He’s the person most likely to be the president in January of 2025 who’s not named Joe Biden or Donald Trump.
A onetime baseball star, a double Ivy League alum and a former three-term member of Congress, Ron DeSantis vaulted to the national political fore on account of Covid, turning Florida into the country’s anti-lockdown capital and positioning himself as the de facto governor of the American right.
Emboldened ever since by the attention and acclaim, as confident and capable as he is ornery and odd, he has methodically sought to institute an aggressive, unapologetic agenda his many supporters see as a template to take to the White House and his many critics view as autocratic overreach. “Florida,” he often boasts, “is where ‘woke’ goes to die.”
He scuffles with the press. He’s fighting with Disney. He was re-elected last year by the largest margin in Florida in 40 years. And after having become governor in large part thanks to an endorsement from Trump, he’s now finally officially running against Trump, a long-looming confrontation that promises to be no-holds-barred brutal.
What do people need to know about this man who is more than 30 years younger than both Biden and Trump and very well could succeed them? Here, culled from interviews, the best, most deeply reported profiles charting his ascent, other media coverage over the years and his own two books, is a primer on the life of Ron DeSantis.
1. He is, say people who like him and people who don’t, one of the most intelligent, most diligent, most driven and most calculating people they have ever met.
He can be, say the same people, equally awkward, aloof, charmless, untrusting and ungrateful.
He’s just as self-assured. “He does believe, like, legitimately, that he is the smartest man in the world,” an ex-staffer who doesn’t like him recently told POLITICO. “The guy is absolutely massively intelligent,” this person said. “He processes information phenomenally. You can give him a 90-page briefing at nine o’clock at night, and he wants all the source documents behind it and it’s another 300 pages, and you go meet with the guy at seven in the morning and there’s notes in the margin, dog-eared, all of it, and he has synthesized it and will have great questions.”
He always has kept a conspicuously small inner circle. His most important political adviser by far and by all accounts is his wife.
He was elected to Congress in 2012 and re-elected in 2014 and 2016. He was elected governor in 2018 by some 32,000 votes. He was re-elected governor in 2022 by more than 1.5 million.
“You have a moment,” his wife has reportedly and recently said, suggesting she (and he) believes this is his.
Ronald Dion DeSantis was born on Sept. 14, 1978, in Jacksonville, Florida, and grew up in the Tampa Bay area in suburban Dunedin in a 1,500-square-foot ranch house.
His parents met at Youngstown State University in Ohio. His mother was a critical care nurse, and his father worked for the TV ratings company Nielsen installing boxes that kept track of what people were watching. He has said to POLITICO that he’s more like his mother — “just very dependable … very even keel … so you just keep kind of the rudder set … and you know what you’re doing … and you focus like a laser.”
When he was a boy and a teen, other kids called him “D.” “I just want people to call me ‘D,’” he once explained, “because I like that better than my real name.”
He pitched and played third base to help lead his baseball team to the Little League World Series in 1991. He struck out 11 batters and hit a home run in a game against Saudi Arabia. His team finished sixth in the world.
He read The Science of Hitting, by Ted Williams, whose advice was to be choosy about the swings one took. “I must have thrown a half-million pitches to Ron,” his father once said to a reporter from the New Yorker, “and I think he swung at about 500 of them.”
He attended Catholic grade school before going to Dunedin High, where he was second-team all-county in baseball and scored in the 99th percentile on his SAT. “He didn’t get that from me,” said his father.
At Yale, he pledged the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon, the alums of which include Brett Kavanaugh and both Presidents Bush. Working his way through school — parking cars, moving furniture, coaching at baseball clinics and being a ball boy at soccer games — he was an honorable-mention all-Ivy outfielder, the rookie of the year as a freshman and the captain as a senior. He majored in history and graduated in 2001 magna cum laude. “So fucking smart and creative,” said one of his teammates — also “the most selfish person I have ever interacted with” and “the biggest dick we knew,” said the same teammate.
“Experiencing unbridled leftism on campus pushed me to the right,” he would write in his pre-campaign memoir, saying that “at Yale we were led to believe that communism was superior” and that “entitled and tenured professors reigned as potentates.”
He met George H.W. Bush, who had been a Yale baseball captain as well, the spring of his senior year, when the 41st president visited with the team. “Just don’t do anything to embarrass the team,” DeSantis told his teammates.
DeSantis was more a Reagan guy. “By my senior year at Yale,” he would write, “I had matured into a conservative, but was more sympathetic to Ronald Reagan, still the gold standard for populist, grassroots conservatism, than to Bush, who represented, to many, the old money, corporate, eastern establishment.”
The commencement speaker at his Yale graduation was the next President Bush. “To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say, ‘Well done,’” the 43rd president said. “And to the C students, I say, ‘You, too, can be president of the United States.”
The year after Yale, he taught history and coached football and baseball at Darlington School, a private boarding school in Rome, Ga. He debated students about the Civil War and was known to go to parties with seniors. “As an 18-year-old, I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing here, dude?’” a former student recalled.
He graduated cum laude from Harvard Law.
He joined the Navy. As a judge advocate general, he was based at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, sent to Guantanamo Bay and deployed to Iraq, where he was a legal adviser to the SEALS during the surge of troops in 2007. “Ron was a voracious worker, and he worked at phenomenal speed,” recalled a colleague who served with DeSantis. “He was just a guy who claimed he was there to help us and then just watched while we were being tortured,” one former Guantanamo detainee once wrote.
He met his wife golfing at the driving range at the University of North Florida. “Hello, someone left these balls behind,” he told her. “Would you like to have them?” Their first date was later that day at a Beef ‘O’ Brady’s.
They got married at Disney World.
They have three kids — Madison (born in 2016), Mason (2018) and Mamie (2020).
In 2011, he self-published a 286-page book, Dreams from Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama, in which he accuses Obama and other Democratic leaders of “a lust to control the lives of their fellow citizens” and the former president of having a “palpable cockiness” and a “messianic posture.” It was a key cog of his political start. “My mission,” he would say, “was largely to stop Barack Obama.”
He ran for Congress in 2012 in a new district that stretched south from Jacksonville toward Orlando, capitalizing on the rise of Tea Party fury, running in a crowded GOP primary against Obama as much as he did his opponents. His wife helped a lot. “He doesn’t make small talk easily, but Casey was always with him, and she filled that gap,” said one of his opponents.
He wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He wanted to roll back environmental regulations. He wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy. He wanted stronger border security. He opposed amnesty for undocumented immigrants and all gun reform. He said food stamps should have on them a picture of Obama. He told the St. Augustine Record he “could be somebody like a Paul Ryan very quickly.”
He attracted support and endorsements from national conservative outfits like the Club for Growth and the Conservative Victory Fund, Joe Arpaio and John Bolton — and Donald Trump, who then was peddling the racist lie that Obama isn’t a citizen. “Ron DeSantis,” Trump tweeted on March 20, 2012. “Iraq vet, Navy hero, Bronze Star, Yale, Harvard Law …” Trump deemed DeSantis “very impressive.”
As a member of Congress, he voted against Hurricane Sandy aid, against ending a government shutdown and against an updated version of the Violence Against Women Act, he got 100-percent ratings from Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Foundation, and he was one of the nine founding members of the Freedom Caucus — the House’s headstrong right-wing bloc.
“I really wasn’t there to necessarily make friends,” he once told POLITICO. He didn’t. “He wore earbuds on the floor of the House so he didn’t have to talk to people,” former Florida Democratic congresswoman Gwen Graham told POLITICO in 2020. “I think he’s an asshole,” former Michigan Republican congressman David Trott told Playbook last month. “I don’t think he cares about people.”
His one sibling died of a pulmonary embolism in 2015. Christina Marie DeSantis, some seven years younger, was 30 years old. “You start to question things that are unjust,” DeSantis, who’s Catholic, told Piers Morgan earlier this year. “And you just have to have faith that there’s a plan in place, trust in God, there’s no guarantee that you’re gonna have a life without challenges and without heartbreak and that’s just a function of being human.”
He left the congressional baseball practice in the summer of 2017 just moments before the left-wing gunman started shooting.
He ran for Senate in the 2016 cycle before dropping out when Marco Rubio ended his presidential campaign and wanted to keep his seat. In his recent book he skips right over this race.
At the time, he downplayed any affinity for Trump, saying the 2012 tweet wasn’t an endorsement and that he had never met him. “Ron made more fun of Donald Trump than anyone I know,” a former DeSantis staffer told Vanity Fair. “He thought Trump was fucking nuts,” said a second former staffer.
He nevertheless sought Trump’s favor assiduously when he ran for governor in 2018, spending time in Washington at Trump’s hotel, boosting a bill to defund the Mueller investigation and defending Trump regularly on Fox News. “I liked him,” Trump told Vanity Fair in 2021, “because he was out there defending me very strongly.”
Angling for his endorsement on a flight to Pensacola on Air Force One, DeSantis got what he wanted: “Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader, Yale and Harvard Law, who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida. He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!” Trump tweeted. “… full Endorsement!” he tweeted. He mentioned Trump 21 times in one debate. He cut “the dumbest, most effective ad in Florida history,” in the words of Democratic ad man Kevin Cate, in which DeSantis read to his son The Art of the Deal and urged his daughter to use toy blocks to “build the wall.”
He has called his election in 2018 “the most consequential election in the history of our state.” His margin of victory over Democrat Andrew Gillum was a scant 32,000 votes in a state with a population of more than 21 million people.
He resolved to rule like somebody who had won big. “I had my transition folks give me a list of all the powers of the governor — the constitutional powers, statutory powers, customary powers. What can I do on my own? What did I need the legislature for?” he said last year in a speech in Tallahassee at a Boys State convention. “You’ve got to be cognizant of where all these pressure points are.”
The terms of three liberal justices on the state supreme court ended at the same time as his tenure as governor began, and he replaced them with more conservative justices, which “reduced a roadblock to getting my legislative agenda to ‘stick,’” as he has put it. He’s since put four more such justices on the court. He’s an admirer of Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. He’s called Thomas “our greatest living justice” and lauded him for his “steel-infused spine.”
In his first 14 months as governor, he prioritized Everglades restoration, boosted teacher pay, pardoned the Groveland Four in a longstanding case of racial injustice, enabled the state’s legalization of medical marijuana and appointed a Democrat to lead the Division of Emergency Management. “We got elected by the hair of our chinny-chin-chin,” Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican congressman who chaired the DeSantis transition, recently told TIME’s Molly Ball, “so the goal … was to grow the universe of DeSantis supporters in the state of Florida and do better with nonwhite voters, independents, suburban voters and young people.”
Covid changed him.
“As a country, as a culture, Covid divided us,” said David Jolly, the former Republican congressman from the Tampa Bay area who now is an independent and an MSNBC analyst, “and he had to choose sides.” He did.
After instituting at the outset a month-long stay-at-home order, he permanently and pugnaciously reversed course, pledging no more lockdowns, insisting schools be open and in person, touting vaccines at first but then banning any mandates. Mocked and loathed by the left, he became a hero to the right. Fueled ever since by the scorn of his foes, he’s doubled and tripled down on an imperious, anti-“woke” culture-war-as-public-policy posture — the anti-LGBTQ, anti-critical race theory and-DEI rhetoric and legislation, the heavy hand on the education battlefront from K-12 to higher ed at New College in Sarasota, the flying of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, the six-week abortion ban, the ongoing fight with Disney even as it unnerves donors and C-suite execs …
He removed from office the elected top prosecutor in Tampa, citing a pair of statements Andrew Warren had signed along with scores of other prosecutors around the country that criticized the criminalization of abortion and health care for transgender people. “This,” Warren told POLITICO, “poses a unique threat to democracy.”
In an unprecedented move, DeSantis last year unilaterally redrew Florida’s congressional districts to be more Republican, diluting in the process Black voting power.
He’s almost entirely shunned mainstream reporters and talked nearly exclusively to right-of-center outlets like Fox News or mostly sycophantic startups.
“Florida’s Governor Has a Pair,” said golf balls he sold on his campaign website during his reelection bid last year.
There were more than 225,000 more Democrats than Republicans in Florida at the beginning of DeSantis’ time as governor. There are now more than 380,000 more Republicans.
“We have rewritten the political map,” he said in his victory speech last November.
“He has to resist becoming the protagonist in his own Greek tragedy,” Tallahassee fixture Mac Stipanovich told POLITICO late last year, suggesting DeSantis’ greatest nemesis isn’t Trump. “It’s hubris.”
“I don’t really spend a lot of time being self-reflective,” he told POLITICO in his office in the summer of 2020. “My view is: What more can I be doing?”
One of his top aides in the governor’s office once compared him to the robot from the movie “Short Circuit.” Johnny 5 takes in information at comical speeds while calling for more. “Input! More input!”
He had three chiefs of staff in his three terms in Congress.
He’s had three chiefs of staff so far in his five years as governor.
The extended DeSantis orbit is littered with disgruntled former aides. “They use people like toilet paper,” a top Republican strategist once said to Vanity Fair of DeSantis and his wife. There’s an unofficial “support group.”
He’s been called by Trump to this point “Ron DeSanctimonious,” “Meatball Ron,” “Tiny D” and also sometimes … “Rob.” This will only intensify.
“He’s been running for president,” Democratic former Florida state senator Annette Taddeo told POLITICO in 2021, “since the minute he got elected.”
No. He’s been running for president for a lot longer than that. “His goal was to be the president of the United States,” one of his Little League teammates once told the Tampa Bay Times. “I never doubted,” said another, “that he could be president.”
Sources: POLITICO, POLITICO Magazine, TIME, NBC News, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Tampa Bay Times, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the Associated Press, the Baffler, the Washington Post, the New York Post, the Daily Mail, the Yale Daily News, the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Florida Politics, Florida Phoenix, Business Insider, Al Jazeera, ProPublica, Dreams From Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama, by Ron DeSantis; and The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival, by Ron DeSantis.
You must log in to post a comment.