SUMTERVILLE, Fla.—He was right.
Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, has been saying as much for weeks — in partisan speeches, on conservative cable, at often out-of-the-way vaccine sites around the state in quick-hit appearances as spartan as they are scripted. One recent breezy, sunny afternoon in rural central Florida, for instance, an extension cord stretched from the back of a small building here at the local community college toward a thin lectern in the middle of an open field. Up pulled a shiny silver SUV. Out stepped DeSantis. Wearing black cowboy boots and a dark, too-baggy suit, he wasted no time getting to his spot. He opened a black binder. He quickly flipped through some papers. And he launched into his numbers-laden, nasal-voiced pitch.
“We’ve done as good as anybody with seniors as anywhere in the country,” DeSantis said. Behind him, elderly residents idled in lines of cars, waiting to get single-dose shots. “We have a 75-percent decrease in cases for 65 and up since the first week of January, and we have a 75-percent decrease in hospitalizations among seniors since the beginning of February. Forty states throughout the country —”
A couple dozen supporters from local Republican clubs had assembled off to his left. They interrupted him with applause. DeSantis turned. He looked at them for a split second. “Yeah—it’s good,” he confirmed. He promptly picked up where he’d left off.
“Forty states throughout the country have higher per-capita Covid mortality for seniors than the state of Florida — 40 other states — and I think if you look at that, most of those states that have higher senior mortality locked down hard, they closed schools …”
He went on. “We’ve had,” he concluded, “tremendous success.”
All successful politicians tell stories most favorable to their electoral aims, but this one surprised me. A year ago, after all, at the outset of the pandemic, the name Ron DeSantis had reached the stature of some dark meme, derided as “DuhSantis,” “DeathSantis” and “DeSatan.” He was pilloried as a reckless Republican governor driven more by ideology than science. He was dogged by images of crowded beaches and bars teeming with heedless tourists. He scrapped testily with reporters over the emerging consensus—at least within conventional media—that Florida surely would become a downright peninsula-of-death. Six months ago, as the state’s caseload surged again and DeSantis nonetheless pressed to open schools, his critics piled on.
Now, though, it’s a year into the pandemic—and the apocalypse has yet to arrive. It’s been, no doubt, a wrenching year. Approximately 2 million Floridians have tested positive for the coronavirus and more than 32,000 have died, the disbursement of unemployment benefits has been stingy and uneven, the vaccine rollout has been pockmarked by tales of lengthy waits, balky websites and numerous charges of socioeconomic inequities and political favoritism. Ominous variants lurk.
But Florida has fared no worse, and in some ways better, than many other states—including its big-state peers. The most controversial policies DeSantis enacted—locking down later and opening up earlier, keeping nursing homes closed to visitation while insisting schools needed to be open to students, resisting intense pressure to issue a mask mandate—have ended up being, on balance, short of or even the opposite of ruinous. Even his fiercest detractors by now have a hard time mustering outrage over his edict on schools. And his standing looks far sturdier than his gubernatorial counterparts now teetering from Covid-related crises—Gavin Newsom, who faces a recall in California, and Andrew Cuomo, who is on the precipice of political extinction in New York. DeSantis’ approval ratings after plunging into the low 40s last year are now flirting with the mid-50s, and a variety of (admittedly very early) polls peg him as the 2024 GOP presidential favorite if Donald Trump opts to not run again.
DeSantis, in other words, has a case to make, and in his characteristically odd, methodical, practically mechanical way, he is making it. From his remarks at CPAC last month to his “State of the State” address earlier this month to an ongoing uptick in appearances on Fox News to his more and more regular stops like this one here, he is basking in a moment of reassessment of what and how he has done—and also of what it might mean, not just for his and his state’s political future but that of the nation.
I watched him last week at these controlled drop-ins deliver his rat-a-tat of statistics, boasts and red-meat base boosts—“anti-riot” initiatives, voting restrictions, “Big Tech” pushback—and I was struck by a visceral sense that I wasn’t looking at what his critics call an unseemly “victory lap” as much as a campaign soft launch. And I’m not talking about his reelection effort in 2022. I’m talking about his widely expected presidential bid in 2024. And from scores of conversations I’ve had with Florida elected officials, operatives from both parties and people in and around DeSantis’ orbit, it’s clear I’m not the only one.
“If Trump doesn’t run, he is the clear frontrunner,” said David Jolly, the former Florida Republican Congressman who’s considering a third-party run for governor.
“He’s managed the pandemic better than any other governor in the country,” said John Morgan, the prominent Orlando attorney and unaffiliated Democratic (and sometimes also Republican) megadonor. “On the pandemic—as of this writing—DeSantis won.”
“The future of the party,” said Brian Ballard, the powerful Trump-tied lobbyist.
Newly ascendant though he might be, the “future of the party” is just as standoffish and uncharismatic as he’s always been. For somebody with his manifest electoral potential, it amounts to an unusual, even unique mixture of natural talents and glaring liabilities—qualities that typically would be political kryptonite. DeSantis used the rise of the Tea Party to get elected to Congress. He used the rise of Trump to get to the governor’s mansion. And he has managed that vital alliance, say Trump and GOP insiders, arguably better than any other high-profile Republican—accruing the benefits while for the most part evading the frequent, familiar nicks and complications. Most nonpartisan observers have had to grant that DeSantis is not so much a Trump toady as he is perhaps a Trump trade-up—similarly transactional but significantly less bombastic, more ideologically coherent and much more disciplined and strategic.
“We will be proven correct,” DeSantis asserted with certainty to members of his famously minuscule inner circle at times last year when they worried openly about the withering national coverage. Matt Gaetz, the attention-grabbing congressman from the Florida Panhandle and his fellow (but more cartoonishly supportive) Trump ally, told me DeSantis told him that he’d do just one thing differently if he could have a re-do. “He told me,” Gaetz said, “that his biggest regret as governor is that we ever locked down for even one day.”
In the field at the community college here in Sumter County, the county with the oldest average age in all of Florida, DeSantis stood at the lectern with a simple placard that said SENIORS FIRST.
“Having the state open was, obviously, the right decision,” he said.
“Have you,” I asked, “been more right than any other governor?”
I know he thinks it. I wanted to see if he’d say it. DeSantis abruptly ended the brief question-and-answer portion of what his staff had billed as a press conference.
Late last summer, in the punitive humidity of Tallahassee, two POLITICO colleagues and I met with DeSantis in his office in the Covid-closed Capitol.
On display around DeSantis, and throughout our conversation, were examples of both his strengths and his weaknesses. His paper-perfect backstory (his Yale baseball jersey, the pictures of him in his Navy whites). His “First Principles” “Founding Fathers” core (framed James Madison passages from The Federalist Papers). The just-so snapshots of his photogenic family (his wife Casey and their young children even his haters acknowledge are cute). The folders and binders and binder-clipped coronavirus studies and data stacked on his desk. His distant, piston-like demeanor. His intermittently prickly nature.
We talked for more than an hour for a profile that published in September.
And the transcript of the conversation reads to me differently now than it did back then.
He talked about his thinking about the statewide re-opening of schools already that month—at a point at which that was in almost every other state an absolute no-go. “Some of the fear and anxiety can cause problems, health, mental health, all these other things. And so obviously we want to have a successful school year. Personally, as a father, I view the risk to kids as very low, fortunately,” he said. “Just making sure that we’re approaching it in a calm way.”
He talked about nursing homes. “If you look at all the decisions that you can make,” he said, “the one that had the most impact on health and lives was: Are you protecting the long-term care folks, or are you kind of putting them in more jeopardy? … And I think clearly we made early decisions to get that right.”
He blamed the far more positive tenor of the coverage of Cuomo and Newsom on what he sees as the immutable reality of liberal bias. “The media was attacking Florida,” he said, “when we were just chugging along.”
When I asked him about his parents—his mother a critical care nurse and his father an installer of boxes that tracked TV ratings for Nielsen—he said he was more like his mother. “Just very dependable,” he said. “Very even keel,” he said. “So you just keep kind of the rudder set,” he said. “And you know what you’re doing. And you focus like a laser.”
I asked what he’d learned about himself in the six months since March, when everything began to shut down. He hadn’t. “I don’t really spend a lot of time being self-reflective. My view is: What more can I be doing?” he said. “You have over 20, you know, 21 million people, radically different communities in different parts of the state, and so there’s just always things that are always coming up and you’re just constantly having to always evaluate and reassess how thing are not just with the virus but the wellbeing of kids, the wellbeing of people who are out of work, the wellbeing of families.”
All those are quotes I didn’t use. But here’s one I did. And at this point it sits on the page, in the transcript and in the profile, like a cross between a pledge and a dare. DeSantis said in essence all the flak in the news was noise. It didn’t matter. What did matter? “How,” he said, “do we look six months or a year from now?”
Six months later. Here I was. I wanted to see DeSantis—but DeSantis didn’t really want to see me.
He consistently does not give the media ample notice concerning his schedule. What other politicians release days in advance DeSantis’ staff routinely holds back—until the last minute. And what this persistent ploy meant for me last week was that I basically was chasing DeSantis around a state that can take eight, 10, 12 hours to transit from top to bottom. I was in Tampa—a choice because of its centrality. The governor’s aides knew I was in Tampa. And one morning I got a text message from Shane Strum, his chief of staff, saying DeSantis would be having a press conference at 1:30.
I think Strum thought he was doing me a favor. It was 11:36, after all, and the official announcement wasn’t blasted in an email to reporters until 11:44. But Lehigh Acres, down by Fort Myers, was at least two and a half hours away.
“Drive safely,” Strum texted.
I drove … fast. I arrived at 1:55. A few local TV reporters were packing up.
The governor had come and gone. I texted Strum. “Sorry to hear you didn’t make it,” he said.
DeSantis does nothing by accident. On that there is unanimity among everybody who’s ever known him or worked with him that I’ve ever talked to.
“He doesn’t want to respond or have to respond to your questions,” said Charlie Crist, the congressman from the Tampa Bay area. Crist, the ex-Republican governor who’s a Democrat now, is seriously considering another gubernatorial run. He dinged DeSantis for having “thin skin.”
“They do not care,” added Democrat Gwen Graham, the former congresswoman who was a candidate for governor in 2018. “They want to make it as difficult as possible.”
It’s not the job of the governor or his assistants to make reporters’ existences in any way any easier. And DeSantis doesn’t sink to Trump’s name-calling, but his relationship with the media is sandpapery at best, and this lets him limit his exposure to reporters with the exception of the (sadly dwindling) local press.
But there’s another reason he withholds his schedule from the public, according to two people who’ve worked closely with him. Hecklers.
“They don’t want,” said one of the staffers, “protesters showing up.”
The only reason I got to Sumterville in time? I got a tip. I texted Strum. “I’m driving right now in the direction of Sumter County. Is that a stupid thing to do?”
Silence, for an hour and a half. Finally, a response.
But I was already there. A little while later, the governor was, too.
The next morning, early, on the way to Lake City, for another DeSantis appearance at another vaccination site in another out-of-the-way place in the middle of the state—they’d sent this heads-up the night before—I cued up his “State of the State” address. I had read it but now I listened to it in the car in the dark.
“Florida’s led the way in providing all parents the right to send their kids to school for in-person instruction,” DeSantis said to the state’s lawmakers on their first day of the legislative session. “Florida is one of only four states in the country and the only large state to offer in-person instruction to a hundred percent of its students. Across the nation millions of students have been locked out of the classrooms for nearly a year. And for many there’s no end in sight. These students have fallen behind on academics, have been denied the opportunity to participate in activities such as athletics and have seen their social development stunted. The consequences of shutting kids out of school, for a year, a year and a half—and, heck, in some places it will likely be two years—those consequences will be catastrophic and long-lasting—”
As a father of two daughters who have spent scant time over the past year in an actual classroom where we live in North Carolina, I felt myself shaking my head yes.
DeSantis got lambasted for opening schools at the beginning of this academic year even though studies—some of which had been published already—suggested that schools weren’t anywhere close to the primary problem in the spread of this virus. The studies indicated the ramifications of remote learning, both the isolation and the education, for many students could be worse than the risk of contracting the illness. The longer the pandemic’s gone on, the more I’ve envied my friends in Florida whose children were in school and not watching curricular sing-song videos on their iPads or treading water in their rooms as they struggled to be heard and seen on Zoom.
I thought about all this in the car during my 170-some-mile drive. It’s been, and continues to be, almost impossibly complicated, these risk assessments, big and small, that have defined life over this last unprecedented year, running the gamut from every single person and every single household every single day up to states and countries and society as a whole. What’s an acceptable death toll—the actual number of people lost—to try to keep as much of everything else intact?
And so I thought about DeSantis. A small-government conservative with a libertarian bent, he was hesitant to shut down from the start, even with the state thick with the usual hordes of devil-may-care spring-breakers. Experts offered grave predictions. An anti-DeSantis attorney stalked the beaches dressed as the Grim Reaper. Joe Biden, at the time just settling into his role as the presumptive Democratic nominee, chided DeSantis from the virtual campaign trail. DeSantis instituted on April 1 a month-long stay-at-home order—and that was it. In the summer, in the midst of the scary spikes in case counts, DeSantis refused to do it again.
“We’re not shutting down,” he said. “We’re going to go forward.”
The NBA played out its season here. Disney World opened (while Disneyland in California did not). Conscious of Trump’s moves, DeSantis ordered a million doses of hydroxychloroquine, the drug the former president touted as a “game changer” but wasn’t. In August, some models projected more than 60,000 deaths in Florida—by December. In September, DeSantis barred local governments from imposing shutdowns or fining people without masks; in October, he went to football games and a Trump rally in Sanford—where he mask-less-ly high-fived fans. But in the months leading into November’s election, the state’s cases and deaths mostly had dipped or plateaued—and deaths were well short of not just 60,000 but 20,000. In December, even with another unnerving upswing, the first people were getting the vaccine.
DeSantis and his administration, say his critics, have blurred, hidden or held back numbers of cases in hospitals, nursing homes and schools. From Ocean Reef to Lakewood Ranch to The Villages, they say, he’s appeared to prioritize the vaccinations of rich Republican donors. Overall vaccine distribution in the state, though, along with per-capita cases and deaths, is nationally middle-of-the-pack. The unemployment rate is lower than in many other states. The housing market is booming. People aren’t steering clear of Florida. They’re moving in—from San Francisco! As the Associated Press recently put it, “Despite their differing approaches, California and Florida have experienced almost identical outcomes in Covid-19 case rates.”
DeSantis last month in Tampa sat in a box with no mask and drank a beer at the Super Bowl that some said was going to be a super-spreader but was not. DeSantis ordered flags in Florida to be flown half-staff for Rush Limbaugh a week before he did the same for the state’s victims of Covid and their families. In his CPAC speech, he called Florida “an oasis of freedom.” Declared the Wall Street Journal: “Vindication for Ron DeSantis.” And he recently ordered all municipalities’ Covid-related fines wiped away. “Those fines are out of control,” he said when I asked him about it last week. “Most of those restrictions have not been effective. That’s just the reality.”
His actions, and non-actions, of course, have elicited a wide range of broadly defensible opinions and takes.
“It could have potentially gone very wrong,” Ballard said. “He could have killed a bunch of us,” said Morgan. “But he didn’t.”
“He made the right decisions,” said Christian Ziegler, the vice chairman of the state GOP. Gaetz said he “looks like an oracle.”
“He was willing to take the barbs,” said Mike Haridopolos, a former president of the state senate. “He’s reaping the rewards.”
Stanford professor of medicine Jay Bhattacharya told me DeSantis called him out of the blue one Sunday afternoon last September. They talked for two hours. As like-minded as he is with DeSantis—both believe that widespread shutdowns were too draconian and blunt and couldn’t help but cause unnecessary and extensive collateral harm—Bhattacharya nevertheless was surprised at how well-versed the governor seemed to be. “He knew all the studies I mentioned,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. He’d read everything.”
After Yale, DeSantis went to Harvard Law. His college baseball coach, who wrote him a letter of recommendation, when we talked last year remembered being taken aback by his immaculate transcript.
“He’s a fucking computer,” a senior DeSantis official told me. This is a person whom I consider to be intelligent, cleareyed, not a sycophant. During one of our conversations, this person texted me a clip from YouTube from the 1986 movie “Short Circuit.” The main character is a robot. Johnny 5, as the machine is known, takes in information at comical speeds while calling for more. “Input! More input!”
“That,” said this DeSantis official, “is him.”
Others, obviously, including other members of the research community, aren’t nearly as sanguine in their evaluations of DeSantis. “Florida is third in the nation in terms of confirmed cases and fourth in deaths,” Peter Hotez of Baylor University told me. “And the worst might be yet to come.” He mentioned the B.1.1.7 variant—of which Florida has the most cases in the country. He frets about a fourth wave.
Democrats in the state unsurprisingly side more with Hotez.
Crist told me DeSantis’ pandemic response has been in his estimation “horrific” and “immoral.” Ditto two others seriously weighing runs for the right to take him on next November: Nikki Fried, the state commissioner of agriculture and consumer services who is the highest-ranking statewide elected Democrat, said it’s been “very politicized” and “very chaotic.” And Miami state senator Annette Taddeo said she likes to call DeSantis “No Plan Ron.”
“There’s no compassion,” said Graham.
“When in modern political history,” asked the South Florida Democratic consultant Ben Pollara, “has taking a victory lap in the midst of an ongoing crisis ever worked out well politically?”
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot to celebrate with 32,000 dead,” Crist said.
Mayors say DeSantis didn’t make the hard decisions—they did. He shunted the onus as well as the political peril, they contend, by making them enforce rules he wouldn’t and hasn’t.
“I like how now he’s taking credit for how well the state did while it was really local governments and mayors,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said, “that put orders in place that kept our residents safe.” He added that he’s never met or spoken to DeSantis—and that that’s not unusual for his fellow mayors around the state—and that it’s not out of a lack of trying.
“What I never understood was why Governor DeSantis almost gratuitously wouldn’t allow us to impose mask mandates—and, more importantly, didn’t lend his voice to those of us who were urging safe practices,” said Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach. “Even without a mandate, his voice would have been very helpful if he was regularly saying to the public: ‘Put on your mask. Just be smart. Protect your neighbor.’”
In the Democrats’ criticisms I sensed an understanding that they might need to do their best to at least knock him back a bit now—to have a better chance to topple him next year. And when it came to schools? They didn’t even try.
Crist paused when I asked about schools. “That’s a tough question,” he said.
I asked Fried if she thought DeSantis had done anything well. “Schools.”
I talked to a pollster who regularly tracks sentiment around the state about the governor. “When Covid happened, you saw a clear ideological divide. We saw it from the very beginning,” he said. Schools, however, scrambled that party-line breakdown. Republicans, Democrats—it didn’t matter as much. Toward the end of the summer, swaths of voters in their 30s and 40s who didn’t agree on much, said the pollster, “started gravitating towards this guy—because they wanted their kids in school.”
In my car I kept listening to his “State of the State.”
“The failure of so many places outside of Florida to open schools at the beginning of the school year,” DeSantis said, “will go down as one of the biggest policy blunders of our time.”
In Lake City, the vaccination site, set up at a sports complex, was on the other side of the street from an elementary school. The students who had been out on the playground, some masked, most not, got curious and crowded against a chain-link fence. I unconsciously recoiled at how close they all were to each other—but also and at once loved seeing them, out here in the Florida morning sun, being goofy, being kids, being together.
Up pulled the governor’s SUV again. He wasn’t on his own. Now he had with him his wife and their oldest child.
Casey DeSantis for Ron DeSantis is much more than a spouse. People around him like to say the DeSantis inner circle isn’t really a circle. “The political circle is linear,” Scott Parkinson, a former chief of staff, told me last year. “It is him and Casey.”
Both golf buffs, they met at a driving range. A onetime equestrienne at the College of Charleston and news anchor and show host for the Golf Channel and stations in Northeast Florida, the former Jill Casey Black, not quite two years younger, married Ronald Dion DeSantis in 2009. By 2012, he was running for Congress. They have three children—baby Mamie late last March joining brother Mason, 3, and sister Madison, 4.
People are seeing more of her of late. She’s made mental health a public priority. Her “resiliency initiative” in the state’s schools is backed by athletes topped by star Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback Tom Brady. And earlier this month, she helped the governor welcome Brian Kilmeade of Trump-favored “Fox & Friends” to the executive mansion in Tallahassee. “I’m just so proud that he’s been able to be there for the people of Florida,” she gushed. “It’s not every day that you can say you’re married to your hero.”
“They are doing something interesting, which is elevating the profile of Casey DeSantis,” said Carlos Curbelo, the former GOP congressman from South Florida. “They want voters to start considering Ron DeSantis not just as a leader, as the governor—but the first family, right? Beautiful children. The governor is extremely disciplined, and I think every decision is consistent with whatever he’s trying to achieve.”
And here she was, in a pink-peach dress, just off to the side with Madison in tow. Her presence was the final piece that for me clicked the optics into place. It’s why standing in a parking lot in Central Florida I suddenly felt like I as easily could be in a VFW or a Pizza Ranch in Iowa or New Hampshire. The backdrops of these DeSantis set pieces just happen to be the interiors of pharmacies or car lines of recipients of the vaccine. And the words, nominally informational, partly public service, can register as stump speeches, too, adjusted for location but otherwise structurally very much the same—the stats, the sell, the national notes—in and out, on the go, stop to stop. I ran my premise of the soft presidential campaign launch past a handful of Florida political pros whose radar I respect. They across-the-board agreed. “Fully,” said one. “Absolutely,” said another. “Utterly,” said a third.
He needs her. She has, say some of his most reliable allies, what he doesn’t. He sometimes handles the face-to-face “retail” part of politics with the grace and pace of that robot from “Short Circuit.” Handshake, handshake, handshake. Smile, smile, smile. Picture, picture—want a picture? The smallest of small talk makes him fiddle with his wedding ring. Rope lines might as well be zip lines. He knows he has to do it, so he does, but sometimes it seems like he just wants to find the quickest way back to the back of the SUV.
It’s not only constituents and would-be supporters. Donors grouse they too infrequently hear from him just to chitchat in between the cutting of checks.
“It’s true,” one donor told me. “He does less donor maintenance than anyone I know of at his level. I raised half a million bucks for him. It’s hard for me to get him on the phone. Literally, I’ve got, you know, six senators and two governors that I can get to call me back within 24 hours—no problem. And he doesn’t call you back—it’ll take two or three times.”
Kent Stermon, on a short list of DeSantis’ good friends, last year recalled for me a fundraiser in St. Augustine when DeSantis was in Congress. “We get there, and he gets in the corner with me, and there’s a long line of people waiting to say hi to him,” he said. But DeSantis stayed there talking with Stermon about … baseball cards. Not just any baseball cards. “The 1987 Topps baseball card set,” Stermon said, “and whether I felt like the fact that it was overproduced changed the value of baseball cards forever. And he was going on for 15 minutes about it.” Stermon could see the people with the deep pockets getting impatient. DeSantis didn’t appear to care.
Said a Florida Republican strategist: “I don’t think he views fundraising as a priority.”
He doesn’t. “I’m not just calling people up all the time. My view is I’m just doing my job,” DeSantis said in his office last summer. “If someone wants to support me, it’s just work hard—do a good job.”
And it’s not just donors. It’s … everybody.
People who’ve been with DeSantis in those SUVs or on flights on the state plane say he’s loath to fill those hours (as many pols do) with “call time.”
“They know the seven people they need to call when they’re in the car for the next 21 minutes,” said a donor who’s spent a good bit of time with DeSantis.
“What’s DeSantis doing instead?” I asked.
“He’s … thinking.”
“He sits there and stares into space,” said a close associate.
“You will be in the car with Ron DeSantis, and he’ll say nothing to you for an hour,” this person said. “He would prefer it that way.”
Christmas parties at the governor’s mansion? Said a regular attendee: “He doesn’t look like he wants to be there.”
“If you’re this close with him, you’re going to get your feelings hurt every once in a while,” Stermon told me. “But you learn it’s worth it.” He admitted that it sounds “strange.” People who know him the best and are around him the most struggle to explain it. There’s no malice, they insist. It’s not that he’s … mean. It’s just that he … can’t. It’s not how he’s … wired. “I love my computer,” said the senior DeSantis official. “But I don’t go to my computer for a hug.”
It can be different, though, when his wife is around. “He is better with her,” said Gwen Graham, usually reluctant to say much of anything positive about DeSantis. “When she’s around, he’s happier. He’s just more engaged.”
“We all have liabilities and weaknesses as human beings and one of the best ways to address your liabilities is to find a partner in life who has all of them as incredible strengths. And Casey DeSantis is one of the most empathetic, charming, delightful human beings I’ve ever been around. She has a ‘Jackie O’ quality,” Gaetz told me.
“She’s very smart, probably the most intuitive person I’ve ever met,” DeSantis told me last year. “Just with her television career, she understands introducing me at a speech—she understands how to do that. She’s got no stage fright, at all, because she did this for years and years, in front of the camera.”
And so now, after DeSantis was done talking at the lectern in front of the tents with the vaccines, the two of them walked toward the children pressed against the fence. “Good to see you guys,” DeSantis said in that nasal voice. His wife followed, careful to not let her heels sink too deep into the dirt and the grass. “I’m Casey,” she said sweetly to the group, “and this is Madison.” The kids clustered close, and they took picture after picture, the governor shaking hand after hand.
DeSantis was in his plane to hop over to Jacksonville. I raced in my car to catch up. It was a fitting next locale. DeSantis was raised in a modest house on the other coast—Dunedin in Pinellas County on the Gulf of Mexico—where he was a Little League star who helped hit and pitch his team to the 1991 Little League World Series. But Northeast Florida is very much his political home.
Standing at his SENIORS FIRST lectern, now wedged in the back corner of a Walgreens, he outputted his non-stump stump speech—“St. John’s County, 79 percent of their seniors have gotten a shot … Leon, 74 percent; Alachua, 69 percent; Franklin, 67 percent; Gadsden, 66 percent; Okaloosa, 66 percent …”
He was about 16 miles from the house in the gated neighborhood where he lived when he started meeting with area powerbrokers to mount his run for Congress in 2012. He was roughly 50 miles up the coast from the gated community he lived in when he represented Florida’s 6th district in the House. And maybe most saliently he was going on 300 miles north of Palm Beach—from Mar-a-Lago—now of course the headquarters of Trump and Trumpism.
It’s arguably the most important point on any map of DeSantis’ political geography because DeSantis arguably has managed better than anybody the treacherous Trump terrain and that ever-thorny association. He’s “mastered the undesirable task,” said former GOP adviser and current MSNBC analyst Rick Tyler. “He figured out how to navigate, to take the good from Trump without the bad,” said donor Dan Eberhart. “He hasn’t,” as a (female) Republican strategist put it, “become Trump’s bitch.”
DeSantis sought Trump’s support in his gubernatorial push. From his perch from Congress—as one of the founders of the House Freedom Caucus—he bulldogged on Trump’s behalf on Fox News. He deduced what made Trump tick—sports with an emphasis on golf (check), an Ivy League pedigree (check), a military patina (check), unambiguous flattery and personal and unequivocal appeals (check and check)—and worked in 2017 and ’18 to earn the endorsement in the Republican primary he needed to slingshot past the more establishment candidate who had been teeing up a run for governor for what felt like forever. He cut an ad in which he read to his daughter The Art of the Deal and urged her to “build the wall” with toy blocks. It doubled as the debut of Casey DeSantis. She was the narrator of the spot. She cast it not as fawning but funny. Everybody could see what they wanted to see. It did what it needed to do.
He was out of Washington and more cocooned in Tallahassee by the time of Trump’s impeachment(s). He couldn’t be stopped by reporters in the halls of Capitol Hill. He didn’t have to have day-to-day thoughts on tweets. He didn’t have to log votes that could leave stains. He receded tenably from the harshest Trump glare because he was the governor of Trump’s adopted home state. He helped fundraise for Trump … some. He helped campaign for Trump … some. He assented to the pandemic-driven idea to shift last summer’s Republican National Convention from Charlotte to Jacksonville—but slow-walked the efforts and ultimately and quietly made the case against it in terms to which he knew Trump would respond. Restricted crowds at a Covid-cramped conference might make Trump (but of course not just Trump) look bad and thus potentially hamper Trump’s (but of course not just Trump’s) political prospects.
Last fall, not knowing of course precisely what was to come, I mulled the possibilities. Can DeSantis, I wrote, “spin out of a (hopefully) post-vaccine wake of the pandemic and employ the longer runway that he has and take advantage of being a Republican on the ballot in the first clap-back midterms of a Joe Biden-guided Democratic administration? Can DeSantis, in other words, not just use Trump but have used Trump, and emerge on the other side of this transactional relationship still politically viable or even newly ascendant?”
The answer, as of now, is not just yes but hell yes.
Trump won Florida—by Florida standards it was a rout—but lost overall. As vengeful as Trump is on account of the outcome, DeSantis is, for now, all but inoculated from his wrath. He did something Governor Doug Ducey didn’t do in Arizona. Something Governor Brian Kemp didn’t do in Georgia. He presided over a swing-state win Trump had to have. “He’s got 10 House seats, and he’s got a senator, that he’s looking to kill,” said former Trump political adviser Sam Nunberg, referring to the Republicans who voted for Trump’s second impeachment and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. “Oh, and the governor of Georgia.” But DeSantis? “DeSantis is not on that shit list.”
After the election, in November and December, DeSantis picked his spots (on Fox) to tell Trump to “fight on” but largely remained mum. He ably deflected questions about Trump’s antidemocratic actions. Did he accept Biden’s win? Asked directly, he answered indirectly. “It’s not for me to do. But here’s what I would say: Obviously we did our thing in Florida. The college voted. What’s going to happen is going to happen,” he said a week and a half before Christmas. “We’re going to push ahead.”
In January, as Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and other likely 2024 aspirants got snarled in the deadly messiness of the insurrection at the Capitol, its run-up and its repercussions, DeSantis’ responses were at once timid and cagey and politically astute. “What I’ve said is you can file suits; there’s political ways to do it. In no way have I supported any type of lawlessness or anything like that,” he said. “I don’t care what banner you’re flying; if you’re engaging in that conduct, we’re going to hold you accountable.”
And last month, at CPAC, which had been moved because of the virus from the Washington region to the Hyatt Regency in Orlando, American Conservative Union boss Matt Schlapp introduced DeSantis as a pandemic-conquering hero. The crowds showered him with cheers. “It does a heart good, doesn’t it, Governor?” Schlapp said. “Yeah,” DeSantis said. He fiddled with his ring. In his subsequent remarks, he didn’t mention Trump. People close to Trump noticed.
The last few weeks, though, DeSantis has gone on Fox. He went on Mark Levin’s show and lauded Operation Warp Speed. He went on Jeanine Pirro’s show and hammered Biden. “Trump had it right at the border,” he said. “Biden’s got it wrong.” Trump saw the show. He wanted to make sure others had, too. His Palm Beach-based post-presidential office sent out an email so short it read like a tweet. “In Case You Missed It: Governor DeSantis Praises 45th President Donald J. Trump on the Border.”
DeSantis’ relationship with Trump has helped him. It hasn’t hurt him.
“Yet,” said Taddeo, the Democrat from Miami. “Hasn’t hurt him yet.”
Which is certainly something to keep in mind over the next year and a half and very possibly maybe even more so after that. For now, though, it’s true enough.
“DeSantis has been a reliable Trump ally,” Republican strategist Mike DuHaime told me, “but as governor has emerged as his own man, not reliant on Trump for affirmation.”
“He keeps a good rapport with the president, and he stops by Mar-a-Lago if he’s in town for dinner, but when he goes there … I think last time he was there, he sat at his own table with his wife,” reported a Florida GOP consultant.
“He has managed to honor the base without getting dirty,” said Curbelo, the former congressman from South Florida, “and that’s quite the balancing act.”
“He has played Trump perfectly. He’s not gone too far, and he’s not bashed Trump,” said Morgan, the Orlando megadonor attorney, contrasting DeSantis with Florida’s two U.S. senators—Rick Scott and Marco Rubio. “Rick Scott goes in and votes to invalidate the election. I mean, come on. DeSantis knows it’s all bullshit. I mean, the Republicans had one of their greatest elections ever—they picked up state houses, they almost got the majority in Congress, the only reason they lost the Senate is ‘cause Trump threw his shit fit. … Scott and Marco know full well that the election was valid, but they’re on leashes. They’re not walking with Trump—they’re on leashes on all fours. DeSantis is just standing there smiling. Trump comes, he stands next to Trump—and then he gets to walk away.”
He said DeSantis hasn’t just been lucky. He said he’s been smart.
“Most of these politicians are not smart. They play checkers. DeSantis? DeSantis has been playing 4-D chess since he was a little boy in those Little League games. And he’s been plottin’ this for a long, long time,” Morgan said.
“He caught that Trump wave at the perfect time,” he said, “and catching a wave is not easy. My children surf. Timing is everything—and you gotta be able to paddle like a motherfucker.”
There are 600 or so days to go before November 8, 2022, and another 700-plus after that till November 5, 2024. Long ways away. Getting close.
“The 2022 Florida gubernatorial race,” Nunberg said, “has long-term ramifications for the future and direction of the American republic.”
And Tallahassee lobbyist Nick Iarossi told me the volume of calls he’s getting from people about supporting DeSantis in ’24 is “daunting.”
Can DeSantis be beaten next year?
Crist told me he’d frame a run against DeSantis as “cold versus kind.” Fried said she’d cast him as an elitist. “Harvard, Yale graduate,” she said. “He is only talking to the big corporations, the chambers and people who can line his campaign pockets.” Taddeo? “I would run as a small business owner, a mom and someone who actually understands everyday Floridians that have been left behind. He’s only worried about a certain type of Floridian—the kind that can pay for his reelection.” Other bandied-about possibilities: Representatives Val Demings and Stephanie Murphy and Graham. There’s the variable of Jolly’s third-party candidacy.
No matter what, it looms as a slog. “It’s going to be difficult, to be quite frank,” said Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Miami. “Really tough,” said Graham.
“There’s a sweet spot in there that most governors have searched for but few have found,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who’s worked for DeSantis in the past. “He’s managed to figure out the sweet spot between good policy and good politics.”
“High risk, high reward,” said Blair Brandt, a political consultant and fundraiser in Palm Beach. “I think he just made a very good decision, the same way that someone running a hedge fund or a bank would, or any investment. Just with the information he had, he went with the odds, and he went against the groupthink that was coming out of the governors’ culture. And I think that is kind of the definition of leadership. And I think that’s why he’s so popular right now.”
“He’s in the catbird’s seat,” said Ballard, the lobbyist. “Who knows what President Trump’s going to do? Obviously, if President Trump runs for the nomination, he’ll be the nominee. But Ron DeSantis is a very young man.” He doesn’t turn 43 until September.
“He’s got five cycles at least that he could play with,” Ballard added. “The long game is his.”
What’s going to get in his way?
Some cite his small circle as evidence of his uncommon abilities and instincts—while others wonder if it’s too small. Shane Strum, DeSantis’ workaholic chief of staff, once a chief to Crist and an aide to Scott, is leaving to be a health care CEO in Broward County—set to be replaced by his younger, less experienced deputy. DeSantis hasn’t had a communications director for more than two and a half months, suggesting he believes he doesn’t really need one. There is, too, a growing roster of aides now from over the course of a rapid-rise decade who’ve departed if not jilted at least somewhat perplexed by how aloof he often is. The mayors he hasn’t called back this year haven’t all been Democrats—Miami’s Francis Suarez, who’s been critical of DeSantis’ response to the pandemic, hasn’t been able to get him on the phone for months—and by all conventional political rules stuff like this will come back around when it comes time for intraparty endorsements and sorting. Especially if DeSantis isn’t the only presidential hopeful from his state.
He’s been a more than capable money man in spite of his disinterest in schmoozing donors—some find his cut-and-dried, almost entitled approach so unusual as to be weirdly compelling or even refreshing—and it’s possible as well that none of this traditional stroking matters as much in this era of smaller-dollar, email-trawling, rage-bait coffer-filling. “The national media is busy attempting to attack me for refusing to close schools, shut down our businesses and lock people down in the state of Florida,” said a DeSantis fundraising email from earlier this month. “The Radical Left—including President Biden—want to close our businesses, open our borders, let Silicon Valley shadow ban opinions they disagree with, and ultimately control our lives. But we can stop them if you rush in a contribution …” The button to mash was red.
Allies say his retail skills are improving, and allies and critics alike say retail probably doesn’t matter, either, as much as it used to, what with more and more people following along and making their picks based mostly on what they watch on their personal, partisan screens. Still, though, it’s probably better to be better at it than he is. He’s not a great orator. He hasn’t been a great debater. And if in, say, Iowa or New Hampshire in 2023, he persists with his petty press guidance hijinks, it’ll be on that bigger stage a bigger deal than it is now—or maybe, then again, it’ll just be fodder on Twitter on the left.
More immediately and materially, of course, there is the pandemic. It’s not over. If there’s another spike or spikes in Florida—if variants outpace vaccines—that scrambles the political calculus more than just about anything else. In politics, uncertainty is the certainty, the unforeseen the age-old trip-up.
And then there’s Trump. He’s mercurial. His loyalty is situational. Nearly no one is permanently safe from his shiv.
Democrats here in Florida think (hope?) DeSantis will take his eye off the ball, so to speak, in the next year and a half by proto-running for president even more than they already think he is.
“He’s been running for president,” said Taddeo, “since the minute he got elected.”
It is sometimes hard being around DeSantis not to catch a whiff of 2024. Last Friday, for example, during more stops at more vaccination sites on the Atlantic Coast, he added a riff to the stump—a zing of a reaction to President Biden’s year-into-the-pandemic speech from the night before. “If we don’t stay vigilant and the conditions change, then we may have to reinstate restrictions to get back on track,” Biden had said from the White House. DeSantis pounced. “Insane,” he said in Sebastian. “There’s no lockdowns in Florida, OK?” he said in Port Orange. The assembled supporters clapped and roared. DeSantis went on to drink a beer at Bike Week. That evening he made an appearance at the opening of the season of a Babe Ruth baseball league—with Casey and now not just Madison but Mason too. Posts went up on Twitter and Facebook. “Play ball!”
The next day the New York Times published an article about the rise and fall of Andrew Cuomo by my former POLITICO colleague Shane Goldmacher. Ashley Parker of the Washington Post tweeted it, highlighting a quote from Democrat and former New York lieutenant governor Richard Ravitch: “The problem with Cuomo is no one has ever liked him. He’s not a nice person and he doesn’t have any real friends. If you don’t have a base of support and you get into trouble, you’re dead meat.”
What’s happening right now with Cuomo is for DeSantis, of course, an incredibly useful contrast. Wrapped up in it, though, is that warning.
I took a screenshot of Parker’s tweet and texted it to some people who’ve felt spurned by DeSantis and other ex-aides and GOP professionals in Florida. Turned out I was late. They were already passing it around with DeSantis in mind.