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Ron DeSantis, Federalist?
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Ron DeSantis, Federalist?

Plus: How the Florida governor’s would-be opponents in the GOP presidential race are attacking him thus far.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Happy Wednesday! There’s a lot of Ron DeSantis in today’s newsletter, but let’s do the most important bit first: Here’s the Florida governor on his decision to get married at Disney World. “Casey’s family was what one might call a family of Disney enthusiasts,” DeSantis writes in his newly released memoir—about which more in a minute. “My only condition was that no Disney characters could be part of our wedding.”

Up to Speed

  • Four years after her historic election as Chicago’s first openly gay and first black female mayor, Lori Lightfoot suffered a more ignominious historic event Tuesday, becoming the first mayor of Chicago to lose her reelection bid in 40 years. Facing a blizzard of attacks from both her left and right in an election dominated by concerns about high levels of violent crime, and abandoned by influential police and teacher’s unions that each endorsed one of her opponents, Lightfoot failed even to make it out of the city’s nine-candidate jungle primary, placing third with under 17 percent of the vote. “You will not be defined by how you fall,” Lightfoot said in a Tuesday evening concession speech. “You will be defined by how hard you work and how much you do for other people.”
  • The two top finishers in the mayor’s race were former Chicago public school chief Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who finished with approximately 34 percent and 20 percent of the vote respectively. Vallas and Johnson will head to an April 4 runoff election. While both played a role in Lightfoot’s defeat, their head-to-head will represent a stark political choice for America’s third-largest city: Vallas is campaigning as a tough-on-crime centrist Democrat, which helped earn him the endorsement of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, while Johnson, a true-blue progressive, is backed by the Chicago Teachers Union.
  • In the final stage of his takeover of Walt Disney World’s special taxing district, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday appointed conservative allies to govern the district’s five-member development board. The move follows a long-running feud between the two parties, including Disney’s public opposition to DeSantis’ education bill—dubbed by his critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—and the governor’s former decision, now superseded, to liquidate the independent district that has allowed Disney to govern itself for more than five decades.  
  • During a new Fox Nation special called Who is Ron DeSantis?, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told host Brian Kilmeade he considered DeSantis a “really effective governor” and thinks it time for him to seek higher office. But Bush walked those comments back in an email to Politico this week. From Politico’s Gary Fineout: “Bush stated that ‘I was praising, not endorsing.’ In that same email, he did not answer a question on who he wanted to see become the Republican nominee.” Yet right after DeSantis’ gubernatorial inauguration this year, Bush “said DeSantis would be a ‘great alternative’ to former President Donald Trump and that the governor has a ‘proven track record’ and ‘great platform’ to run on if he chose to jump into the race for president.”
  • Bush’s walkback came after Trump allies online used the clip of “Bush endorsing DeSantis” to argue that DeSantis was too cozy with the former Republican “establishment” to support in the 2024 presidential primary. 

DeSantis Puts His Book Foot Forward

Ron DeSantis isn’t running for president yet, but get back to him on that. The Florida governor is hitting the road nationally in the coming weeks, the New York Times reports, in all the places you might expect from a soon-to-be Republican candidate: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and perhaps South Carolina, plus a speech this Sunday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.

He’s also got a book out, as all soon-to-be candidates these days are expected to. The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Renewal, which hit stores yesterday, is an opportunity for the rising Republican star to articulate his full political vision, rattle off his accomplishments as governor, and flesh out an answer to a question that, despite years of headlines, remains surprisingly elusive: Who actually is Ron DeSantis?

When it comes to that last question, The Courage to Be Free is disappointingly vague. Even by the standards of campaign autobiographies, DeSantis is highly parsimonious with details about his early life and political formation, sharing almost nothing that isn’t meant to bolster one credential or another on his political resume: his blue-collar Florida upbringing and early passion for high-school and college baseball, his early distaste for America’s elite brought on by college at Yale and law school at Harvard, his thirst for national service that manifested first in his service as a Navy JAG officer, then as a Freedom Caucus member of the House of Representatives, then as a victorious outsider candidate for governor in 2018. Even rare light moments like DeSantis’ account of meeting his wife Casey at the driving range are spoiled somewhat by a politician’s tendency to boast. (“Not every guy would have had the gumption to make an introduction and strike up a conversation with someone so striking.”)

In other respects, the book is far more illuminating. Lots of Republicans these days denounce political and cultural “elites,” but The Courage to Be Free still manages to stand out in this department for pure venom. The sort of people who fill senior positions in academia, major corporations, and the federal government go by many monikers in the book—the “swamp,” “woke elites,” the “anointed,” the “elite machine,” the “ruling class,” the “uniparty,” the “regime”—but DeSantis is adamant that pretty much every major systemic problem afflicting America ought to be laid at their feet. (The scientific establishment’s spotty track record during the COVID pandemic is proof positive for DeSantis that “no sane person should ever ‘trust the experts’ ever again.”)

That disdain for the expert class probably isn’t a major surprise for anyone who’s followed DeSantis’ rise, but the book fleshes out his governing philosophy in some interesting ways too. The governor’s emergence as a major political contender coincided in recent years with a growing right-wing faction that considered conservatism’s classical focus on small government and emphasis on the limits of executive power as hallmarks of wobbly-kneed losers. We should be paying a little less attention to worrying about what the Constitution allows us to do, the thinking runs, and a little more time punching the left in the mouth.

As governor, DeSantis was frequently praised by adherents of this faction for his hard-charging cultural salvos, such as banning Florida companies from requiring their employees or customers to get the COVID vaccine or banning the teaching of certain controversial perspectives on race in Florida schools.

There’s no question DeSantis emphasizes the importance of accumulating structural power. “One of my first orders of business” on becoming governor, he writes, “was to have my transition team amass an exhaustive list of all the constitutional, statutory, and customary powers of the governor. I wanted to be sure that I was using every level available to advance our priorities.” Throughout the book, he spends far less time explaining his political principles than expounding on his tactics for defeating the hated elite who surrounded him at every turn.

Yet DeSantis also situates his tenure within an explicitly Constitution-focused political framework, arguing his slashes as Florida governor perfectly hewed to the Founders’ view of the individual states as “laboratories of democracy” where “different governing philosophies and policy choices can be compared across states in real time.” “Because of enhancements in mobility and technology, it has never been easier for citizens and businesses to ‘vote with their feet’ by leaving dysfunctional states for greener pastures,” he writes.

DeSantis trumpets the fact that, during his tenure, Florida came out looking great in the foot-voting equation, as Republicans from across the country flocked to Florida, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the meditation also raises interesting questions about how DeSantis would see his role changing were he to leave behind state government for the White House. “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined,” he quotes James Madison as saying. “Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”

Would a President DeSantis, in other words, be more cautious about flinging about his executive powers than a Gov. DeSantis has been? DeSantis is still studiously avoiding open contemplation of the possibility of a “President DeSantis” at all, so this question remains unanswered for the moment. But it will be a key one—maybe one of the defining ones—in the months ahead. 

Other Likely GOP Hopefuls Take Aim at DeSantis

Ron DeSantis’ potential Republican presidential opponents are testing lines of attack against the Florida governor, accusing him of being a big government bully who abandoned conservative principles and adopted liberal political tactics. 

In February, former Vice President Mike Pence criticized DeSantis for using the power of the state to punish Disney—removing some special regulatory breaks it enjoyed for decades—after the entertainment conglomerate spoke out against his administration’s overhaul of Florida’s public education curriculum. “I fully support what Florida did about protecting kids,” Pence told CNBC. But: “That was beyond the scope of what I, as a conservative limited government Republican, would be prepared to do.” 

“Too many leaders in the Republican Party are trying to outdo the Democrats at their own game of big government solutions,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu told The Dispatch last month, without naming DeSantis but acknowledging his comments were directed at prominent GOP culture warriors. “The party has gotten too focused on thinking the government is the solution to a cultural problem. I’m a free-market guy, we should all be free-market Republicans.” 

Also questioning DeSantis’ conservative bona fides as the expected launch of his 2024 bid draws nearer: former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. 

But all of this carping from the Florida governor’s presumed competitors raises a couple of questions: Is movement conservatism—the kind that values small government, free markets and local control of institutions—still in vogue in today’s Republican Party? And if these various related messages break through to GOP base voters participating in presidential caucuses and primaries, will they second guess their support for DeSantis? 

Aficionados of the Republican Party are doubtful.

“These lines of attack probably would have worked in long past Republican presidential primaries,” said Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College in Pennsylvania, near President Joe Biden’s hometown of Scranton. Brauer, who has had a front row seat to the transformation of the Republican electorate since the rise of former President Donald Trump, explained today’s GOP base simply has different policy priorities, and guiding principles, than during the Reagan era. 

“Today’s Republican primaries are dominated by those who value culture issues and the populism that stands up to the institutions they don’t like or agree with, so these attacks will likely be unsuccessful against DeSantis,” he said. 

Scott Jennings, a veteran Republican strategist in Louisville, Kentucky, detailed the dynamic more succinctly. “Republicans feel surrounded and they are waiting for someone to finish these fights instead of just bitch about them,” he said. Jennings, a CNN political analyst, is a longtime adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

DeSantis was a somewhat obscure congressman rooted in classical, Reagan-era conservatism when he ran for governor in 2018. He needed Trump’s endorsement to win the primary and barely outpaced Democrat Andrew Gillum in the general election. But he rose quickly in the GOP after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic by opposing the extended closure of schools and businesses, and resisting COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

In response to concerns that children in public schools, including in grades K-6, were being taught to explore their sexual and gender identity without their parents’ approval, the governor distinguished himself again, spearheading a new law limiting what students can be taught on these topics. When Disney spoke out against the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, deemed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics, DeSantis struck back. Meanwhile, the governor has pushed  legislation addressing grassroots Republicans’ grievances on a range of cultural fronts. 

Among DeSantis’s targets were so-called “Big Tech” companies–because of their alleged censorship of conservative voices—and media outlets for whom DeSantis moved to weaken legal protections against defamation and libel charges. The governor’s resulting popularity in the GOP, reflected consistently in polling that shows him the only Republican competitive with Trump, if not beating him outright, has led the former president to take shots at DeSantis from the left, claiming the Floridian is too conservative on fiscal issues.

“Remember, Ron fought hard to very unfairly cut Social Security and Medicare. Also, wanted to raise the age limit for Social Security to at least 70-years-old,” Trump said Tuesday in a post on Truth Social. (Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and ex-South Carolina governor, has tried criticizing DeSantis from another direction, saying the the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act did not go far enough.)

DeSantis remains mum on whether he’ll jump in the race. But especially with the release of his book and the uptick in political events, all signs point to the governor joining the 2024 contest. A formal decision is expected in late spring or early summer, after the Florida legislature’s current session concludes.

A spokesman for DeSantis declined to comment.

Eyes on the Trail

  • Tiffany Smiley launches new PAC: Tiffany Smiley, the Washington state Republican who lost her bid to oust incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray by 14.6 percentage points in November, is launching Endeavor PAC to help fundraise for GOP congressional candidates across the country. It’s an interesting move for the former nurse and veterans advocate whose husband, Scotty, lost his eyesight in a 2005 suicide bombing in Iraq and later became the Army’s first blind active duty officer. Right now, Smiley is in recruitment and fundraising mode. “We are looking for those candidates that obviously have strong conservative principles, limited government, fiscal restraint and individual freedoms,” she told The Dispatch. Even though she lost big in 2022 after many polls (and headlines) had suggested a close-ish race, she says she hasn’t closed the door on running for elected office again. “Nothing’s off the table for me or Scotty. We are committed to service for this country and doing everything we can to preserve it for our children.” As for next cycle? Smiley said she hasn’t “thought about” challenging Sen. Maria Cantwell or Gov. Jay Inslee. Both Democrats are up for reelection in 2024.
  • Michigan GOP in disarray: In case you missed it, David reported a must-read story Tuesday on the state of Republican politics in Michigan, a “perennial Midwestern battleground and an important piece of the Electoral College puzzle for Democratic and Republican presidential contenders.” More from him on how the Michigan GOP’s newly elected chair might make things tough for Republicans up and down the ballot in 2024: “Michigan’s sprawling Republican establishment of operatives, donors, elected officials, and allied industry groups is breaking ranks with the state party, declaring no-confidence in newly elected chairwoman Kristina Karamo—an ally of former President Donald Trump. They are instead directing money, manpower, and other crucial resources to a collection of conservative outside groups. Discussions are underway in Republican circles to launch additional super PACs and 501(c)4 nonprofit organizations.”

Notable and Quotable

HH: Are you familiar with the triad?

VR: The triad?

HH: You don’t know what the triad is?

VR: With context, what …

HH: The nuclear triad?

VR: What’s that?

HH: The nuclear triad.

VR: Oh, the nuclear triad. Yeah, you’re talking about our new axis of sort of evil here?

HH: No, I’m talking about the air, the land, and the sea nuclear deterrent that we won the Cold War with.

VR: I have to admit, I’m not familiar with that.
—GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy’s interview with conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt, Feb. 27, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.