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Is Ron DeSantis a Paper Tiger?

Ron DeSantis
Governor Ron DeSantis speaking with attendees at the 2021 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida.

The conventional wisdom has held for nearly a year at this point: if Donald Trump isn’t the Republican nominee for president in 2024, it will probably be Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Such speculation only grew when DeSantis was decisively re-elected as governor in November after he had won a much narrower victory four years earlier. 

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Now that the calendar has flipped to 2023, the speculation has only grown heavier, even though Ron DeSantis has not said he’s running for president.

 Most polls have shown Trump leading in a theoretical head-to-head matchup, but it remains extremely early, and Trump still has a massive advantage regarding name recognition. 

Ron DeSantis: Peaking Too Early? 

The Hill, this week, looked at what it means that DeSantis is the early frontrunner.

It wanted that having that status isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially considering that another Florida governor, Jeb Bush, was the frontrunner heading into the 2016 campaign. 

“People flame out. It’s too early to know who’s actually going to be in contention, but he’s certainly had a successful election and he’s a strong candidate from a big, important state, so you can’t discount him,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told The Hill. 

The conventional wisdom indicates that if the Republican electorate is ready to move on from Trump after two straight elections in which the was GOP nominee, DeSantis seems the most qualified alternative.

Don’t Get Too Excited

He has conservative bona fides, he’s been easily re-elected, he’s a prodigious fundraiser, and he has embraced the type of culture war politics that are of the moment on the right. 

The best case, for Republicans, is that DeSantis could pursue a political program similar to Trumpism, while also avoiding the more negative parts of the Donald Trump experience, from the impulsiveness to the tendency to do things that trigger criminal investigations and special counsels. 

However, there are other reasons to be skeptical about DeSantis’ chances to become the next president.

The first is Trump.

Despite all of the many reasons to believe the ex-president is past his prime — as well as the possibility that he could be indicted at some point before the 2024 voting start — Trump still commands a strong following in the Republican base. 

If he runs against his fellow Florida resident, Trump will likely go negative and personal on him, with Trump likely also even more motivated by his having endorsed DeSantis for governor in 2018 and expecting loyalty in return.  

It’s unclear if Ron DeSantis is prepared to repel such attacks in a way that no one in the 2016 GOP race could manage.

And in the event that DeSantis emerges victorious in a 2024 primary contest, it’s unlikely that Trump will stand on the sidelines; it’s more likely that he’d do everything he can to undermine DeSantis or any other candidate who manages to defeat him. 

There are also questions about Ron DeSantis as a general election candidate, even beyond the possibility of Trump sniping at him daily.

DeSantis’ brand of scorched-earth culture war politics may be popular in red states, but it has less of a track record nationally. In the 2022 midterms, that type of politics was roundly rejected in most swing states. Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who appeared with DeSantis at a rally and expressed his wish to make his state “the Florida of the north,” was defeated soundly. 

The GOP may have hoped that running against critical race theory, drag queen story hours, and transgenderism would go down as winning wedge issues for them, leading to a red wave or tsunami in 2022, but that didn’t happen. In fact, anti-LGBTQ sentiment — with which DeSantis, with his “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida is closely associated— has proven a political loser for Republicans in the country at large, and especially in swing states. 

In addition, DeSantis’ “STOP WOKE ACT,” which mandates that certain subjects are off-limits for teaching, has raised questions about academic freedom, free speech, and general illiberalism. Even as it makes conservative voters’ hearts sing, this raises both political and constitutional questions about DeSantis’ presidential chances. 

Mark Leibovich, the ace political reporter and author of “This Town,” wrote a piece in late November from The Atlantic arguing that there might be less to Ron DeSantis than meets the eye. For one thing, he doesn’t have nearly the personality, charisma, or political touch of the previous Republican standard bearer. 

“The question is whether DeSantis’s presidential hopes will perish as he starts getting out more on the Iowa–New Hampshire dating apps. People who know him better and have watched him longer are skeptical of his ability to take on the former president. DeSantis, they say, is no thoroughbred political athlete. He can be awkward and plodding. And Trump tends to eviscerate guys like that,” Leibovich wrote. “No shortage of alleged heavyweights have entered previous primary races only to reveal themselves as decidedly not ready for prime time, or even late-night C-SPAN.”

He’s not the only one who has said that. 

“DeSantis has ZERO charisma. He’s weird with people. He’s cruel. He’s driven by a huge authoritarian impulse. He can’t think on his feet. He has a glass jaw. And he’s super easily offended,” former Rep. Joe Walsh, an arch-conservative-turned-Trump critic who briefly ran for president in 2020, tweeted back in November

“I may be in the minority here but I think DeSantis will not succeed on a national level. Too toxic. Too brittle. Too much of a martinet. Florida is not like the rest of America. Even Red America. Protracted scrutiny will hurt him. So will a vindictive Trump,” journalist David Rothkopf tweeted around the same time. 

And besides, despite his landslide re-election, DeSantis was nearly defeated in 2018 by Democrat Andrew Gillum, who not long after was felled by a bizarre scandal involving meth and male prostitutes, and last year was the subject of a 21-count federal indictment that included charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, and making false statements. 

An MSNBC op-ed after the election noted that while DeSantis won by a lot in Florida in 2022, “DeSantisism” lost many other places. 

“His war on wokeness, attacks on liberals, and divisive culture war politics played well in Florida, but elsewhere it landed with a resounding thud,” Michael A. Cohen wrote. “Even as he faced a re-election fight, DeSantis found time to travel the country and campaign with Republican politicians cut from the same cloth. He attended rallies with Kari Lake and Blake Masters in Arizona, Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Lee Zeldin in New York, Mark Ronchetti and Rep. Yvette Herrell in New Mexico, Derek Schmidt in Kansas, and J.D. Vance in Ohio. The first seven all lost, and while Vance emerged victorious, he ran nearly 10 points behind his Ohio Republican ticket mate, Gov. Mike DeWine (who did not campaign with DeSantis).”

Stephen Silver is a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive. He is an award-winning journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist, essayist, and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review, and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.