorite governor to despise — nothing less than an aspiring authoritarian, many say, their criticisms only further galvanizing his fans. His persistent conflict with reporters is so ingrained in his public identity that he cast himself in a recent ad as Maverick of “Top Gun,” “dogfighting” the “corporate media” in shades and a bomber jacket. He has made useful foils of academics; a Roman Catholic archbishop; the state of California; purveyors of “woke math”; a trans collegiate swimmer; a professional baseball team, the Tampa Bay Rays, after its official account tweeted about gun violence. “People say it’s that Ron DeSantis hates the right people,” says Longwell, who has conducted focus groups gauging his 2024 appeal and sees a path for him. “It’s the opposite: The right people hate Ron DeSantis.”
Wherever he appears lately, DeSantis generally takes the stage to customized walk-up music produced by two grateful constituents: Johnny Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd and his brother Donnie. “Down in swee-eeet Florida,” the chorus goes, greeting DeSantis as he stepped into a cavernous hotel ballroom in Pittsburgh on Aug. 19. “Our governor is red, white and blue. Down in swee-eeet Florida. He’s shootin’ us straight, tellin’ us the truth.”
He had imported this re-election anthem to a campaign appearance with Doug Mastriano, the far-right Trump endorsee for Pennsylvania governor. Approaching the microphone, DeSantis held a small collection of autographed hats printed with his name and flung them into a crowd dotted with red Trump gear. “Hello, Western Pennsylvania!” DeSantis said, sounding every bit the national candidate. He ticked through a slide show as he narrated life highlights: taking his youth baseball team from Dunedin, Fla., to the Little League World Series; joining the military; scolding a television reporter during the pandemic. The final image showed DeSantis, whose father is from the area, decked in Pittsburgh Steelers garb as a child.
DeSantis has few analogues as a public performer. He is by turns blustering and kvetchy, better at reading rooms than electrifying them. Some of his observations seem to be culled from hate-scrolling. “People would put in their Twitter profile a mask and a syringe, and that was, like, their identity,” he fumed at a recent news conference. In Pittsburgh, DeSantis’s denouncement of “gender-affirming care for minors,” which he introduced with scare quotes, was accompanied by air-slicing hand gestures as he accused doctors of “chopping off private parts” with impunity. He unfurled a Biden impression: staring at a phantom teleprompter, mouth open and mind blank. “Honestly, it’s sad,” he said to howls.
Though DeSantis has been more reserved on matters of “election integrity” than Mastriano, a leading proponent of Trump’s 2020 election lies, the Pennsylvania event seemed designed in part to have it all ways: By standing with the candidate at all, DeSantis could prove himself one of the guys, darkly recounting Pennsylvania’s pace of ballot-counting in 2020 and talking up Florida’s first-of-its-kind election-crime police without saying outright that Trump was robbed. But mostly, the event gave DeSantis a swing-state venue for playing the hits, with a special emphasis on one. “There was a company that people may have heard of in Orlando,” he said, inviting a rush of knowing cheers.
Of all DeSantis’s chosen skirmishes, his collision with Disney stands apart. For those seeking to understand the de facto governor of Red America in his latest form, this is the skeleton key — the full realization of his bid to fuse cultural clashes and executive vengeance-seeking as his national signature. Not long ago, DeSantis did not seem deeply invested in the feud’s origin text, Florida House Bill 1557, named the Parental Rights in Education Act. As the bill wended through the Legislature early this year — proposing to ban instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades — he has said he did not follow its particulars closely.
Little in his record suggested strong personal feelings about L.G.B.T.Q. issues. “I don’t care if somebody’s gay,” he told a counterpart several years ago as a 30-something congressman, according to a person present, who — like some others interviewed — requested anonymity to avoid provoking a famously retaliatory governor. “I don’t know why people get caught up in that.” But soon the Florida legislation acquired the right enemies, and DeSantis’s attention. Critics labeled it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a phrase echoed often in media accounts. Activists pressed businesses to object, reprising a template from Georgia a year earlier, when outrage over a restrictive voting law prompted rebukes from several corporations.
But in Florida, Disney was so cozy with the Tallahassee power structure that it employed more than three dozen local lobbyists. Its chief executive, Bob Chapek, had shown little appetite for partisan politics before he and DeSantis discussed the bill in March, a reluctance the governor seemed to encourage. “I told them, ‘You shouldn’t get involved,’” DeSantis recalled in an interview with Rubin, the right-wing talk-show host, months later. “ ‘It’s not going to work out well for you.’”
Though Disney appeared most concerned with appeasing disenchanted workers and partners — eventually issuing a forcefully toothless statement calling for the law’s repeal after its final passage — DeSantis was not content to declare victory and move on. Publicly, he has positioned himself as a latter-day Winston Churchill, fighting on the beaches that never should have been closed, standing firm against a “Burbank, California-based company” that does business with the Chinese Communist Party. “We must fight the woke in our schools, we must fight the woke in our businesses,” DeSantis thundered in Pittsburgh, echoing Churchill’s stirring 1940 speech to the war-weary Brits. “We can never, ever surrender to woke ideology.”
Privately, he can sound less furious than bemused at having gained such a bumbling foe, repurposing an oft-repeated Michael Jordan quotation about Republicans and sneaker sales in an aside to one associate: Conservatives go to Disney, too. When Rufo, the conservative activist, published video last spring of an internal Disney meeting — during which a producer spoke of injecting “queerness” into programming and proclaimed her “not-at-all-secret gay agenda” — DeSantis cited the footage as grounds to revoke Disney World’s 55-year-old designation as a special tax district. The company’s tumbling market capitalization became an applause line in his speeches. “You don’t have a right to force me or my citizens to subsidize your woke activism,” DeSantis said in Pittsburgh, looking down at his lectern with practiced stoicism through extended applause.
Back home, DeSantis-friendly lobbyists have welcomed a growing cottage industry: advising clients who fear becoming the next Disney. “Companies that have otherwise taken big stands on cultural issues are now worried,” Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist and a DeSantis fund-raiser, told me. “You know: ‘Florida’s a big state. This guy could be president one day. How do we stay off the shit list?’” He added, “If you want to make a point, you make a point by punching the biggest guy in the room.”
The local ramifications are both unsettled and largely immaterial to DeSantis’s prospects. The finer details around the company’s tax status are expected to be sorted out after his probable re-election in November. To the extent that he has antagonized voters in counties that might be adversely affected, those areas are generally blue anyway. But it can be said that some 400 miles away in West Palm Beach, the episode registered with Florida’s most famous resident.
“What happened to Disney?” Trump asked an associate recently, struck by the company’s misfortunes.
The thing that happens when Ron DeSantis believes you are in his way.
DeSantis is surely not the first elected official who told friends from his youth he would be president one day — the son of a Nielsen-rating box installer and a nurse outside Tampa, imagining a path to high prominence through politics. But he might be the only Gen X-er who paired such ambitions with impressions of a disgraced forebear. “He would always do Richard Nixon,” Brady Williams, a childhood friend and baseball teammate who now manages the AAA Durham Bulls (a Rays affiliate), told me. “He would put up the two fingers on both hands and act like he was the president. If he won a card game or something, he would do it.”
When DeSantis first sought office in 2012, eyeing a redrawn congressional district in northeast Florida, supporters called him “the résumé”: Yale baseball captain, Harvard Law, Navy man who deployed to Iraq as an adviser to a SEAL commander. “He was thinking about this for years,” Williams said. “He knew the steps that he had to take to get a résumé that was good enough to be in politics, to become a president.” DeSantis’s initial pitch to voters registers now as a time capsule of pre-Trump Republicanism, with references to the Federalist Papers, Tea Party-pleasing diatribes against the Affordable Care Act and warm allusions to John Bolton.
After he won, DeSantis could appear almost ostentatiously ill at ease in Washington: lawyerly, tetchy, averse to eye contact, it seemed, as if avoiding an eclipse. He spent nights on a couch in his office — “I slept on worse in Iraq,” he told staff members — and made few friends. “I don’t think he intended to stay in the House very long,” Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida, told me. Though DeSantis was a founding member of the hard-line Freedom Caucus, he was rarely its public face. A veteran of the group told me DeSantis had a way of “dipping out and disappearing” from meetings if a leadership fight or funding battle was not playing well. Neither did DeSantis, who is Catholic, distinguish himself as a social crusader. Asked about bathrooms and “the transgender issue” at a 2018 candidate forum, he said, “getting into the bathroom wars, I don’t think that’s a good use of our time.” “It’s not what I wanted to hear,” John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, told me. When pressed further at the event, DeSantis pledged to veto any bill that would allow a transgender person to use the bathroom of their choice.
DeSantis’s low profile inside the Capitol belied grander designs statewide. For a time, friends talked him up as a possible Florida attorney general, plugging his stint with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps at Guantánamo Bay. He entered the 2016 Senate primary to succeed Marco Rubio, who initially vowed to become president or retire trying, before stepping aside when Rubio reconsidered. “He kind of understood,” Rubio told me, describing DeSantis as “very gracious, very low maintenance about it.” But that rare flash of deference — or, at least, recognizing that the math would be prohibitive — briefly obscured an upside: DeSantis would soon have a cleaner shot at a better job, even if many Republicans did not like his chances. His 2018 primary opponent to be the Republican nominee for governor, Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner, carried statewide name recognition and an early fund-raising edge. “We were patting him on the back saying, ‘Good luck,’” Chaffetz, the former congressman, told me of DeSantis. Jeb Bush, a two-term Florida governor, asked him how he planned to win. “He goes, ‘I’m going to nationalize the primary and localize the general,’” Bush recalled at a Wall Street Journal event after the election. “Pretty smart strategy, it turns out.”
DeSantis would essentially shrink that nationalized primary to an electorate of one. “Trump’s going to endorse me,” he told skeptical Republicans flatly, according to someone who heard it, “and I’m going to win.” DeSantis established himself as one of the president’s most visible cable-news defenders, a role Trump seemed to value more than most cabinet posts, the congressman’s face unmissable across Fox News segments on the unfairness of the Mueller probe or the wisdom of the commander in chief. Putnam, his opponent, called him “the ‘Seinfeld’ candidate,” ducking Florida voters from a TV studio in a campaign about nothing. But DeSantis recognized that in the Trump era, all politics were national anyway. The voters he needed were likelier to watch “Hannity” than WBBH Fort Myers — and far likelier to warm to DeSantis because Trump told them to than through any town-to-town glad-handing.
Among DeSantis’s most trusted advisers was Gaetz, a fellow young Florida congressman and Fox super-regular who had Trump’s ear. They could make an unlikely pair, the temperate candidate of humble origin and the hard-living rogue whose father once ran the Florida Senate. A former DeSantis aide recalled Gaetz’s showing up to a campaign office one morning in shorts and sunglasses with Joel Greenberg — the friend with whom he is now enmeshed in the sex-trafficking investigation — leaving staff to wonder if they had slept the night before. A Gaetz spokesman said that DeSantis and the congressman maintain a “productive working relationship,” adding that Gaetz had conducted a 2018 DeSantis campaign staff audit in “an acceptable Florida Man political uniform” of flip-flops and shorts. “The little brother I never wanted,” Casey DeSantis has said of Gaetz, according to a person present.
But Ron DeSantis respected Gaetz’s political antenna, particularly when it came to negotiating Trump. In December 2017, the two congressmen flew on Air Force One with Trump to a rally in Pensacola, where the president endorsed Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican Senate candidate accused of sexual misconduct with minors. (Moore has denied wrongdoing.) Trump tweeted favorably about DeSantis’s campaign later that month after watching one of his Fox appearances. Vice President Mike Pence was among the Putnam allies who later worked to prevent Trump from formalizing his support. But in DeSantis, Trump had identified the kind of “central casting” candidate he preferred: Ivy League, military, manifest fealty.
When Trump visited House Republicans on Capitol Hill months later, he strained to find DeSantis in the room. “Where’s Ron?” he asked. “How’s the campaign going?” A voice called back from the crowd. “It would be a lot better,” DeSantis said, according to a person who was there, “if I could get another tweet.” Trump obliged, posting an unequivocal endorsement two months before the primary about a “top student at Yale and Harvard Law School” now seeking the governorship.
Cutting the race’s defining ad, the campaign saw little value in subtlety. DeSantis’s wife, a former local news anchor he met at a driving range, would narrate. Their children — Madison, not yet 2, and Mason, a few months old — would participate. But the real star was off camera. “People say Ron’s all-Trump,” Casey DeSantis said dryly, between scenes of her husband in the delights of fatherhood: “building the wall” out of blocks with Madison, reading from “The Art of the Deal” at story time, putting Mason to bed in a MAGA onesie. “But he is so much more.” One ally recalled DeSantis’s rolling his eyes, dismissing the ad as a necessary gag, when they discussed it a short while later. “I don’t think you’ll ever see that again,” the person told me.
DeSantis’s party on primary night, when he enjoyed a 20-point victory, was a celebration of a strategy vindicated. “A lot of Matt Gaetz and DeSantis hugging it out,” Eberhart, the donor, told me. The next day, DeSantis opened the general election — the first (and still only) test of his political mettle in a nationally watched fall campaign — by warning voters not to “monkey this up” by supporting his opponent, Andrew Gillum, a Black Democrat who was then mayor of Tallahassee. Democrats heard a racist dog whistle. Some advisers urged DeSantis to make a qualified apology, a terse acknowledgment that his word choice had given the left ammunition to distract from his planned general-election pivot to local priorities like ocean red tide mitigation. DeSantis viewed any admission of fault as unacceptable. “This is exactly what they want,” he told his team, according to someone with knowledge of the conversation. “This is what they do to conservatives.”
Casey DeSantis volunteered a way out of the controversy during a debate prep session weeks later, according to a person present: “She said something like, ‘Would it be helpful for people to know that that was on the top of his mind because he was reading a children’s book to one of the kids the night before and it said, ‘Don’t monkey it up?’” The group was uniformly unpersuaded, the person told me. “Everyone said no.”
DeSantis’s ultimate triumph in November — by some 30,000 votes, less than half of a percentage point — was not especially impressive in what was becoming a right-leaning state, against a rival who, as DeSantis pointed out regularly, was already connected to an F.B.I. investigation into Tallahassee corruption. (This June, Gillum surrendered to federal authorities on fraud and conspiracy charges; he has pleaded not guilty.) But a win was a win and, to DeSantis, an answer to every argument. “Even today, the political and media class seem eager to write our obituary,” he said in a score-settling victory speech. Now he had the power to set about writing theirs.
Early in the Tallahassee transition, DeSantis burrowed into some essential reading material: a binder enumerating the powers of the office. “He was soaking that up,” Scott Parkinson, the transition’s deputy executive director, told me. DeSantis’s aim, he has said, was to understand all the “pressure points” within the system: what required legislative cooperation, what he could do unilaterally, which appointments needed which approvals. Precisely what kind of governor he might like to be was less certain.
Some initial pursuits seemed to feint at center-rightism — Everglades restoration, a bump in new teachers’ pay, the appointment of a Democrat to lead the Division of Emergency Management — helping to lift early approval ratings into the 60s. One of DeSantis’s first events as governor featured John Morgan, the Democratic donor who bankrolled a successful ballot measure on medical marijuana in 2016 and was tangled in litigation with state Republicans who sought to restrict access to the drug in smokable forms. “I get a call from Matt Gaetz, and he goes, ‘The governor is interested in getting rid of this lawsuit,’” Morgan told me. “ ‘Would you be willing to do a press conference with him?’ I said, ‘Hell, yeah.’”
DeSantis kept his circle small in the executive suite; his wife maintained an office not far from his. Some senior officials had barely interacted with him months into his tenure. A running joke took hold among lawmakers, sizing up the two names on his list of trusted advisers: Casey DeSantis and Jesus Christ. Some visitors to his office told me he did not bother adjusting the volume on Fox News programming to accommodate live conversation. One Tallahassee veteran summarized a typical hourlong session with the governor as a 50-minute DeSantis monologue. “All good?” he would ask in closing. Hearing no objection quickly enough, he would leave.
Covid represented the purest possible stress test for DeSantis and his political instincts: a go-it-alone thinker suspicious of expert consensus; a leader uncomfortable with empathy, dealing with a pitiless killer; a Republican disinclined, at least initially, to buck the president who made him. DeSantis, who has since suggested he regrets not pushing back forcefully on federal lockdown guidance, issued a stay-at-home order in April 2020 like so many peers, a bit of history now elided in the governor’s retelling. His preferred account, true in several respects, is that his state was caricatured as a heedless death cult, its beaches and bars brimming with good cheer and infection, as liberal critics waited for him to fail. “You got a lot of people in your profession who waxed poetically for weeks and weeks about how Florida was going to be just like New York,” DeSantis told reporters in May 2020. “Well, hell, we’re eight weeks away from that, and it hasn’t happened.”
That a vicious outbreak soon followed — and eventually several more, with Florida for some time leading the country in per-capita hospitalizations — proved politically irrelevant for DeSantis. The people he needed were with him, reveling in what he now grandly calls the “free state of Florida”: the Republican base that elected him and the blue-state expats bristling at Covid restrictions elsewhere; the parents of children demoralized by remote learning and the right-wing personalities thrilling to DeSantis’s instinct for confrontation. Florida Republicans would overtake Democrats in active voter registrations in 2021 for the first time on record. After being largely absent on Fox News in 2019, the governor returned to the network’s airwaves in force, encouraged by Casey DeSantis, a careful student of the conservative media. “Casey would say, ‘We have to get him on Mark Levin and “Hannity” once a week,’” an aide told me. “ ‘Frequency is very important.’”
This imperative was, of course, platform-dependent. DeSantis seemed to emerge from the early months of Covid wholly persuaded that even gesturing at bygone norms of politician-reporter relations was a misread of the Republican moment. DeSantis’s team did not make him available for an interview for this article and declined to answer written questions. He has not spoken extensively to a major nonconservative publication since summer 2020, remarking this February that the best federal officials “can put hit pieces from The New York Times on their wall like wallpaper.” “Republicans have to understand,” DeSantis said in an interview last November with Ben Shapiro, the popular conservative commentator, in the governor’s office. “Don’t try to get these people to like you.”
When the governor interacts with the Tallahassee press corps, it is almost exclusively at news conferences for which he sometimes gives little notice, often flanked by state officials or supportive locals who applaud his answers. His most ferocious and ubiquitous public defender, Christina Pushaw, a re-election campaign aide who was the governor’s public-salaried press secretary until August, was hired last year after writing a lacerating article for a conservative publication about the credibility of Rebekah Jones, a former Florida health official who accused the DeSantis administration of hiding Covid data (and is now the Democratic nominee opposing Gaetz).
Pushaw has sometimes distressed people in DeSantis’s orbit, once suggesting that a Covid policy in Georgia (the country; she previously worked for the former president Mikheil Saakashvili) was influenced by the Rothschild family, a target of longtime anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. She later apologized. When an Associated Press article placed the governor’s support for a monoclonal antibody treatment in the context of a donor’s ties to the drugmaker, Pushaw urged followers to “drag them,” sending a flood of threats the reporter’s way. Some allies backchanneled with DeSantis, hoping he might be willing to intervene on the reporter’s behalf. “She’s doing her job,” he said of Pushaw, according to a person with direct knowledge of the discussions.
DeSantis’s disdain for journalists feels authentic and visceral, distinguishing him from Trump, who has spent a lifetime courting reporters, and even Republican contemporaries like Rubio and Ted Cruz, whose 2016 campaigns were generally happy to play ball. It also has clear advantages. While flattering articles can be useful enough, the governor benefits far more, in reputation and fund-raising possibilities, from a perceived hit, a sort of heads-I-win-tails-fake-news construction for which his supporters have been conditioned. In April, he celebrated the anniversary of a widely criticized “60 Minutes” segment, which suggested corruption in the state’s vaccine rollout, with a tweet promising to “always punch back” against the media.
With his early bet on reopening and his concede-nothing posture, DeSantis has plainly won the political argument on Covid. The economic advantages and day-to-day freedoms of his hands-off approach were undeniable, and state-to-state virus statistics are rarely as clean as his opponents would like. While DeSantis has said he is more cleareyed about the Covid science than his detractors, his inputs have been heavily curated — and often opposed or debunked by the “medical establishment” he has derided with air quotes. He has conferred with Scott W. Atlas, a radiologist and Trump White House health adviser who embraced a “herd immunity” theory of Covid, and Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford health-policy professor critical of lockdowns and mask mandates.
Some health authorities do offer qualified praise for key DeSantis decisions. Unlike New York, Florida refused to send discharged Covid patients to long-term care facilities. Federal officials pointed approvingly to the state’s walk-up testing sites. Schools reopened with single-minded drive. But many scientists still hold the governor responsible for a large fraction of Florida’s more than 80,000 Covid deaths, especially as he progressed from lockdown-lifter to apparent vaccine skeptic, aligning himself with a segment of the Republican base that jeered even Trump late last year when he told a crowd in Dallas about getting a booster.
DeSantis initially promoted vaccine availability, joking that he might give reporters a biceps “gun show” by getting the shot publicly. Then he did so privately. In September 2021, he stood by without objection at a news conference where a featured speaker said the vaccine “changes your RNA.” Days later, he installed a new surgeon general, Joseph A. Ladapo, who declined to say whether he was vaccinated. In January, an Orange County health official was placed on leave after emailing employees to criticize internal vaccination rates, prompting a state investigation into whether he violated Florida’s anti-mandate law. In March, Florida became the first state to recommend against the vaccine for healthy children.
The governor, who has still not said whether he received a booster, is not unaware of his high esteem in the vocal and politically potent anti-vaccine community. “Does he know that? Of course,” Iarossi, the lobbyist and DeSantis ally, told me, before insisting, “He’s not courting the anti-vax crowd.” And if DeSantis has lost support recently among some early-term fans outside the traditional Republican coalition, some of these Floridians had grown alarmed by the political company they were keeping anyway. “I’ve decided that America is full of people with oppositional defiance disorder that you find in some unruly children,” Morgan told me. “DeSantis’s base has a lot of it: Don’t. Tell. Me. What. To. Do.”
DeSantis’s relationship with Larry Arnn began around 2014 with an unsolicited gift: “Dreams From Our Founding Fathers,” the congressman’s censorious book about Barack Obama. As the president of Hillsdale College in Michigan, a small school influential in modern conservative thought, Arnn had grown accustomed to books and letters from Republican strivers. This one — “James Madison was a freedom man,” read one characteristic line in the book. “Barack Obama is a government man” — impressed him more than most. “I went, ‘Wow, this is pretty good,’” Arnn said in February, introducing DeSantis as “one of the most important people living” at a Hillsdale event in Naples, Fla. Arnn said he took further notice of DeSantis’s focus on “school reform” in the 2018 campaign, which included an emphasis on constitutional teachings.
Since then, Florida has consulted with Hillsdale as part of an overhaul of the state’s civics education standards. Some educators have attacked the new rubric as a slavery-sanitizing jumble of Christian-infused teachings; according to reporting by The Miami Herald and The Tampa Bay Times, several training slides emphasized the “misconception” that the founders “desired strict separation of church and state.” (“They need to understand,” DeSantis has said of students, “that our rights come from God, not from the government.”) While Hillsdale has been a “prime influence” on education in several states, Arnn noted, Florida was an especially “competent” partner. “They said, ‘We want to use your deal,’” he recalled. “And I replied, ‘Good.’”
The governor’s affiliation with Hillsdale reflects a tenet of his rise: diligently cultivating the right allies in conservative politics and figuring out which policies they might collaborate on as they came. If he has proved himself a true believer, it is in himself more than any cause. “I think he stumbled into this,” Curbelo, the former Florida congressman, told me of DeSantis’s forays into culture warfare, crediting the governor for his political dexterity in making conservative red meat sound like common sense. “He’s picked issues that are safe in the sense that the majority of people are on his side. Most parents would agree that children in grades K through three should not be exposed to conversations about sex or sexuality in the classroom. And then he uses aggressive rhetoric to keep that Trump base, those Republican primary voters, excited and motivated.”
For all his eager enemy-making, DeSantis’s state approval rating is around 50 percent — no small thing in a hyperpolarized climate where many national figures, including Biden and Trump, are underwater with American voters. And over the past year especially, two data points seemed to reinforce for DeSantis the power of clashes over the classroom: school-board-level passions around his Covid policies and the 2021 governor’s race in Virginia, where Glenn Youngkin won an upset victory for Republicans after consistently invoking “parents’ rights.”
In Florida, DeSantis has aligned closely with Moms for Liberty, a nonprofit formed last year “to stand up for parental rights,” joining DeSantis to oppose school mask and vaccine mandates and “woke” incursions into the classroom. Appearing in July at the group’s national summit in Tampa, where signs read, “STOP WOKE” and “We do NOT CO-PARENT with the GOVERNMENT,” DeSantis was presented with a Roman-inspired sword. “It is what the gladiators were awarded with after they had fought a long hard battle for freedom,” Tina Descovich, a Moms for Liberty founder, told DeSantis, who swung his gift with a half-chop that resembled a baseball check-swing.
Speaking over the gentle clang of breakfast consumption in a second-floor Marriott ballroom, with dozens of cellphones raised to record him, DeSantis saluted his own foresight in resisting school closures. (“ ‘Oh, my God, the devastating effect of school closures, who could have predicted it would be this bad?’” he said, affecting a pseudo-newscaster’s voice, before dropping the act: “Yeah, we predicted.”) He suggested that Stephen Douglas had been “doing the C.R.T.” in his wrongheaded slavery debates against Abraham Lincoln. He railed against “baby Covid vaxes,” whose mention produced “noooooo”s from the room, and shared that Florida’s many seniors were agog at the left’s “woke gender ideology.” “They don’t know what the heck any of this is,” he said. “They’re like, ‘This is crazy.’”
The governor’s high interest in transgender issues is both relatively recent and entirely consistent with trendlines in the party, drawing in traditional religious conservatives and a newer breed of online brawlers attuned to viral snippets of perceived liberal excess. The subject has become a proxy for what DeSantis has called a “mind virus” sending Democrats of all gender identities well beyond the cultural mainstream. His team has been known to track Libs of TikTok, a popular social-media clearinghouse for clips and commentary depicting liberals (and often L.G.B.T.Q. people and their allies) as dangers to society. Pushaw, his campaign aide and former press secretary, suggested in March that opponents of the Parental Rights in Education bill condoned “grooming” young kids, tweeting weeks later that Libs of TikTok “truly opened my eyes” to the number of educators readily discussing sex, sexuality and gender identity with students. After footage shared by Libs of TikTok showed a child in Miami beside a drag performer in lingerie, the state filed a complaint in July against the proprietor, citing in part a 1947 Florida Supreme Court finding that “men impersonating women” in “suggestive and indecent” performances constituted a public nuisance.
The governor’s expanded focus on transgender issues has included calls for doctors who “disfigure” kids with gender-affirming care to be sued. His administration has urged schools to ignore federal guidance aimed at buttressing Title IX protections for transgender students. The state’s medical board voted in August to move toward banning gender-affirming treatment for minors. A new state rule would bar Florida Medicaid coverage of gender dysphoria treatment for adults.
DeSantis’s war on “woke math” has followed a similar trajectory. After his administration rejected 28 textbooks in April for trafficking in “prohibited topics,” a Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times investigation found that a vast majority of state reviewers reported no evidence of such issues. But two of the handful who objected came from Hillsdale, including a sophomore student listed as the secretary of the Hillsdale College Republicans. It is unclear how such reviewers were selected. “We have unqualified people given access to determine what textbooks are permissible,” Anna Eskamani, a Democrat in the Florida House, told me. “It’s about instilling a hyperconservative, Christian-nationalistic generation. That’s 100 percent what their goal is.”
Eskamani is among a large segment of Democrats who now call DeSantis “borderline fascist,” as she put it, a selective protector of freedoms more interested in pummeling opposition than shrinking government. He is a defender of “parents’ rights” who has floated sending child protective services after people who take their kids to drag shows. He has pushed an “anti-riot” measure, passed after the George Floyd protests, that could expose peaceful demonstrators or bystanders to punishment if a gathering turns violent. A blizzard of court challenges and some legal setbacks for DeSantis have heightened the uncertainty around what some policies might ultimately look like in practice and done little to assuage opponents who feel targeted. “He’s at war with a subset of people who happen to live in his quote-unquote ‘free state,’” Shevrin Jones, a Democratic state senator, told me.
The governor’s approach to voting issues is especially instructive. Shortly after taking office, he moved to restrict the recently restored voting rights of people with felony convictions, enshrined in a 2018 ballot measure, by requiring those with serious criminal histories to fully pay court fines and fees before re-enfranchisement. His emphasis on scattered episodes of possible fraud has appeared to be situational, highlighted by the creation of an Office of Election Crimes and Security and an announcement in August that more than a dozen former felons were being arrested for illegally voting. (In media interviews and court filings, some of the offenders have claimed they were effectively entrapped, encountering no issue when they sought to determine if they could vote and learning of an eligibility problem only upon their arrest.) When several people from the Villages, the vast Central Florida retirement community that skews Republican, were arrested for trying to cast multiple ballots in the 2020 election, DeSantis did not convene a news conference.
As a matter of national signaling, the voting effort stands as another argument to Republicans that Florida is supplanting even Texas as the consensus capital of American conservatism. Lawmakers expect the profile of future down-ballot Republicans to closely resemble the governor’s, reflecting his endorsements in legislative and especially school-board races and allowing him to shape the state’s agenda effectively unchecked. (His school board endorsees, including some connected to Moms for Liberty, were broadly successful in their August primaries.) The governor’s grip on the Legislature is already firm. Signing the state budget in June, DeSantis sounded almost taunting while congratulating himself for vetoing line items prized by the Republicans standing behind him. “They may not be clapping about that,” DeSantis said, “but that’s just the way it goes.”
A short time later, Wilton Simpson, the Senate president who had hundreds of millions in spending on his own priorities slashed by the man introducing him, had his turn to speak. “How about Ron DeSantis?” Simpson began, clapping in his direction. “America’s governor.”
Robert T. Bigelow, a Nevada space entrepreneur with little history of prolific donations to Republican causes, decided earlier this year to make what appears to be the largest single political contribution from an individual in Florida history: $10 million. (The state places no limit on donations to a political committee.) Bigelow was not steeped in Florida politics. Though he liked what he had seen of DeSantis on the news, singling out his Disney fight, Bigelow said he did not realize the governor was up for re-election until a friend informed him earlier this year. “I thought, Gee, what an excellent time to, early on, contribute to the man and pay him that respect,” Bigelow told me, in his first extended public remarks on the matter.
A short time later, on July 7, according to Bigelow, the governor was on a plane to meet him in North Las Vegas. DeSantis stayed for “at least three hours,” Bigelow said, touring his aerospace facility and settling in a conference room for sandwiches. “I told him, ‘You know, if you run for president, you’re going to be the people’s president,’” Bigelow told me. “He says, ‘I like that.’”
For years, DeSantis was an acquired taste for donors. Contributors used to observe to one another that his clothes never quite fit, wondering aloud if he had a house account at Men’s Wearhouse. More recently, some party operatives have grumbled about the DeSantis family’s affinity for the perks of power, zeroing in on media reports about Mori Hosseini, a Florida developer and longtime Republican donor, who was said to have helped arrange a round of golf for DeSantis in 2018 at Augusta National, home of the Masters. In 2019, Politico reported that Casey DeSantis used Hosseini’s private plane to travel to a state function. (The governor’s net worth, as of late last year, is a little over $300,000, according to a recent financial disclosure, though a rumored book deal would increase the figure considerably. The disclosure said he was still working to pay off some $20,000 in student loans.)
Now, amid his growing celebrity and fatigue with Trump among moneyed Republicans, DeSantis will not lack for financial resources ahead of 2024. His operation had hoped to raise $150 million by the end of this cycle and is on pace to surpass that handily. DeSantis is not expected to spend more than $100 million on a re-election in which he is favored against Charlie Crist, the state’s onetime Republican governor and, more recently, a Democratic congressman. “It’s like he cares more about Iowa voters than Florida people,” Crist told me earlier this year, acknowledging he’d used the line before: “It’s not the first time. It probably won’t be the last.” (Trump has privately amused some friends by talking up Crist’s chances and talents, ignoring polls that show DeSantis ahead.)
A recent F.E.C. case involving a political ally could set a precedent clearing the way for any remaining money raised by DeSantis to aid a potential presidential campaign. In the interim, his re-election race offers donors a useful pretense: They can give to him under the guise of the midterms to avoid antagonizing Trump (in theory) while still hoping the governor recognizes the gesture ahead of 2024. “No one even talks about his re-election,” Eberhart said of donors. “It’s all about Trump and DeSantis.”
Some of the governor’s biggest backers have ruled out supporting another Trump run, including Ken Griffin, a DeSantis megadonor who has given at least $5 million this cycle. (Griffin announced in June that he was moving the global headquarters of his hedge-fund firm, Citadel, from Chicago to Miami.) But neither has DeSantis shied from Trump’s own supporters, scheduling high-dollar events from San Francisco to Nantucket and making clear from his earliest days in office that he intended to be a fund-raising juggernaut. “It is the governor’s desire to fund-raise and maintain a high political profile at all times — inside and outside of Florida,” an adviser, Susie Wiles, wrote in a January 2019 memo, reported later that year by The Tampa Bay Times.
According to records kept by DeSantis’s political committee, he has raised millions from some of the former president’s friends and benefactors, including Steven Witkoff, a New York developer whose son’s wedding was attended by both Trump and DeSantis at Mar-a-Lago in May; Thomas Peterffy, a billionaire trader who has called DeSantis his “favorite man”; and the Midwestern megadonors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein. After once dismissing the idea that DeSantis might run against Trump, many Republicans are bracing for an uncomfortable choice. Mica Mosbacher, a longtime party fund-raiser who told me late last year that a DeSantis bid would be “possible suicide” for him, laughed recently when reminded of the comment. “There’s been a lot of change,” she allowed.
Mike Shields, a veteran party official who worked on the 2018 campaign, told me DeSantis’s Florida had taken almost “mythological” hold of the wider Republican imagination. CPAC moved there. Trump lives there. “He’s now the governor of the home of where all these conservatives feel like the center of gravity moved, and it’s his place, and he helped create that,” Shields said. “How many times has that happened in politics?”
DeSantis’s swaggering reputation can create the impression that he is more battle-tested than he is. As a congressman from a safe Republican district and a celebrated conservative governor, he has almost never taken meaningful political heat from the right, let alone the relentless onslaught that has historically visited any Trump opponent. “Not sure he’s ready for prime time,” Trump has said privately, according to a person who heard it. Kellyanne Conway, the longtime Trump adviser, told me that while DeSantis had been successful, he was still “new and undefined enough to allow people to project onto him what they want.” Others in Trump’s orbit have been more openly condescending. “He’ll be terrific,” Newt Gingrich told me of DeSantis, “in 2028.”
There would be perhaps no greater divide in a Trump-DeSantis primary than prospective press relations. Trump still speaks semi-regularly with mainstream reporters, often to repeat his election fictions. A symbiosis with traditional outlets helped deliver him the presidency in 2016, his rallies airing widely without context or interruption. While DeSantis’s restrictive approach could be a gamble in a national campaign, many Republicans seem to envy not only his refusal to engage with journalists on their terms but also his ability to get away with it. “I work in the Capitol,” Rubio told me, sighing that reporters he regularly encounters in the building are liable to press him on the party squabble du jour. “Someone just asked me in the hallway, ‘Do you think Trump and DeSantis hate each other?’”
The perceived inevitability of a 2024 clash can almost cloud the remarkable risk that DeSantis would be taking. While Trump habitually overstates his importance to endorsees, his role in DeSantis’s arc is undisputed, leaving the governor vulnerable to credible claims of disloyalty. Trump has called him ungrateful in private, while publicly swiping at “gutless” politicians (like, say, Ron DeSantis) who refuse to discuss their Covid booster status. (A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.) DeSantis’s strongest electability argument against Trump — that renominating the only person who has demonstrated he can lose to Biden might be unwise — is also difficult to deliver in today’s G.O.P. Privately, DeSantis has cited strategic mistakes, and not any election-thieving plot, as the reason Trump lost in 2020. But making this case publicly would mean affirming the legitimacy of that election. In a run of August appearances organized by Turning Point Action, the conservative youth group led by the far-right figure Charlie Kirk, DeSantis stood not just with Mastriano but other Trump-backed Republicans — including J.D. Vance, the Senate nominee in Ohio, and Kari Lake, running for Arizona governor — who have called the last presidential election stolen.
Not long ago, Trump was flirting with announcing another White House bid before the midterms, hoping to discourage challengers by consolidating support early. His more pressing concern now is his multifront legal jeopardy, particularly the inquiry into his handling of classified materials at Mar-a-Lago. Conway insisted that Trump and DeSantis remain “allies, not scorpions in a bottle,” taking care to place the governor among the Republican masses who expressed outrage at Trump’s treatment from federal authorities. But no one, including the would-be primary competitors, knows exactly what the investigations might yield — or what political shape Trump might be in on the other side.
Trump has said privately that DeSantis previously told him he would not run if Trump did, a version of events that people who know DeSantis refuse to believe. While the governor is surely young enough to take multiple cracks at the White House, there is a case that he almost has to run now as proof of political branding. So much of his appeal is rooted in being the man unafraid to go where his peers won’t, to do what his enemies fear. At their event in Phoenix, Lake hailed the governor’s “B.D.E.” — for “Big DeSantis Energy,” she added implausibly. His campaign store sells a two-golf-ball set in a box reading, “FLORIDA’S GOVERNOR HAS A PAIR.”
Do those with Big DeSantis Energy really wait their turn, forever appeasing the former president to avoid becoming the next Liddle Marco or Low-Energy Jeb? His 2024 bet, should he go through with it, amounts to an educated guess that the rules of contemporary American political history need not apply anymore. He is not the candidate to charm the fine people of Dubuque one on one. He would be building state-by-state campaign infrastructure with a diminutive inner circle. (Among other departures, DeSantis has fallen out with Wiles, a veteran Florida operative, in part because he suspected her of leaking to the press. Wiles, who also worked on both Trump campaigns, is now considered the former president’s top political adviser.) DeSantis has little in common with the last half-dozen presidents — he is not an electric speaker, or a veteran statesman, or a dynastic heir. “He’s just Richard Nixon, and I mean that as a compliment,” a person who has known him for years told me. “He’s smart. He’s detail-oriented. He’s motivated by resentment toward the people in charge, and he understands the system that he wants to run.”
At the Pittsburgh rally, attendees seemed divided on whether they were looking at the next president. There could be no debate that DeSantis, the youngest governor in the union, with three small kids and a telegenic wife who just faced down breast cancer, represented a new generation. John and Holly Lawson, in their mid-60s, told me they had traveled more than five hours from Allentown to see DeSantis. “There’s so much baggage that the Democrats have put on Trump,” Holly Lawson said, declaring her preference for DeSantis. “If he doesn’t get in,” John Lawson told me, sliding his finger from the first name on his “Trump-DeSantis 2024” shirt to the second, “I’d like to see him.”
From the stage moments earlier, DeSantis suggested that the times demanded a little daring. Threats were everywhere. Bold offensives were necessary. The hour had come, he said, pulling from scripture, to “put on the full armor of God.” He gazed out on a crowd full of MAGA red, specked with more than a few rally-worn encouragements if he looked closely enough: “Can’t Miss DeSantis” (with a caricatured governor playing beer pong beneath palm trees); “My Pronouns Are UNVACCINATED”; “DeSantis 2024: Make America Florida.”
“Stand your ground, stand firm, don’t back down,” DeSantis said as he closed, nodding a little at his own words. “We can do this.”
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