The Rise and Fall of Ron DeSantis

By Samvit Sibal

Graphic – author (using images by Aaron M./Flickr, Gage Skidmore/Flickr, and Daniel Benedict/Flickr licensed under varying Creative Commons licenses)

Just over a year ago, Florida governor Ron DeSantis seemed to be in pole position to secure the Republican presidential nomination – or at least prove a real threat to Donald Trump – but one year on he’s dropped out of the race, leaving just Trump and former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley to fight it out for the support of the Republican party. 

Ron DeSantis began his political career in the House of Representatives representing Florida’s 6th district, following service in the US Navy until 2010 and a short-lived legal career. During his time in the House of Representatives DeSantis was a strong critic of then President Obama’s immigration policy, as well as gun control policy, and gave support to ideas of lesser federal control over education – something he took even further in his position as Florida governor. His time in the House of Representatives, while mostly successful career-wise, did not earn him particular notoriety within the party. This would come later in his more high-profile role as governor of Florida.

DeSantis has held the role of governor of Florida since 2018 and was re-elected in 2022. It is during this time that he would really garner national attention for controversial legislation he introduced as governor, including the “Don’t Say Gay” law, expanding powers of school districts over curriculums, draconian abortion laws, and anti-sanctuary city laws, among legislation concerning other issues. DeSantis’ legislating on these critically relevant topics propelled him to prominence within the party, particularly in the more right-wing factions, for his decisive and “anti-woke” action, as well as making him a household name across the US, though perhaps one rooted more in infamy for some.

DeSantis’ legislative agenda has been seen as particularly successful in terms of furthering the political agenda of the right of the Republican party. He garnered particular attention for his “Don’t Say Gay” law, formally the Parental Rights in Education Act, which prohibited discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten to third grade, but also across all grades in ways that could be deemed “against state standards”, leaving the law open to the interpretation of school districts. This received national attention when Disney, a Florida stalwart known for its flagship Disney World Resort in Orlando, expressed disapproval of the legislation. This resulted in the Florida state legislature removing special powers that effectively gave Disney local government status.

After the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022, DeSantis signed into law a ban on abortion after 15 weeks, reduced from the 24 weeks that had previously been allowed, with no exception other than in situations where pregnancy would present serious risks to health. A Heartbeat bill was passed by the Florida legislature in 2023 and would reduce this further to just 6 weeks, though contingent on the Florida Supreme Court ruling favourably on the legality of the current 15-week ban.

DeSantis has also introduced policies to ban sanctuary cities in Florida. Sanctuary cities are those where local law enforcement does not cooperate with federal agencies, namely Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to deport undocumented immigrants. DeSantis has gone as far as to state funds to transport migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Florida to sanctuary cities in other states, an action that earned him particular praise within the Republican party.

Image – Gage Skidmore/Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0.

This all means that by the time DeSantis began his presidential campaign in May 2023, he was a prominent and popular figure within the party, as well as one of the few candidates that was able to receive support from factions more supportive of Trump and was perhaps viewed as the only candidate with enough support to challenge another Trump candidacy in 2024. However, DeSantis’ campaign experienced issues from the very beginning, with his campaign launch on X being marred with technical glitches. While he began well, polling at around 35%, support for DeSantis began to decline, with Trump gaining national media attention, as well as support, through his indictments on numerous criminal charges. This culminated in the events of the Iowa caucus, which saw Trump take the lead, winning 51.0% of the vote, with DeSantis at 21.2%, and rival Nikki Haley not far behind at 19.1%. However, Trump won 98 out of a possible 99 districts in Iowa, with Nikki Haley winning in Johson county by a single vote. While not a catastrophic result for the DeSantis campaign, it did signal that DeSantis had not differentiated himself enough from Trump – not appealing to a Trump voter base, who would rather vote for Trump himself, and being too close to Trump for more moderate supporters of Nikki Haley. This resulted in DeSantis withdrawing his campaign and endorsing Trump on the 21st of January, two days before the New Hampshire primary, which Trump won, though by not as great a majority as in Iowa, with Nikki Haley now as the only opposition candidate winning 43.2% to Trump’s 54.3%.

While this does signal the end of the DeSantis campaign in 2024, it is unlikely that this is the end for Ron DeSantis’ presidential aspirations. DeSantis might have more success following a second Trump term, when he is firmly out of the race, giving DeSantis more political space, as well as the ability to bill himself as Trump’s natural successor.

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