Eyeing a run for president, Ron DeSantis wants to 'Make America Florida'
MIAMI — He hasn't yet entered the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, but even so, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is one of the leading candidates.
In polls of possible nominees, he rivals and sometimes surpasses former President Donald Trump. DeSantis has just released a new book that highlights his pugnacious style and hardline stance on issues ranging from education to public health. It picks up from his first term as Florida governor when he became well-known nationally through his frequent appearances on Fox News.
November's election was disappointing for Republicans in many states. But not in Florida, where Gov. DeSantis won reelection by nearly 20 points. At his victory celebration, supporters cheered as he pledged to continue his campaign against ideas, policies and laws he derides as "woke."
"We fight the woke in the schools, he said. "We fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die!"
'Florida is where woke goes to die'
As governor, DeSantis has waded forcefully into the culture wars. In his first term, following national demonstrations around the police killing of George Floyd, he signed a law criminalizing even some peaceful protests. Later, his "Stop Woke Act" restricted what schools and businesses can say about race. A "Parental Rights in Education Act," dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by opponents, limits how teachers discuss sexual orientation and gender identity.
He's taken aim at programs promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in the schools. He's signed a law banning abortions after 15 weeks. And he pushed through new congressional maps that eliminated two African American voting districts. Many of these measures are now held up by legal challenges in the courts.
It's a different DeSantis than the one David Jolly got to know when both served as U.S. House members in Washington. Jolly, a former Republican congressman from the Tampa area, says DeSantis was part of the House Freedom Caucus, a group focused on cutting government spending. "At the time," Jolly says, "I described them as the shutdown caucus."
DeSantis and other members used government shutdowns to push for policy changes and spending reductions, even moving unsuccessfully to depose John Boehner as House speaker. Jolly says the most impressive thing about DeSantis were the connections he made as a freshman congressman with some of the nation's top Republican donors. Jolly says, "It's always been a question to me: how he did it. And I believe it was just the commitment to fundraising and the raw political hunger of moving beyond the House."
DeSantis, a Yale- and Harvard-educated lawyer who served in the Navy, spent three terms in Congress before running for governor. His frequent appearances on Fox News drew the attention of President Trump who endorsed him. DeSantis embraced the endorsement and ran a now-famous ad narrated by his wife as he reads to his children from Trump's book, Art of the Deal.
Moving from Congress to the Florida Governor's Mansion
In 2018, he was narrowly elected governor, defeating Democrat Andrew Gillum by less than a half percentage point. Two years later, after Trump was defeated, DeSantis rarely mentioned the former president's name anymore and refused to join the chorus of supporters who falsely maintained the election was stolen.
Jolly says DeSantis used Trump to build his name recognition but after being elected, he moved on. Jolly compares DeSantis to Hall of Fame hockey player Wayne Gretzky who famously said, "I skate to where the puck is going." Jolly says of DeSantis, "He saw it was going to be Donald Trump's party and he skated to Donald Trump very quickly."
DeSantis' rise to national prominence got a boost with the arrival of the COVID pandemic. In the first months, he largely followed guidance from the Trump White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He shut down Florida's beaches, bars and nightclubs. Schools were closed.
Boosting national prominence during COVID
When the vaccine became available, he championed it in almost daily news conferences and in a live broadcast where a 94-year-old World War II veteran received his shot on Fox News.
But shortly after that appearance, in February 2021, DeSantis' approach to COVID began to change. He'd already ordered all schools reopened for in-class instruction. He soon signed laws banning face mask and vaccine mandates by businesses and government.
Republican Aaron Bean served in Florida's Senate under DeSantis and is now a member of Congress. He has nothing but praise for how the governor responded to the pandemic. "He went against the grain," Bean says. "You can't say Florida now without saying the 'Free State of Florida' because Governor DeSantis has led the way."
With his hiring of a new surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, DeSantis completed his transition from vaccine proponent to vaccine skeptic. He endorsed recommendations by Ladapo that healthy children under 18 not be vaccinated. Ladapo and DeSantis have also said men age 18 to 39 shouldn't receive the mRNA vaccine. Nationally recognized public health experts say that recommendation is wrong and based on a faulty analysis.
Bill Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says DeSantis politicized the public health crisis. His policies, Hanage believes, led to an increase of deaths in Florida from COVID. "If you compare it with California, New York, Massachusetts and the United Kingdom," Hanage says Florida is "the only one to have more deaths since vaccines were available, than before. The only one of them."
In analyzing data compiled by John Hopkins University, Hanage found that in Florida, 60% of the total deaths occurred after vaccines were available. In the other places, the number of deaths after vaccines became available are 40% of the total or less.
DeSantis dismisses the criticism, saying Florida voters looked at his record on COVID in November and gave him a resounding vote of confidence. "Not only did we win re-election," he boasts, "we won with the highest percentage of the vote that any Republican Governor candidate has in the history of the state of Florida." That's true, if you leave out the Reconstruction era.
Jumping into local issues
As governor, DeSantis has extended his authority beyond state agencies and laws into local matters — exerting control over school boards, county health policies, even businesses that hold drag shows. To the delight of supporters, he's quick to attack any who challenge him, from the media to the state's largest employers. After Disney's CEO said he'd work to overturn a law, DeSantis signed a bill ending Disney World's self-governing status in Florida.
With his efforts to control even local policies, he's left behind the commitment to limited government he once had as a member of the Freedom Caucus. Former Congressman David Jolly says, it's a lesson he took from Donald Trump. Jolly says, "What Donald Trump brought to the party was to really crush that orthodoxy of small government and instead say the ends justify the means. And so, whatever it takes to achieve conservative results."
It doesn't matter if it takes big government, Jolly says. To DeSantis, it doesn't even matter if courts have said it's unconstitutional.
Last year, with an eye to federal law and Florida's constitution, lawmakers drew up new maps for the state's 28 Congressional districts. DeSantis didn't like the result and demanded lawmakers draw new maps that ended up eliminating two districts that favored Black voters.
"I was completely dumbfounded, blind-sided"
Democratic state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, an African American lawmaker from Orlando, says, "I was completely dumbfounded, blind-sided." It was the first time anyone could recall a governor in Florida taking control of redistricting.
Republican legislative leaders pushed through the governor's maps and they were immediately challenged in court as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. But the maps remained in place for November's election, and helped Florida Republicans pick up four additional seats in Congress.
Thompson says DeSantis' motivation in targeting black voters is clear. "I think he has an interest in making sure that only certain individuals vote. And that those people are people who are supportive of his agenda," she says. "And then making it difficult for anyone who does not support his agenda, making it difficult for them to vote."
DeSantis doesn't shy away from battles involving race. He's banned Critical Race Theory from the schools even though it's a subject not found in Kindergarten through 12th grade curricula. He also drew national headlines when his education commissioner said he'd prohibit the use of an AP African American studies course in Florida.
Congressman Aaron Bean says those policies aren't intended to target groups, but instead stand up for conservative principles. Bean doesn't expect DeSantis to soften his hardline stance in a campaign for president. "I believe that should he go to the next level, which I think he will," Bean says, "he will push forward an America-first agenda, a common-sense agenda, a freedom agenda."
There are lots of questions surrounding a DeSantis run for the presidency. Among them, how will he handle intense scrutiny from the media and attacks from other candidates, notably Donald Trump? DeSantis hasn't responded to repeated interview requests from NPR. Up to now, he's mostly avoided interviews with mainstream media, preferring instead friendly appearances on Fox News and other conservative outlets.
David Jolly says, for DeSantis, there's a more fundamental question. His nearly 20-point win in Florida came in a midterm election in which most of the country turned away from the Republican Party and many of the conservative policies DeSantis has promoted. Jolly says, "The test for Ron DeSantis will be, is he really that skilled and that good of an evangelist to convince the country to follow the direction he took Florida?"
DeSantis' supporters have a slogan, "Make America Florida." Next year, voters across the country may get a chance to decide if that's something that they want.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.