Is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis emerging as the new and improved Donald Trump?
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and President Donald Trump (Photo: White House)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has the elite credentials of a prototypical US presidential candidate, from graduating with honors from Yale and Harvard Law School to earning a bronze star for meritorious service in the military. The man seen as a possible 2024 Republican nominee – and a political successor to Donald Trump – appears on track for re-election on November 8. But he may find that Trump casts a long shadow.

Ron DeSantis has a Trump problem. The man touted as a likely contender for the 2024 Republican nomination needs to keep the former president on side, given that Trump still wields some influence as a kingmaker. But he must also maintain enough distance to appeal to conservative voters who have turned their backs on Trump.

Some quarters are already predicting that DeSantis will forge ahead as the leader of the Republican opposition and the party’s likely candidate. An August article in the National Review, the standard-bearer of American conservatism, argued that DeSantis was the true "leader of the opposition", lauding him for pursuing conservative causes where other politicians have balked.

Trump threw his support behind DeSantis in his inaugural bid for the governorship in 2018, attending rallies in Florida and calling him a "brilliant young leader". But that support is conspicuously absent as DeSantis faces re-election.

The two men are engaged in a delicate rivalry in which DeSantis avoids criticizing Trump directly or challenging his GOP supremacy while dismissing any 2024 speculation. And so far, DeSantis has skillfully dodged the question of whether he believes the last election was stolen from the former president.

But he has embraced some of the more extreme ideas put forth by election deniers. In a November 6, 2020, interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel – three days after the presidential vote and the day before it was called for Joe Biden – DeSantis suggested that state legislatures could override the results by naming pro-Trump electors regardless of the outcome of the vote.

Culture wars

DeSantis, 44, has also embraced many of the “culture war” arguments of the far right, going full anti-mask during the Covid-19 pandemic and banning schools from teaching critical race theory (CRT) – the idea that racial inequality is systemic and thus intrinsic to, for example, the US criminal justice system – despite CRT having no official place in school curricula.

He was behind a push to ban math books in his state deemed to be too “woke” and a controversial Florida bill that limited discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. And even before the US Supreme Court moved to overturn Roe v Wade, DeSantis weighed in on the abortion debate by signing legislation banning the procedure after 15 weeks.

DeSantis came under fire in September for transferring unsuspecting migrants to Democratic states in an expensive – and for many critics, cruel – political stunt designed to play to the anti-immigration right wing. He is now facing an investigation by the Treasury Department into whether he misused federal pandemic relief funds to fly two planeloads of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.

‘Trump-like’

Despite the controversies, such combative, high-profile moves have helped elevate DeSantis’s national profile. A pre-election tour to drum up the party faithful across battleground states didn’t hurt, either. Stephan Lawson, head of communications for the DeSantis reelection campaign, suggested it was a way to bolster his support base without challenging Trump directly.

“What he's doing is continuing to elevate his stature and his name ID, his conservative credentials to a larger audience,” Lawson told ABC.

“Put another way – 'I'm gonna get all the good without the bad of taking on Trump directly’,” Lawson added.

As perhaps befits the man viewed as a possible heir to Trump, DeSantis is similarly given to dissembling and hyperbole – Politifact has rated many of his public statements as “false” or “mostly false”.

But there are also notable differences. DeSantis has publicly voiced concern about the growing US deficit, which began ballooning while Trump was in office. Although both men downplay the effects of global warming, DeSantis has supported legislation to combat a rise in sea levels and protect the Everglades.

DeSantis has also criticized the invasion of Ukraine and supported tougher sanctions on Russia while Trump has said that Ukraine should look to strike a deal with Vladimir Putin.

The New York Times quoted one DeSantis ally as saying the governor’s political brand is akin to “competent Trumpism”.

Although Trump continues to outperform DeSantis in national polls asking Republicans who they want to represent them in 2024, DeSantis has started edging out the former president in some state polls. And his fundraising outstripped Trump’s in the first six months of the year, according to OpenSecrets, an NGO that tracks political donations, with DeSantis breaking donation records for a gubernatorial race.

DeSantis might also be able to rely on support from the numerous “Never Trumpers” of the Republican Party – some of whom have since voted for Democrats – giving him broader national appeal.

“There are a lot of establishment Republicans that would come home for DeSantis,” said David Jolly, a former GOP congressman from Florida who served with DeSantis and has since become an Independent, in comments to the Washington Post in September.

DeSantis “has adopted Trump’s playbook in Florida and he does Trump-like things … but he’s actually arm’s-length from Trump”, Jolly added.

And whereas Trump gave no quarter to his critics or political opponents, DeSantis has tried to show that he can rise above politics when the occasion calls for it.

DeSantis praised President Joe Biden for declaring a state of emergency, thereby freeing up federal funding for Florida and allowing agencies to coordinate relief efforts, ahead of Hurricane Ian in late September. “We appreciate the Biden administration’s consideration for the people of Florida during this time of need,” DeSantis said.

It was a shift in tone for DeSantis, who regularly uses the president as a political foil, criticising him on issues ranging from Afghanistan to Ukraine to vaccine mandates.

From Harvard to Gitmo

When DeSantis was sworn in as governor in 2019 he was, at 40, Florida's youngest governor in a century. His official biographies invariably describe him as a “native Floridian with blue collar roots” who went on to follow a top-flight trajectory leading from Yale University to Harvard Law School (he graduated with honours from both).

DeSantis completed Naval Justice School in 2005 and was assigned the following year to serve as a military lawyer at the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where his responsibilities included ensuring detainees were treated in accordance with the law, according to an account in the Tampa Bay Times. He subsequently served as a legal adviser to the SEAL commander in charge of a special operations force in Fallujah during the 2007 “surge” of US troops in Iraq.

After his active-duty service, DeSantis was an assistant US attorney for the Middle District of Florida.

A former guest columnist for right-leaning periodicals like the National Review and the Washington Times, DeSantis sought to detail how former US president Barack Obama was departing from American foundational principles in his 2011 book, "Dreams from Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama".

DeSantis was first elected to Congress in 2012 as a representative for Florida’s Sixth District. During his first term he co-founded the Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-right conservative lawmakers. He also became a frequent guest on Fox News and earned the support of the Tea Party, a virulently anti-Obama right-wing movement, before winning re-election in 2016.

A Republican rift?

By the time Trump became president in 2017, DeSantis was one of his most vocal supporters. And he had Trump's backing when he announced that he was running for governor of Florida, winning the post the following year.

But the two men's similarities, once a source of affinity, may be emerging as a source of conflict.

Rolling Stone cited Trump insiders as saying the former president has accused DeSantis of "stealing" some of his mannerisms. A video from The Recount portrays the two men speaking side by side in split screen to highlight the parallels.

“DeSantis certainly mimics Trump’s style, rhetoric and body language,” Dan Eberhart, a longtime GOP donor, told Rolling Stone, adding that DeSantis’s “bombastic” style seems to be "ripped straight out of a Donald Trump style guide”.

Eberhart has donated to Trump in the past but said he’d rather support someone like DeSantis in the next presidential race.

Multiple US media outlets have cited sources in Trump's circle as saying he is displeased with DeSantis's ascent. The Washington Post reported that Trump has dubbed the governor "ungrateful", telling advisers: "I made him."

And in what was widely seen as a snub, Trump announced in late October that he would speak at a Miami rally for Senator Marco Rubio on the weekend right before Election Day but made no mention of addressing Florida crowds in support of DeSantis.

DeSantis, for his part, endorsed a Republican Senate candidate in Colorado who has said he would "actively" campaign against Trump if he runs again in 2024.

Amid reports that resentments are simmering just below the surface, it remains to be seen how long the two men can avoid coming into open conflict over the leadership of their party – particularly with a presidential nomination soon hanging in the balance.