Ron DeSantis is surging in popularity.
Some polls even have the Florida governor outranking former President Donald Trump.
DeSantis has the potential to unseat the real estate mogul as the GOP’s standard-bearer.
Consider this: “Half of G.O.P. Voters Ready to Leave Trump Behind, Poll Finds,” a New York Times headline blared in July.
What happens now?
A Deeply Conservative Campaign Platform
“Far from consolidating his support, the former president appears weakened in his party, especially with younger and college-educated Republicans,” the Times article reported. “Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is the most popular alternative.”
Given DeSantis’s growing prominence, his biography and his past decisions seem especially relevant.
DeSantis’s past offers insights into the governor’s appeal – and into the kinds of stances a DeSantis presidential administration might take.
Having covered DeSantis’s early biography, including his time in the U.S. House of Representatives, let’s take a look at his gubernatorial record.
Who Is Ron DeSantis?
Initially, DeSantis had intended to leave the House for the U.S. Senate. That is a common move, and in DeSantis’s case, he meant to fill the void that Marco Rubio left when he ran for the 2016 presidency.
DeSantis ultimately withdrew from the Senate race, however, and waited until 2018 to run for the governorship that term-limited incumbent Rick Scott was vacating.
Trump endorsed DeSantis for governor – a move he may now regret, given DeSantis’s threat to Trump’s primacy in the Republican party.
DeSantis embraced Trump’s support, which makes sense – Trump was an unrivaled kingmaker at the time.
DeSantis made his alignment with Trump a centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign, running an ad where he dressed one of his small children in a MAGA jumper and boasted that he had taught his children to say “build the wall” and “Make America Great Again.”
DeSantis hinged his gubernatorial ambitions on a deeply conservative platform. He advocated for open-carry firearm legislation; to make Florida businesses use the DHS E-Verify program to confirm the legal citizenship of all employees; to impose a statewide ban on sanctuary city protections; to support a constitutional amendment that would require a supermajority vote to increase taxes; to disallow able-bodied, childless adults from receiving Medicaid; and to oppose the legalization of recreational marijuana.
The platform worked – just barely.
DeSantis won a race that required a recount, after the initial count indicated a margin of 0.4% between the two candidates. He took office in January 2019.
Capitalizing on the Moment
As governor, Ron DeSantis has been reliably conservative.
In early 2021, he supported a “crack down” on Big Tech, which coincided with convervative fears that Silicon Valley was censoring conservative voices.
Conservatives did have a point: President Trump had just been removed from Twitter, Apple banned the Parler app, and Silicon Valley had helped fund the Biden campaign. DeSantis moved with savvy to capitalize on the moment.
The Florida governor also sought to capitalize on concerns about China’s rise. In 2021, DeSantis proposed legislation to impose stricter requirements on Florida universities collaborating with Chinese academics and universities. He vowed to address China’s economic espionage efforts. Again, the move was savvy, capitalizing on a moment in which China was maligned, and capitalizing on some legitimate concerns: Chinese spies had focused their espionage efforts on U.S. universities.
DeSantis really made a name for himself among conservatives during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he refused to declare a state of emergency in Florida and refused to issue a statewide facemask mandate.
Initially, DeSantis’s COVID recalcitrance hurt his popularity – but as the pandemic became increasingly politicized, his stubbornness came to seem politically clairvoyant. His popularity began to improve, and he became something of an icon on the right for his COVID stances.
Ron DeSantis further cemented his reputation among conservatives in early 2022, when he signed the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill into law. The law states that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
The law was, of course, highly controversial, with liberals accusing DeSantis and Florida voters of rampant homophobia, and conservatives rushing to defend the governor. In all, the “Don’t Say Gay” controversy, like the COVID-19 controversy, has further heightened DeSantis’s national profile, while further endearing him to Republicans.
DeSantis’s gubernatorial track record demonstrates his ability to leverage controversy into political success and leaves him poised to win the White House.
But can he beat Trump in a tough GOP primary? We will find out soon enough.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.