Florida governor: Ron DeSantis is a textbook candidate for Republicans. But will it be enough?

Ivy League education? Check. War veteran? Check. Trump approved? Check. What doesn't Ron DeSantis have? Well...
Standing in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Ron DeSantis prepares for his appearance on Lou Dobbs Tonight on Fox News. [André Chung | For the Times]
Standing in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Ron DeSantis prepares for his appearance on Lou Dobbs Tonight on Fox News. [André Chung | For the Times]
Published Oct. 19, 2018|Updated Oct. 20, 2018

When he was growing up in the middle-class pocket of Dunedin in Pinellas County, Ron DeSantis was moved to the back of the class by his first-grade teacher. It wasn't because he was unruly.

"He was bright. He was very, very attentive," said Dee Centinaro, 69, who's now retired and lives in Tampa. "I knew he would do his work, I knew he would pay attention, and I knew I could trust him."

From his earliest years being raised by working-class parents to the Ivy League to serving in the U.S. military and then Congress, Ron DeSantis has produced a biography for politics that couldn't have been better if a strategist had concocted it.

"He's a young man who has a promising future — and even bigger things than governor," Centinaro said with a grin.

But this year's campaign trail for the Republican nominee for Florida governor has revealed a missing ingredient, for these populist times, from the DeSantis political persona: A common touch.

DeSantis is not a naturally warm person or the sort of solicitous politician who clearly adores mingling with voters or firing up a crowd. Former colleagues on Capitol Hill describe a hard-working but aloof congressman who walked through the halls with ear buds, effectively shielding him from interaction.

Previous coverage: Read more about Ron DeSantis' policy proposals on educationeconomics and the environment

Even when he's meeting with other politicians who might be prospective supporters, he'll scan emails and texts on his phone in mid-conversation.
Former coworkers have described a military-like efficiency and restraint as being core to his character, qualities that perhaps don't help him ooze charisma or connect with strangers.

And he has a pugnacious nature that can alienate. Just hours after he won the primary, he infamously went on TV and said that Floridians shouldn't "monkey this up" by electing someone with super-progressive policies like Andrew Gillum, the first African-American nominee of a major party for governor in the state.

Read more: Don't 'monkey this up' and elect Andrew Gillum, Ron DeSantis says

A national firestorm rained down on the DeSantis campaign, but the candidate refused to apologize. His campaign released a statement that said the idea that his remark was racist was "absurd."

U.S. Rep Ron DeSantis, a GOP candidate for governor, speaks to the media ahead of a luncheon at Mojitos Cuban Cuisine hosted by the Women’s Republican Club of Miami on Monday. [Daniel A. Varela For the Miami Herald]
U.S. Rep Ron DeSantis, a GOP candidate for governor, speaks to the media ahead of a luncheon at Mojitos Cuban Cuisine hosted by the Women’s Republican Club of Miami on Monday. [Daniel A. Varela For the Miami Herald]
His confrontational approach, honed during his years as a military prosecutor, serves him well with one area of the campaign. DeSantis is strongest when he’s on the attack, literally pointing fingers and gesturing with his hands, a mannerism some have compared to President Donald Trump.

"The Republican base is looking for a fighter," said Alex Patton, a Gainesville-based Republican political strategist, who said DeSantis' style fits the bill.


Long before his campaign for governor, DeSantis rose to prominence with conservative audiences as a fresh-faced U.S. representative regularly featured on Fox News. He ripped into President Barack Obama and, after Trump's election in 2016, DeSantis lambasted Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference.

His first debate in the governor's race, against Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, was a turning point in the primary when DeSantis went from dark horse to frontrunner, armed with the president's support.

"When Donald Trump was trying to win Florida in 2016, Adam Putnam did not attend a single rally with him," DeSantis said, in one of his many zingers. "You couldn't find Adam Putnam if you had a search warrant."

If DeSantis' aggressive style steps on his ability to deliver soaring speeches that inspire, his wife, Casey DeSantis, provides affability and eloquence. Some insiders consider her the campaign's secret weapon.

The couple met while on a driving range in Jacksonville, when a bucket of balls was placed between them. DeSantis, in the tradition of Trump and politicians past, still enjoys golfing and has two dogs named Bunker and Bogie.

Casey made a career by being comfortable speaking on television, first as a reporter and then as the host of a Jacksonville morning show. She's at ease in front of an audience, where she can tell funny stories of their two small children or the humble beginnings of her husband's first campaign, now all of six years ago, for a Congressional seat representing the Jacksonville suburbs. One of her memories: riding door-to-door on an electric scooter.

Read more: Ron DeSantis: Capitol Hill loner, Fox News fixture, Trump favorite in Florida governor's race

She claims her husband wasn't even considering a run for office until after he finished writing a book in 2011 about American politics. When he promoted the book, people told him to run for office, Casey DeSantis told the Times/Herald.

"And so lo and behold, an open congressional seat opened up in our backyard," she said.

Others see a more calculated side to DeSantis, who has excelled as a candidate by muddying the political discourse.

He was criticized constantly by Putnam in this year's primary for pushing hot button issues unrelated to problems a Florida governor could address. That critique went nowhere, however, as DeSantis continued to emphasize issues like moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and assailing the likes of Hillary Clinton and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters.

Those positions, especially on Israel, earned him the support of several GOP mega-donors including Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Marvel Chairman Isaac "Ike" Perlmutter, a group that was among his earliest top donors and continues to write large checks. Perlmutter has loaned DeSantis use of his plane to help him campaign against Gillum.

Read more: Reclusive GOP donor and Marvel chairman renting DeSantis his private plane

DeSantis regularly asserts that the Tallahassee mayor is a socialist (he's not) while tweeting out articles from the bible of the alt-right, Breitbart, that make claims such as Gillum is "the most anti-law enforcement candidate to be nominated by a major party in modern Florida history."

It's smash-mouth brand that has served DeSantis well. In the last six years, he's been elected to the U.S. House, been re-elected twice, mounted a quick run for the U.S. Senate and won the Republican nomination for Florida governor — all before turning 40 last month.


When asked why voters should fill in the bubble next to her husband's name in November, Casey responded that "Ron's story" should impress people, as an indication of his work ethic and integrity — yet another reminder of how heavily his campaign has hinged on his biography.

As a 12-year-old, the lanky "D" DeSantis, as he preferred to be called, was already seeing his name in newspaper headlines for his baseball triumphs.

"This D Powered Dunedin," one read in the St. Petersburg Times in 1991, before quoting the little DeSantis saying he was "pumped" for his team's win against their Seminole foes.

He was described in another article as "one of the team's aces on the mound and a top hitter at the plate."

That discipline earned him entrance to Yale for his undergraduate career, where he studied history and political science while serving as the captain of the baseball team, with a .336 batting average and a 3.75 GPA.

A 2001 newspaper article said he was considering becoming a history teacher in Georgia. But he was soon off to Harvard Law, and then to the U.S. Navy, where he worked as a lawyer in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, advising troops on their legal parameters when handling prisoners.

He left active duty in February 2010, staying in the reserves as a lieutenant commander and working in Mayport, near Jacksonville. His commanding officer there was Capt. Dan Bean, who said DeSantis was the epitome of professionalism.

DeSantis advised active duty military lawyers in the southeast United States on how to proceed with sensitive military cases, from drug use to allegations of rape, Bean said.

Read more: What did Ron DeSantis do during his tour in Iraq?

"I recall Ron dealing with sexual assault cases, which were very difficult to prosecute and defend," Bean said. "Ron was always thoughtful in his presentations."

After considering a run for the Legislature, DeSantis instead won a seven-way Republican primary and then took the congressional seat for Florida's sixth district.

He quickly cultivated an image on Capitol Hill of sticking to a strict ideology. He slept in his office, rejected his congressional pension and health care, and called for term limits (now a main plank in Gov. Rick Scott's campaign for U.S. Senate).

He helped found the Freedom Caucus, the ultra-conservative group that pushed then-Republican House Speaker John Boehner into early retirement for being too moderate. Known as hardliners who drew their politics from the Tea Party movement, the Freedom Caucus drove the federal government to the brink of shutdown over Obama's executive orders on immigration.

DeSantis resigned from Congress in September, citing his need to focus on the governor's race and saying "it would be inappropriate for (him) to accept a salary" while he's on the campaign trail.

Read more: Ron DeSantis resigns from Congress to focus on running for governor


Ron DeSantis in the GOP primary proved to the many who doubted him that his party's approval of the president was more valuable to voters than almost anything else. He won easily over Putnam, who possessed detail-oriented Florida policy know-how and a mighty campaign bank account (which at one point was three times larger than what DeSantis had raised).

In the general election, DeSantis has continued to buck traditional wisdom that he should shift more to the center and hasn't significantly altered his policy positions — when he has offered them.

While he's released proposals on education, the environment and the economy, his campaign has spent much of its time portraying Gillum as a radical socialist. Meanwhile, details on DeSantis' vision for other issues, like health care, are sparse.

Ron DeSantis gives his victory speech during the Ron DeSantis for Governor Election Night Party in the Sebastian Ballroom at the Rosen Shingle Creek on Aug. 28 in Orlando. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)
Ron DeSantis gives his victory speech during the Ron DeSantis for Governor Election Night Party in the Sebastian Ballroom at the Rosen Shingle Creek on Aug. 28 in Orlando. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)

Patton, the GOP strategist, said he's yet to see DeSantis fully break from the mold he poured for himself during the primary.

"How does he deal with pushback when he's out of the comfortable setting of Fox News and of Republican base voters? That is something where he's got some room for growth," he said.

Even Hurricane Michael — which mangled the Panhandle and killed at least 25 people in Florida — didn't halt the DeSantis campaign's attacks on Gillum, even as it contributed to relief efforts.

In DeSantis, many voters see a stand-in for Trump in the war between the transformed Republican Party and the super-progressive movement starting to gain traction across the country. In a state with 20 straight years of Republican governors, DeSantis is leading the partisan fight in one of the most competitive elections seen in years in the nation's largest swing state.

Since the earliest stages of the race, DeSantis has basked in his role as Trump's chosen "warrior", making the president's endorsement intrinsic to nearly every mail piece, ad, speech and tweet his campaign made during the primary. But since then, he's begun to emerge from Trump's shadow, working to further define himself as a military veteran and a man of unyielding principles.

His victory speech in August, for example, was a sales pitch for his biography and his ideas, laced with Trump slogans as a reminder that this race is larger than the kid with big dreams from Dunedin.

"If you look at my record from athletics to the military to fighting to drain the swamp in Washington, I was willing to take the tough stances," he said, before making his own MAGA-style promise. "We'll keep Florida great and we'll make it even greater."

Just before he made that pledge, Casey strode out with him on stage, wearing a dress in the hue of Republican red. In a few words, she summed up perhaps both DeSantis' plans for the governor's mansion and their future more broadly.

"I'll say this," she told the cheering crowd. "We're just getting started."

Times Political Editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this story.