Washington, DC – In a 2018 campaign ad when he was running for governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis tells his daughter — a toddler — to “build the wall” as she puts together boxes that resemble bricks.
The structure was a reference to then-President Donald Trump’s promise to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico as part of an aggressive platform to stem irregular migration.
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Endorsed by the Republican president at that time, DeSantis would fully embrace Trumpism and go on to win the Florida governorship in a tightly-contested and closely-watched race.
Now he wants to replace Trump as the standard-bearer of the Republican Party.
DeSantis filed paperwork confirming his candidacy for president on Wednesday, throwing his hat in the ring alongside a growing list of hopefuls challenging Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination. He is widely seen as the former president’s most serious primary rival.
The Florida governor has been making headlines by enacting right-wing policies on a wide range of social issues – infuriating liberals, earning the praise of conservatives and cementing his prominent status and name recognition in US politics.
“There has always been space within the Republican Party for someone who is not Trump,” said Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.
“DeSantis was kind of a natural, at least early on, for that position simply because of how well-known he has been among Republicans.”
Who is Ron DeSantis?
DeSantis, who was comfortably re-elected last year, is one of more than two dozen Republican governors.
Yet, analysts say he has distinguished himself by taking on what he calls left-wing “wokeism”, staunchly opposing COVID-19 restrictions and successfully moving his agenda forward with the help of a willing majority in the Florida legislature.
A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, a military veteran and a former Congress member, DeSantis has amassed a resume that checks many boxes for a presidential candidate.
But he made his name nationally in 2018 when he first won the Florida governorship, emerging from a crowded field of Republican candidates to snag a triumph in the tightly-contested state. During the race, he frequently appeared on Fox News to defend Trump, making himself known to the network’s conservative viewers along the way.
More recently, in 2022, DeSantis sailed to re-election with historic margins not seen since 1982. His decisive victory helped strengthen Florida’s status as an increasingly red state.
As governor, he championed conservative causes, especially in the education system, where he signed bills to limit discussions of gender and sexuality in schools and block funding for diversity programmes at universities.
The more DeSantis attracted the spotlight with his conservative approach, the more he was attacked by Democrats — a dynamic the governor welcomed, according to Masket.
“People in conservative circles were cheering him on, but also Democrats were noticing,” Masket told Al Jazeera. “And they started highlighting him as one of the major threats to democracy in the US. And that just egged him on. That was perfect for him. The fact that liberals hated him was – as far as he was concerned – another feather in his cap.”
COVID policy and immigration
Under his leadership in 2020, Florida was one of the first large states to roll back and then fully lift its COVID-19 lockdowns against the warnings of federal health officials at that time.
The following year, DeSantis pushed back against coronavirus vaccine mandates, again advancing the right-wing cause of prioritising individual choice when it came to public health during the pandemic.
DeSantis also pushed for restrictions on abortion even before the US Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to the procedure last year. And this year, he signed a six-week abortion ban into law.
Moreover, he waded into the immigration policy debate. Last year, DeSantis chartered flights to transport dozens of migrants and asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, a wealthy community in the largely Democratic state of Massachusetts.
The migrants arrived without advance notice, local authorities said, sparking anger and questions from rights groups about the legality of the transfer. The White House condemned the incident at that time as cruel “political theatre”.
In short, DeSantis successfully translated his right-wing rhetoric into policy, analysts said.
“Whenever you’re different, whenever you break with your party, you’re out there on your own. And if there are no drastic consequences, then it can make you look like you’re ahead of the curve,” said David Ramsey, who teaches constitutional law and political philosophy at the University of West Florida.
He added that the governor helped rebuild the Republican Party in Florida, a traditional swing state that is now increasingly looking like a conservative stronghold.
“He’s put a lot of points on the board for his party,” Ramsey told Al Jazeera.
Trump vs DeSantis
Meanwhile, Trump, also a Florida resident, stands between DeSantis and the Republican presidential nomination, as they both seek to take on Democratic President Joe Biden in 2024.
Several other Republican candidates have launched presidential bids, but if public opinion polls are to be believed, the primaries will be a two-horse race between Trump and DeSantis.
With his combative attitude and unconventional policymaking, DeSantis evokes comparisons with Trump. But the governor can distinguish himself from the former president through his younger age, “more polished” style, military service and family life, political observers said.
DeSantis is 44 years old. Trump is 76. And unlike Trump, DeSantis’s personal life has been largely free of scandals.
“He contrasts well with the previous president. He’s young. He’s on his first wife. He actually served in the military,” said Gregory Koger, a political science professor at the University of Miami.
After the Republicans’ lackluster performances in the 2022 midterm elections, which were largely blamed on Trump, many thought DeSantis would become the unofficial captain of the party.
“I think the question is: Who is the current leader of the Republican Party? Oh, I know who it is: Ron DeSantis,” Republican Senator Cynthia Lummis said last November.
The governor, however, lost some momentum in 2023, with recent national polls showing him behind Trump by as many as 36 percentage points.
Koger outlined three reasons for that decline. First, he said, Trump is actively campaigning while DeSantis only launched his official campaign this week.
A second reason is that Trump has been incessantly attacking DeSantis on his Truth Social platform, and for the most part, the governor has stayed mum.
And then there’s the question of Trump’s indictment, the first for a former or current US president. In April, Trump was criminally charged in New York in relation to a hush-money payment to a porn star. Republicans, including DeSantis, almost unanimously defended Trump against the prosecution.
“A combination of voters feeling like he’s being attacked and Republican politicians coming out and criticising the indictment led to a boost for Trump,” Koger told Al Jazeera.
With the first caucus in Iowa months away and legal trouble mounting for Trump, DeSantis will be hoping to bounce back and close the gap, especially as he starts to officially campaign for the nomination.
Koger cited DeSantis’s fight with the Walt Disney Company to show how the governor aimed to consolidate power and intimidate critics.
DeSantis went on the offensive against Disney last year and tried to strip it of its status as a special tax district after the company’s leaders criticised a piece of Florida legislation dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics. The legislation aimed to restrict instructions on sexuality and gender identity in public schools.
The attack on Disney, which turned into a protracted legal and political battle, was a risky one. Disney is an iconic American company that is one of Florida’s largest employers.
“What kind of Florida politician picks a fight with Disney World in the state and a country where that’s a revered brand?” Koger asked. “But it makes sense if the purpose is really to scare any business or organisation that would stand up to him, to keep people from criticising what he’s doing and create a climate of fear.”
While DeSantis has demonstrated his right-wing credentials on domestic issues as governor, he has not engaged in many discussions on foreign policy.
But in March, he drew criticism from Democrats and some Republicans when he called the conflict in Ukraine a “territorial dispute”.
“While the US has many vital national interests, … becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them,” DeSantis said in a statement to then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson, a staunch critic of US support to Ukraine.
“The Biden administration’s virtual ‘blank check’ funding of this conflict for ‘as long as it takes’, without any defined objectives or accountability, distracts from our country’s most pressing challenges,” the governor argued.
That position placed him closer to Trump’s stance on the conflict than to that of the mainstream Republican Party. Many GOP lawmakers, with the exception of a few vocal far-right members, have overwhelmingly voted in favour of providing billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine.
Masket, the University of Denver professor, said that siding with sceptics of US support for Ukraine did not go over well for DeSantis.
“I don’t think that did him any favours,” Masket told Al Jazeera. “My impression was that it would make more sense for DeSantis to come out strongly in favour of Ukraine because he’s not going to win over the Trump wing of the party.”
One foreign policy area where DeSantis made his views abundantly known is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He has said the Palestinian West Bank is “disputed”, not occupied territory, a view that contradicts international law and numerous United Nations resolutions. When he was in Congress, DeSantis also pushed Trump early on to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Last month, the governor visited Israel and hit out at Biden’s criticism of the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plan, saying the US should not “butt into” Israel’s affairs.
In 2019, he moved to penalise Airbnb for suspending its listings in illegal Israeli West Bank settlements, part of a campaign that pressured the lodging company to reverse its decision. He also threatened to divest from Ben & Jerry’s parent firm after the ice-cream maker decided to end its operations in the West Bank.
Rasha Mubarak, a Palestinian-American organiser in Florida, said DeSantis’s policies have been “dangerous” not only for Palestinians but also for Americans’ free speech rights.
“He uses fear and false narrative when he is pushing anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-Palestinian, xenophobic legislation and rhetoric that bring out his base and his support,” Mubarak told Al Jazeera.
While in the US Navy, DeSantis served at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, a prison widely decried by rights group that he has said should remain open. One former inmate accused the governor of being present while prison officials were force-feeding detainees during a hunger strike.
“He was watching me struggle. He was smiling and laughing with other officers as I screamed in pain,” Mansoor Adayfi wrote in a column for Al Jazeera earlier this year. DeSantis vehemently denies that account.