Who is Ron DeSantis, the Florida man running for US president?

9 min read
Washington, D.C.
25 May, 2023

Ron DeSantis, who comes from a state known for Disneyworld, a diverse population, and a thriving gay scene, has staked his political career on fighting the very things that characterise Florida. 

He announced his bid on Wednesday at a botched event with Twitter CEO Elon Musk, whose October 2022 takeover of the social media platform has spawned a proliferation of hate speech, including some of Musk's own tweets, or what the tech billionaire had described as standing up to the "woke agenda". 

As DeSantis passed a series of restrictive legislation garnering him popularity with his conservative base, the question is: can he win the US presidency on an "anti-woke" platform? 

"In terms of passing legislation, it's hard to compete with that if you're another Republican governor. DeSantis has been so prolific," J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, tells The New Arab. He wonders, however, how that right-wing success will work in a general election. 

"What's scary about him is that he's a lot more polished than Trump. DeSantis is consistent and follows through. He uses fear to engage voters on the right who might not otherwise vote"

A politician on an early conservative political path

To understand how DeSantis became governor of Florida and how this might translate into a shot at the US presidency, it is important to look at the state's political transformation over the last decade - going from a bellwether swing state to a reliably conservative one, how this has affected the rest of the country, and the role of DeSantis in his state's recent political history.

For Rasha Mubarak, a Palestinian American progressive organiser and founder of the advocacy organisation Unbought Power, who grew up in central Florida and has long been concerned for her state's civil rights, it was evident when DeSantis was running for governor that he had ambitions for higher office.

"I knew this person had higher aspirations," Mubarak tells TNA, pointing to his TV ads when he was running for governor, featuring his children and using the slogan "build the wall" (Florida is not a border state).

"As a Palestinian woman raised in Florida since the age of five, it was horrifying to see how he was as a candidate anti-immigrant and anti-Black. When he was a candidate, he came after Black and brown organisations." 

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She adds, "What's scary about him is that he's a lot more polished than Trump. DeSantis is consistent and follows through. He uses fear to engage voters on the right who might not otherwise vote."

DeSantis began adulthood at a point when Florida was solidifying its conservative position on the US electoral map. At the time he graduated from high school in 1997, the state was about to enter an era, starting in 1999, of no Democratic governors, state senators or house members. 

DeSantis would continue this consistent Republican trifecta (with the exception of one independent governor in 2010) when he was elected as governor in 2020, after serving in the US House of Representatives in Florida's sixth district from 2013 to 2018.

Before that, as a junior officer in the US Navy, he would have an assignment that would raise questions years later as he waded into the presidential race. From his time at the naval base's notorious detention centre in Cuba's Guantanamo Bay, he has faced accusations by former detainees that he witnessed inhumane practices of those in custody. 

When asked by reporters about his work on the base, he has deflected by saying he wasn't senior enough to be making high-level decisions, though as some have pointed out these are often not the questions being asked of him. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a speech during the Jerusalem Post conference at the Museum of Tolerance on 27 April 2023 in Jerusalem, Israel. [Getty]

It is unclear why his time at Guantanamo didn't come under more scrutiny during his Florida political campaigns.

It's possible that the controversy over the detention centre had died down after around a decade of use in detaining the war on terror's so-called enemy combatants. It's also possible that Floridians had other priorities at the voting booth.

As a House member, DeSantis focused on restrictions on immigration, abortion and healthcare coverage, as his district and the rest of the state was growing increasingly conservative.

From a purple to a red state

The state that was once so purple that it was often synonymous with determining presidential elections, was becoming a place that would set conservative trends for the rest of the country with its state legislation. Fifteen years ago, that mainly included policies consistent with mainstream right-of-centre conservatism.

Just this year, it has included legislation aimed to allow for school book banning; restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights, most notably the "don't say gay" bill; and the notorious six-week abortion ban, which the vast majority of voters do not support.

"He really blundered with the six-week abortion ban. He should have gone with public opinion, with 14 weeks," Patrick James, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, tells TNA

"Over the last decade, Florida has gone from a bellwether swing state to a reliably conservative one"

"If you look at the polling, it's unequivocal if you do a straight ban. The public wants restrictions, but you can't get a ban on it except for in a few deep red states. It's not a problem in primaries," says James, noting Florida's solid position as a red state.

A state that Barack Obama had won in both the 2008 and the 2012 presidential races, Donald Trump, now also resident in the sunshine state (and the leading current Republican contender in most primary polls), ended up winning by double digits, a point at which Florida was now largely started being referred to as a red state.

The state's rightward shift has been the result of multiple factors. Among them is a change in retiree migration patterns to the Southwest states of Arizona and New Mexico, helping turn those states blue. This migration trend was enhanced with Covid-19 pandemic, attracting residents from states with comparatively stricter covid policies. 

In addition, some progressives have pointed to a reluctance on the part of mainstream Democrats to run left-wing candidates, instead running moderates who arguably fail to energise the party's base.

Regardless of how it has happened, this stronghold has allowed the state legislature to pass laws restricting voting access for high concentrations of Black voters, in some cases eliminating districts altogether. One of the governor's signature policies was to implement redistricting which resulted in the elimination of two Democratic-majority districts.

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To be clear, Florida has long had a strong conservative contingency. It was established as a state partly based on a pre-state treaty that resulted in a broken promise to Native Americans; it was one of the seven founding members of the Confederate States of America; and after the Civil War, white Floridians solidly controlled government offices, while Blacks, like throughout the South, endured segregated public facilities and often faced white mob violence, with Florida leading the country in lynchings per capita between 1900 and 1930.

After World War II, with the rise of Latin American, Caribbean and Asian immigration, particularly to big cities like Miami, the state experienced a diverse political climate for more than 50 years.

This month, however, multiple civil rights organisations representing Blacks, Hispanics and the LGBTQ+ community issued travel advisories, saying the state was not safe for marginalised groups, a warning reminiscent of the pre-civil rights era.

"Florida is openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. Before traveling to Florida, please understand that the state of Florida devalues and marginalizes the contributions of, and the challenges faced by African Americans and other communities of color," states a press release from the NAACP.

Over the past couple of years, the state has been the home to growing conservative political movements, such as Moms for Liberty, which advocates against school curriculum that teaches about race and the LGBTQ+ community.

It was founded in 2021, advocating against mandatory school masks and vaccines. As of 2022, the group reportedly had 195 chapters in 37 states and nearly 100,000 members. Some Democrats have accused the group of expanding in numbers with the rise of DeSantis, though the group maintains they are not politically affiliated.

The Democratic National Committee's Mobile Billboard drives through the streets of Miami ahead of Governor Ron DeSantis' Presidential campaign launch on 24 May 2023 in Miami, Florida. [Getty]

A state and a politician with unclear political futures

The state's longtime rightward trend cannot ignore clear signs of dissent coming from some of the same areas where until recently the right seemed to have a firm hold. On 16 May, Donna Deegan (born Hazouri, of Lebanese origin), a Democrat, was elected mayor of Jacksonville, the country's largest red city, flipping the seat of the governor's home city. 

That same week, Hispanic day labourers went on strike, following a new bill restricting the employment of undocumented workers, with social media showing scenes of empty construction sites across Florida.

Earlier this month, Disney announced that it would pull out of a $1 billion project following months of the governor making threats against the company if it left the state, a stance it made after the introduction of anti-LGBTQ+ policies.

On the political media front, some progressive YouTube presenters have been adding the Spanish language to their channel, in what some say is an effort to reach Spanish speakers who have been exposed to misinformation from mainstream Spanish language news outlets.

Aside from political ideology, there are basic metrics that show the state is struggling. Florida ranks among the lowest in states for education funding and children's health insurance

On the same day that DeSantis announced his run, it was reported that Florida lawmakers are pushing for a new bill that, if signed by DeSantis, could lead to roads being paved with radioactive waste, a potential health hazard for all residents.

"The state's longtime rightward trend cannot ignore clear signs of dissent coming from some of the same areas where until recently the right seemed to have a firm hold"

Because the state often lands in the news for odd reasons, the term "Florida man" has become a term for bizarre news. Though humorous, it also often highlights a genuine frustration of dysfunction in the state.

By running for president, will DeSantis be seen as a solution to America's problems, using Florida as a model for governance, through his anti-woke platform? Or will he be seen as an embarrassing "Florida man" on the national stage? 

If his glitchy Twitter launch, dubbed #DeSaster and "Failure to Launch" on the social media site, is any indication, it might very well be the latter, though the humour could very well be short-lived for many Florida residents from marginalised groups.

"We have to push back when any marginalised community is attacked. When they come for one of us, they come for all of us," says Mubarak. 

"What kind of a world are we leaving for people coming after us? We're working with people to bring back the spirit and what it means to centre residents in Florida. We want to imagine Florida as an accessible and welcoming place."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews