Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination on Wednesday — a diminished figure in his party after a steady fall in polls in recent months, but still the top rival to former President Trump.
The governor filed his intentions with the Federal Election Commission, in advance of his expected official announcement in an online conversation with billionaire Elon Musk on Twitter on Wednesday evening.
DeSantis has tried to position himself as a culture warrior who will carry on Trump’s legacy as a fighter without the attendant baggage, including fundamental concerns over the former president’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election and at least one criminal indictment.
As recently as a few months ago, DeSantis was seen as a potential front-runner for the nomination. The former Trump protege won reelection in November by a landslide margin in a state normally seen as competitive. That victory came in an otherwise disappointing midterm election cycle for his party in which many candidates endorsed by Trump fared poorly.
DeSantis appeared frequently on Fox News touting his disdain for the media, vaccine mandates, critical race theory and a host of other targets he labeled as “woke.” He signed laws that restrict how U.S. history on race can be taught in schools and forced the College Board to revise its new AP African American History curriculum.
Somewhat surprisingly, he also targeted Disney, an essential driver of his state’s economy. The clash came after the entertainment giant criticized Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill limiting what elementary school teachers can discuss about gender and sexuality.
In response, DeSantis targeted Disney’s business operations in Florida. The state government and the company, which owns several theme parks and other businesses that fuel central Florida’s tourism, are now locked in a court battle and Disney announced last week that it was canceling plans to open a new central Florida campus that would have employed 2,000 workers.
The strategy gained DeSantis plenty of attention. But his poll numbers have fallen and some donors are expressing reservations after DeSantis appeared to stumble.
In March, for example, he walked back his description of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute.” And some, including Trump, have criticized DeSantis for signing a six-week abortion ban in the state, among the most restrictive in the nation.
Hoping to regain momentum, DeSantis has spent the last few weeks renewing his effort to hold out Florida as a model for conservatives nationwide, a key part of his campaign.
DeSantis’ supporters use the slogan: Make America Florida.
He’s signed bills passed by the Florida Legislature to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth, expand private school vouchers and gut diversity and equity programs at public colleges and universities.
California is a frequent target, with DeSantis often describing the liberal state as the antithesis of Florida. He has sparred with Gov. Gavin Newsom on a range of issues, including COVID-19 policy and abortion. Last July, Newsom broadcast an ad in Florida lambasting DeSantis’ policies.
Five years ago, DeSantis was a little-known Florida congressman who became governor in part thanks to Trump’s endorsement, a fact Trump often mentions.
Once allies, the race for the 2024 GOP nomination has increasingly turned the pair against one another. Trump in particular has taken aim at his chief rival, dubbing him “DeSanctimonious” and running an attack ad making fun of his predilection for eating pudding with his fingers. Trump has also pointed to DeSantis’ prior support for curtailing entitlement programs.
DeSantis has mostly steered clear of attacking Trump directly, though he took a sideways swipe after Trump’s recent indictment for paying hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels.
Trump’s firm grip on the GOP seemed to slip after losing the 2020 presidential race and seeing many of his preferred candidates falter in the 2022 midterm. But over the last two months, Trump has regained his place as the clear front-runner, leading DeSantis by close to 30 percentage points in many surveys.
DeSantis, 44, now seems to be hoping that Trump, 76, will face another round of concern about his viability in a general election, which could happen if he is charged with crimes related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Although DeSantis frequently rails against the “liberal elite,” he has impeccable elite credentials: He attended Yale University on a baseball scholarship and then went to Harvard Law School.
“You might not like him, but he’s smart, tough and competent. Most Republicans are looking for a strong president, not a hug from our nominee,” Republican strategist Kevin Spillane told The Times.
Florida is “where woke goes to die,” DeSantis bragged during a recent visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, echoing language he used after he won reelection in November. “In Florida, we say clearly: ‘We will never ever surrender to the woke mob.’”
While DeSantis’ willingness to up the ante on culture war issues has elevated his standing on the right, it has made him a villain on the left.
“What he has done in Florida has been a really destructive force on American politics,” said Tony Hoang, executive director of Equality California. “The fact that the governor has really advanced his career on demagoguing the most vulnerable members of our community, particularly LGBTQ students, and trans people as a whole, is truly unfortunate.”
In September 2022, DeSantis drew criticism for using state funds to charter two planes of about 50 recently arrived migrants on the U.S. southern border in faraway Texas. He flew them to Florida before sending them off to the wealthy liberal Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which subsequently filed a lawsuit against DeSantis and the state program that funded the flights, described them as “a blatant and unlawful attempt to harass immigrants at the state level.” DeSantis defended his actions, claiming the migrants had plans to relocate to Florida.
Perhaps the biggest hallmark to DeSantis’ journey to political stardom was his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He signed orders that banned vaccine and mask mandates for Floridians, and his appointed surgeon general was a skeptic of vaccine effectiveness. He reopened schools and in-person dining many months before COVID-19-cautious states such as California. The state saw an increase in migration of people and businesses from other states such as New York, where pandemic policies were restrictive.
Before becoming governor, he served in the House and was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, an ultra-conservative faction. His three-term voting record in Congress showed a politician drawn to small government; he voted to shut down the federal government and in a nonbinding vote, DeSantis supported raising the eligibility age for both Social Security and Medicare to 70 years from 62 years and 65 years, respectively. In line with his small government ideas, DeSantis also supported the privatization of the two social safety net programs. Recent statements suggest DeSantis may be backing away from these positions.
Florida remains one of a dwindling number of states to reject Medicaid expansion as part of the Affordable Care Act and now has the third highest rate of uninsured residents in the country.
DeSantis was reelected comfortably in the 2022 gubernatorial election, beating his Democratic challenger by almost 20 percentage points. But Matt Nelsen, a professor of political science at the University of Miami, cautions against using this as a measure of the governor’s popularity in the state.
“Democrats ran a really poor candidate for governor: Charlie Crist, who was the former Republican governor of the state of Florida,” he said. “To be clear, I think DeSantis has a lot of momentum in the state of Florida among Republicans, but I think it is really important to be careful to assume that he is completely reshaping the political landscape in Florida.”