Is Ron DeSantis the heir apparent to Donald Trump? It sure looked like it on Tuesday. In a US midterm election that saw his Republican party underperform nationally, DeSantis was the spectacular outlier, turning in a dominant performance in Florida’s governor race that turned heads among friends and foes alike.
Most remarkable about DeSantis’s win wasn’t just his total margin of victory – a whopping 19 percentage points in a supposed “swing state”. Instead, it was how he did it: making huge inroads in the Latino community, flipping previous Democratic strongholds and eclipsing the share of the vote achieved by the Republicans in 2020 – by double digits in some districts.
Trump’s grip on the Republican base is notoriously strong, and he remains the favourite to earn his party’s nomination. But if DeSantis throws his hat in the ring for president in 2024, Republicans could soon be bracing for civil war. This would pit ultra-Trump loyalists against “establishment” conservatives who think it’s time for a fresh leader.
Rise to stardom
DeSantis was narrowly elected Florida governor in 2018, after serving six years in the US House of Representatives. A graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School, as well as a commissioned officer in the US Navy, DeSantis combines a reputation for wonkish intellectualism with a hard-charging penchant for pressing a hardline conservative agenda.
As a “rising star” within conservative circles, DeSantis cemented his reputation and rose to national prominence during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many states shuttered businesses and closed schools, DeSantis bucked the trend – to great consternation and fanfare – by mostly keeping Florida open and being quick to lift restrictions.
More than anything, DeSantis has become a household name by leaning into America’s “culture wars”. He has framed himself as the ultimate bulwark against far-left “identity politics” that he alleges elevates race, gender, and sexual orientation over national unity. “Florida is where woke goes to die,” he has declared.
In March of this year, DeSantis made headlines for signing the Parental Rights in Education act, disparaged by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The law, which inspired “copycat” measures in more than a dozen states, placed restrictions on lessons related to LGBTQ+ issues for students in kindergarten through to the third grade (typically, ages 5-9 years old).
DeSantis followed up this victory in April by “punching Mickey Mouse in the face”. The fight saw him eliminate Disney’s “special tax district” after the state’s biggest employer took a number of public stances – including against his Parental Rights in Education Act – that DeSantis claimed were overtly partisan.
Also in April, DeSantis signed an anti-Critical Race Theory law. Dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act”, the reform made it illegal for primary and secondary school instructors to teach about racial diversity and racism in a way that DeSantis described as “indoctrination and discrimination”.
Outside the cultural battlefield, DeSantis has governed largely as a “traditional” conservative. On the economy, he has advocated low taxes, restrained spending and corporate deregulation. Elsewhere, he has earned an A+ rating from the National Rife Association, supported revoking Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and backed moderately pro-life positions on abortion.
As governor of a southern state heavily affected by the migrant crisis, DeSantis has taken particularly tough stances against undocumented immigration – including “sanctuary cities”, which generally neglect to enforce immigration laws. In September of this year, he became a flashpoint for controversy when, unannounced, he organised flying 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, a wealthy Massachusetts island, in a stunt designed to highlight the hypocrisy of liberal politicians.
Challenger to Trump?
Trump endorsed DeSantis for governor in 2018 – but the pair’s relationship has grown icy of late. Trump, whose Mar-a-Lago residence is in Florida, said he voted for DeSantis in Tuesday’s midterms. Yet he has also sent not-so-veiled threats toward his would-be opponent and, just days go, poked fun of “Ron DeSanctimonious” at a rally in Pennsylvania.
Even if DeSantis runs for president in 2024 – and there’s no guarantee he will – it’s still hard to bet against Trump. As celebrity conservative anchor Megyn Kelly remarked: “Trump sucks up all the energy in every room.” Many conservatives still fervently believe that Trump had the 2020 election stolen from him and that he’s owed another run at the White House.
To other Republicans, however, DeSantis is precisely what the party needs to make a clean break from Trump and to widen its electoral appeal. DeSantis has plenty of “Trumpian” qualities, such as his refusal to apologise and a knack for “tough talk”, especially on contentious issues such as gender politics. Yet he’s seen as more palatable for voters who have qualms about Trump’s character and aren’t onboard with election denialism.
DeSantis may or may not make a bid for the White House in 2024 – it’s reported that he already has a “war chest” of about US$200 million if he does. Regardless, he’s a force to be reckoned with inside the Republican party. The immediate risk for DeSantis: if he takes a headshot at Trump, he’d better win. In the no-holds-barred game of Trump v the World, Trump takes no prisoners.