At any given fundraiser or VIP room where he’s present, Ron DeSantis is usually easy to find—in the corner, keeping to himself. Despite having a job that entails exchanging small talk and pleasantries on a daily basis, the Florida governor tends to brush off those obligations and struggles with basic social skills, according to a source close to DeSantis, several of his former staffers, and other GOP operatives who have worked with him and his team. As DeSantis gears up for a potential White House run in 2024, his aloof public persona is being thought of by his rivals—namely, former President Donald Trump—as his Achilles heel in the retail politics-heavy early primary states.
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The governor’s aversion to pressing the flesh, and his concern over the risk of unexpected interactions with the public, is already so well-known that early primary state players are working to DeSantis-proof their events in order to attract the flinty would-be candidate and his tight-knit team.
The problem is, hosts often have no idea what the DeSantis team wants. “Easily the least responsive campaign I’ve ever dealt with,” one veteran event host in an early primary state told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to avoid alienating the Florida governor. “We invite, invite, invite, ping, ping, ping. We don’t hear anything,” this prominent event host said. “He’s been tighter in his requests than other candidates,” a top New Hampshire Republican told The Daily Beast, adding that only former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came to mind as a bigger “nightmare” to deal with.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis has long sought to avoid taking a position on Russia’s war in Ukraine. On the eve of the Russian invasion, 165 Florida National Guard members were stationed on a training mission in Ukraine. They were evacuated in February 2022 to continue their mission in neighboring countries. When they returned to Florida in August, DeSantis did not greet them. He has not praised, or even acknowledged, their work in any public statement. DeSantis did find time, however, to admonish Ukrainian officials in October for not showing enough gratitude to new Twitter owner Elon Musk. (Musk returned the favor by endorsing DeSantis for president.) On tour this month to promote his new book, DeSantis has clumsily evaded questions about the Russian invasion. When a reporter for The Times of London pressed the governor, DeSantis scolded him: “Perhaps you should cover some other ground? I think I’ve said enough.”
DeSantis is a machine engineered to win the Republican presidential nomination. The hardware is a lightly updated version of donor-pleasing mechanics from the Paul Ryan era. The software is newer. DeSantis operates on the latest culture-war code: against vaccinations, against the diversity industry, against gay-themed books in school libraries. The packaging is even more up-to-the-minute. Older models—Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush—made some effort to appeal to moderates and independents. None of that from DeSantis. He refuses to even speak to media platforms not owned by Rupert Murdoch. His message to the rest of America is more of the finger-pointing disdain he showed last year for high-school students who wore masks when he visited a college.
The problem that Republicans confront with this newly engineered machine is this: Have they built themselves a one-stage rocket—one that achieves liftoff but never reaches escape velocity? The DeSantis trajectory to the next Republican National Convention is fast and smooth. He raised nearly $10 million in February—a single month. That’s on top of the more than $90 million remaining from the $200 million he raised for his reelection campaign as governor. His allies talk of raising $200 million more by this time next year, and there is no reason to doubt they will reach their target. DeSantis has been going up in the polls, too. According to Quinnipiac, Donald Trump’s lead over DeSantis in a four-way race between them, Mike Pence, and Nikki Haley has shriveled to just two points.
More dangerous than the unpopular positions DeSantis holds are the popular positions he does not hold. What is DeSantis’s view on health care? He doesn’t seem to have one. President Joe Biden has delivered cheap insulin to U.S. users. Good idea or not? Silence from DeSantis. There’s no DeSantis jobs policy; he hardly speaks about inflation. Homelessness? The environment? Nothing. Even on crime, DeSantis must avoid specifics, because specifics might remind his audience that Florida’s homicide numbers are worse than New York’s or California’s.
It’s a strange contrast to the manner in which DeSantis has governed Florida. MSNBC viewers seem mostly interested in which books his supporters want removed from elementary school libraries, how he’s treating The Walt Disney Company, and which Miami venues might lose their liquor licenses from having drag performances in spaces open to children.1 And certainly, DeSantis has put a lot of energy into stirring up those and other culture wars. But he’s also raised teacher pay, cut tolls on highways, and spent money on Everglades restoration. He has demonstrated a broad awareness that voters care about the basic operations of government and how those affect their daily lives, and he’s focused on getting them to feel satisfied with the way he’s overseeing the actual government.
Because DeSantis is not an idiot, and because he has previously demonstrated an ability to strategize well for a general election, I assume he knows this too, and that his plan for the general election will be to trot out the standard (and effective) Republican attacks on inflation, crime, gasoline prices, and immigration.
The president has been smartly preparing himself to face a Republican opponent on these issues by breaking from his party in popular ways — blocking reforms to weaken criminal prosecution in Washington DC, making it more difficult to cross the southern border and seek asylum, and approving more domestic oil drilling. The other thing Biden will need to do is to move to define DeSantis on his weak issues before DeSantis has a chance to. I wrote last month about how Biden is doing this with DeSantis’ congressional record of voting for Social Security and Medicare cuts. If and when DeSantis signs strict abortion restrictions into law in Florida, I expect Biden to take similar advantage on that issue.
"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts." - Daniel Patrick Moynihan