DeSantis hasn’t fostered deep political relationships. Will it matter?

The governor may need to learn how to schmooze if he wants to be president.
When he was a U.S. representative, Ron DeSantis was known by his colleagues in Washington to be aloof and uninterested in forming relationships. Will he need better relationship-forming skills if he wants to win the presidency?
When he was a U.S. representative, Ron DeSantis was known by his colleagues in Washington to be aloof and uninterested in forming relationships. Will he need better relationship-forming skills if he wants to win the presidency?
Published May 4|Updated May 9

In New Hampshire politics, the personal pitch is everything.

With the Granite State’s February primary coming so early in the presidential calendar, those who want to assume the nation’s highest office have had to perfect the art of the schmooze.

“I actually know people who will not vote for a candidate unless the candidate has been in their home,” said Jason Osborne, the Republican majority leader in the New Hampshire state House of Representatives.

It seems increasingly clear that Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to be president. In the last two months alone, he has embarked on a book tour and an international trade mission, and a super PAC filled with his political allies has started raising fistfuls of cash. But even the governor’s supporters admit that DeSantis has demonstrated little interest in a key political skill: The glad-handing of donors and potential political allies.

His run for the White House may come down to a choice: Change styles, or double down on the notion that traditional politics are overrated. So far, it’s unclear which path DeSantis is choosing.

Anecdotes about DeSantis shaking hands and kissing babies are somewhat hard to come by. A Tampa Bay Times story on DeSantis published when he was in Congress in 2018 said his D.C. colleagues saw him as “aloof and a bit of a know-it-all.” Supporters have privately described interactions where he checks his phone during conversations or appears absorbed in his own thoughts among donors.

However, those close to him say he is working to change the perception that he is unapproachable. Osborne attended an April fundraiser for the New Hampshire Republican Party that featured a speech from DeSantis. Some 500 others crowded into a room at the Manchester DoubleTree to hear Florida’s governor — and to see him work the room.

Osborne said he’d heard the rumors about the governor being prickly. But then he met DeSantis.

“It’s almost like what I had read was about a different person,” Osborne said. “Everyone was surprised what a cool dude he was.”

In Washington, DeSantis’ detached reputation persists. Last month, nearly a dozen Republican members of Congress from Florida — including a few who had served with DeSantis when he was in Congress — endorsed Donald Trump, DeSantis’ chief expected rival for the 2024 Republican nomination. Many of those endorsements came just after a meeting DeSantis held with GOP members of Congress. They also came amid a reported effort by DeSantis’ political team to head off more congressional endorsements of Trump.

U.S. Rep. Greg Steube told Politico after those meetings that, despite serving in Congress for DeSantis’ entire term as governor, DeSantis has never reached out to him. When Steube seriously injured himself after falling 25 feet from a ladder, Trump was the first person to call him in the emergency room, he said.

“To this day, I have not heard from Gov. DeSantis,” he told Politico.

Perhaps a more stinging blow to DeSantis was the Trump endorsement that came from U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, who’s appeared with DeSantis at numerous events, including as crowd warmer at DeSantis’ 2022 election night watch party — and whose wife, Erika, DeSantis has appointed to a state college board of trustees.

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But DeSantis was able to snag the endorsement of his former top elections official, U.S. Rep. Laurel Lee. And some of those who endorsed Trump also praised DeSantis.

“Like the vast majority of Floridians, I believe Gov. DeSantis is doing an incredible job leading the great state of Florida. We have worked closely on a variety of initiatives to benefit my Congressional district,” U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who nonetheless has endorsed Trump in 2024, said in an emailed statement. “I have always found him to be responsive, engaged and extremely competent.”

For Republicans, DeSantis’ competence doesn’t seem to be in question. But competence isn’t everything in politics. David Trott, a Republican former U.S. representative from Michigan, told Politico that he doesn’t think DeSantis “cares about people.” Trott said he doesn’t remember DeSantis ever speaking to him despite the two serving on the same committee in Congress for two years.

Some DeSantis donors have also expressed doubts about the governor in recent weeks. Grocery store magnate John Catsimatidis, who gave DeSantis’ political committee $15,000 in 2018 — and who is building the tallest building on Florida’s Gulf Coast — told the Washington Examiner he won’t support DeSantis because the governor “doesn’t even return phone calls.”

DeSantis’ political team has pointed out that Catsimatidis was hardly a diehard DeSantis supporter before making this pronouncement: He gave $20,000 to the governor’s Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, in 2022.

Francis Rooney, a former U.S. representative from Florida, said he’s not surprised DeSantis isn’t getting more love from D.C. insiders. He remembers DeSantis as a results-oriented colleague who had little time for the dog and pony show of Congress.

“It’s an odd culture, the House of Representatives,” Rooney said. “It’s more about how things look than how things are. And Ron never went in for that … the photo ops, the bills that don’t mean anything. He’s a substantive guy.”

The political network DeSantis has built in the state seems to reflect DeSantis’ style. Those close to him say he’d rather deliver policy victories than buddy up to other politicos.

Bridget Ziegler, a member of the Sarasota County School Board, is a key member of that political network. This year, DeSantis appointed her to serve on the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board — the body at the center of the governor’s ongoing feud with the Walt Disney Co. She helped found the group Moms For Liberty, a conservative education policy group that backs many of DeSantis’ priorities. Her husband, Christian Ziegler, is the chairperson of the Republican Party of Florida.

During the 2022 election cycle, DeSantis handed out endorsements in 30 local school board races. Ziegler hoped to nab an endorsement from the governor. But despite their connections, there was no meeting between DeSantis and Ziegler to talk about her race. Instead, Ziegler received a candidate questionnaire from DeSantis’ team to fill out.

“He doesn’t play the political game,” Ziegler said. “He just acts. He works. He gets things done.”

Times political editor Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this story.