From the Magazine

Ron DeSantis: The Making and Remaking (and Remaking) of a MAGA Heir

The Florida governor is the Fox-loving, lib-owning successor-in-waiting to Donald Trump’s cult of personality. But for all DeSantis’s bona fides and rocketing national profile, doubts about his own persona (“calculated,” “aloof,” “cold-blooded”) persist. Is it any wonder he and the former president are already locked in a 2024 cold war?
Image may contain Tie Accessories Accessory Human Person Suit Coat Clothing Overcoat Apparel and Ron DeSantis
Ron DeSantis’s growing political power flows from the fact that he is equally popular with the donor class and a GOP base that has otherwise shown utmost fealty to Donald Trump.CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES.

On the afternoon of August 19, several hundred conservative activists streamed into the ballroom at the Wyndham Grand hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. The grassroots event was billed as a “Unite and Win” rally for Doug Mastriano, the Donald Trump–backed Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate who was campaigning on Trump’s big lie, that Democrats stole the 2020 election. But Mastriano was only the warm-up act for the headliner, who had drawn me and members of the national press corps to Pennsylvania: Ron DeSantis.

The first-term Florida governor strutted onstage in a boxy suit and red tie, flinging white “Ron DeSantis” baseball caps into the sea of unmasked faces. The sound system blasted “Sweet Florida,” a country tribute anthem the Lynyrd Skynyrd–adjacent band Van Zant wrote for him. The music wrapped and the crowd quieted. DeSantis gripped the lectern. He offered cursory praise for Mastriano and then uncorked a grievance-fueled stump speech that sounded like it had been written by AI plugged into Fox News. In DeSantis’s telling, the honest people of Florida were besieged by a vast array of liberal scourges: big tech, IRS agents, George Soros, the Biden administration, the corporate media, illegal immigrants, Anthony Fauci, police defunders, Disney, China, communism, cancel culture, critical race theory, and woke gender ideology. Only Ron DeSantis was brave enough to confront these malign forces.

“I’ll tell you this. The state of Florida is where woke goes to die!” he vowed, to thunderous applause.

DeSantis’s appearance in the Keystone State made headlines not for what he said but for what he didn’t: anything nice about Donald Trump. The omission was one of the many signs that the 44-year-old is preparing a run for president in 2024. In February, Rupert Murdoch–owned HarperCollins signed DeSantis to a lucrative book deal, which the governor could use to publish his national platform next year. This summer, DeSantis campaigned for candidates in two more key swing states—Arizona and Ohio—and has amassed a sizable war chest. According to disclosures, DeSantis has raised a record-breaking $172 million since August 2019. His Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, has raised just $15.3 million. DeSantis has burnished his national profile by granting frequent interviews to Fox News. According to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters, DeSantis made more than 200 appearances since 2017 on the network. “Ron has done a fantastic job courting Fox talent. It’s a big deal to him,” a former DeSantis adviser told me. The mainstream media gets no such love. The organizers of DeSantis’s Pennsylvania speech required reporters to submit clips of previous articles ostensibly to vet them, though this took on a more authoritarian tone given the two candidates’ open wars with the mainstream press.

Of course, any path to the 2024 GOP nomination almost certainly runs through Trump. According to two sources briefed on Trump’s plans, the former president considered announcing he was running over the July Fourth holiday but decided to wait. According to a source, Trump told advisers he worried he could be damaged politically if Republicans underperform in the midterms. “He’d rather blame Mitch McConnell for a loss than himself,” a Republican briefed on Trump’s thinking told me. Discussions in Trumpworld about a campaign announcement were active as this article went to press. Which means the DeSantis-Trump rivalry will remain the most closely watched story line in Republican politics heading into the 2024 GOP primary. In July, a New York Times/Siena College poll found more than half of GOP voters would vote for someone other than Trump in 2024. A University of North Florida poll conducted from August 8 through August 12 showed DeSantis beating Trump in a 2024 primary 47 percent to 45 percent.

DeSantis’s political power flows from the fact that he is equally popular with the donor class and a GOP base that has otherwise shown utmost fealty to Trump. Billionaires like Citadel founder Ken Griffin and real estate mogul and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross love DeSantis’s elite credentials—Yale, Harvard, the Navy—and his deregulatory zeal. He’s Trump “without the insanity and the tweets at three in the morning,” one top GOP donor told me.

“DeSantis has caught a moment where he’s a stark contrast to Trump’s crazy governing style, and he’s doing it from a MAGA state,” said longtime Republican strategist Scott Reed. “He’s got two of the best assets: He can raise money and he has a message.” MAGA voters love that DeSantis has made owning the libs and attacking the media raisons d’être of his governorship. (DeSantis declined to comment for this story.)

So far, the DeSantis-Trump smackdown has been unfolding off camera. But it likely won’t stay that way. DeSantis in private trashes Trump. “He calls him a TV personality and a moron who has no business running for president,” a former DeSantis staffer said. DeSantis tells donors that, if he takes on Trump, he would launch a full frontal attack on his record and competence, according to a GOP source briefed on the conversations. “DeSantis says the only way to beat Trump is to attack him head-on. He says he would turn to Trump during a debate and say, ‘Why didn’t you fire Fauci? You said you would build the wall, but there is no wall. Why is that?’ ”

Trump, meanwhile, vents about DeSantis constantly, according to people who speak with him. “Trump says he’s overrated, disloyal, and a know-nothing,” a Trump friend told me. Trump’s animus is fueled by his (not incorrect) belief that he put DeSantis in the governor’s mansion. In conversations, Trump reminds people that then congressman DeSantis was losing by double digits during the 2018 gubernatorial primary until Trump backed him. Sources said it galls Trump that DeSantis hasn’t acknowledged the boost Trump provided, aside from a cursory acknowledgement in his victory speech. “Trump tells people, ‘I made Ron,’ ” a prominent Republican said. “Trump says that about a lot of people. But in this case it’s actually true.”

It’s not just Trump that DeSantis has alienated. “The biggest complaint you hear about DeSantis is that he never says thank you,” a veteran GOP strategist said. “People host events where donors give him enormous sums of money, and he never says thank you.” While reporting this profile, more than a dozen GOP donors, elected officials, and former DeSantis staffers predicted that DeSantis’s combative temperament would be a serious liability if exposed to the white-hot glare of a presidential campaign. People describe DeSantis’s personality as a mix of extreme arrogance and painful awkwardness. “He’s missing the sociability gene,” a prominent Republican said, relaying an oft-stated critique. “He doesn’t do the warm and fuzzies well. I was at a fundraiser in DC where he was like two hours late. Everyone was like, What the fuck?” recalled a GOP strategist.

DeSantis’s offices have earned a reputation as very unhappy places to work. “When you work for Ron, he makes you feel like you’re just lucky to be there,” a former gubernatorial aide said. “I once had to drive him to the airport. We got stuck in traffic for an hour, and he didn’t say a word,” a former congressional staffer told me. “I describe him as having the personality of a piece of paper.” Last year, Politico reported ex-DeSantis staffers had formed a “support group” to commiserate over their bruising experiences. “He’s a terrible bully,” a past adviser said.

The Herculean job of smoothing DeSantis’s rough edges and repairing relationships falls to one person: his wife, Casey. A former local newscaster, Casey is by far DeSantis’s closest confidant and adviser, multiple sources said. “The only person he listens to is Casey,” a former congressional staffer said. DeSantis consults her on everything from hiring decisions and media appearances to policy positions and wardrobe choices. She’s been known to write thank-you cards and make phone calls on his behalf. “She is his emotional tuning fork,” a former congressional staffer said. Several sources compared her influence to that of the most famous Republican political spouse in recent memory: Nancy Reagan. But no one would mistake Ron DeSantis for Ronald Reagan, the former actor with an innate sense of his audience. Which means DeSantis’s political future hinges on the following question: Can he lead the Trump cult of personality with no personality?

“Trump tells people, ‘I made Ron,’” a prominent Republican said. “Trump says that about a lot of people. But in this case it’s actually true.”BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES.

Over the past two years, DeSantis turned Florida into the crucible of the culture wars. His governing philosophy wasn’t about a particular set of policies or making voters’ lives better. It was about winning. And in a post-Trump GOP, the measure of winning is whether Democrats and the media are outraged. He banned mask and vaccine mandates during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic. He signed the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law that barred teachers from mentioning sexual orientation in elementary schools. (DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw tweeted that Democrats who opposed the legislation were “groomers.”) When Disney, under pressure from its LGBTQ+ employees, lobbied against the law, DeSantis stripped the company of long-standing tax breaks. He recently suspended an elected state prosecutor who said he wouldn’t criminalize abortion. DeSantis summed up his record to the crowd in Pittsburgh: “We didn’t just sit idly by hoping that issues didn’t come on our desk. We went on offense!”

It’s surprising DeSantis has become Trump’s heir apparent because their backgrounds are so divergent. DeSantis grew up middle class in the Tampa suburb of Dunedin. His mother, Karen, worked as a nurse, and his father, Ron, installed Nielsen television boxes. Trump was an unruly real estate scion shipped off to military school at 13 by his father; DeSantis was an academic star and baseball phenom—he pitched and played third base on the Dunedin team that made it to the Little League World Series in 1991. Trump came to politics late in life; DeSantis harbored presidential ambitions from an early age. But DeSantis and Trump share a core quality that propelled them through their careers: They’re both outsiders with a chip on their shoulder.

DeSantis enrolled at Yale in the fall of 1997. He majored in history, captained the baseball team, and pledged the then jock fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon, whose alumni include both president Bushes and Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. Classmates remembered DeSantis—who went by the nickname “R.D.”—as intensely ambitious and careful. “He was aloof,” a frat brother told me. “He wasn’t the guy in there doing the hazing. He would be like, ‘You pledges suck!’ Then he would be off on his own. He was smart enough to protect his image.” Even those who disliked DeSantis respected his intellect. “He’s a calculated, cold-blooded dude, but he’s a very smart guy,” the frat brother said.

DeSantis graduated with honors and enrolled at Harvard Law School. A friend told The New Yorker that DeSantis was inspired to join the Navy during law school after watching the film A Few Good Men, in which Tom Cruise plays a crusading lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. DeSantis graduated in 2005 and became a JAG. He worked with al-Qaida detainees at Guantanamo Bay and earned a Bronze Star serving as a lawyer with Navy SEALs in Iraq. Back Stateside, DeSantis was stationed in Mayport, Florida, near Jacksonville. He continued to attract a reputation for being hyperaggressive and standoffish. Several former JAG officers I spoke to recalled DeSantis having a zero-sum game approach to his career.

In the winter of 2010, DeSantis took a job at a Jacksonville law firm. Around this time, his bachelor life came to an end. While playing a round of golf at the University of North Florida’s course, DeSantis struck up a conversation with a petite woman with dark hair that gave her a slight resemblance to Anne Hathaway. A news anchor for the Jacksonville station WJXT, Casey Black was socially ambitious and politically conservative. “I remember I once said [to a colleague], ‘Casey wants to be a senator’s wife.’ And he said, ‘No, she fully intends on being a president’s wife,’ ” a former WJXT staffer recalled. Dan Brown, a past arts editor of the Jacksonville alternative weekly, remembered being shocked by Casey’s partisanship when he appeared on her show. While he discussed upcoming concert listings in the area, she ripped the paper in two because she didn’t like its headline about Republicans. “I was there to pitch a metal band, and she ripped up my paper onscreen. I was flustered,” Brown told me. “I remember she looked at the paper and said, ‘What do you call this?’ I said something like, ‘It’s freedom of the press, sister.” According to Brown, Casey’s producer called and apologized profusely.


DeSantis and Casey were married in September 2010. That November, the Tea Party wave, whipped up by Fox News, swept the country. Republicans won a net 63 seats in Congress—the biggest national partisan swing since 1948. In 2012, DeSantis ran for Florida’s Sixth Congressional District. Casey was instrumental to the campaign. According to a source, Casey capitalized on her local celebrity to introduce DeSantis to power brokers in north Florida. “She squired him around to all the powers that be,” the source said. DeSantis’s politics at the time leaned libertarian—he cared about small government, balanced budgets, and the Constitution. “Ron was obsessed with James Madison. We’d have to write a statement and he’d say, ‘I want to see a quote from James Madison!’ ” a former staffer recalled. But DeSantis also harbored the reactionary streak that now dominates the Republican Party. The thesis of his 2011 book, Dreams From Our Founding Fathers—a rebuke of Barack Obama’s best-selling memoir Dreams From My Father—argued that Obama’s entire agenda was inimical to the Constitution.

DeSantis won the seat, and Casey became a de facto member of his staff. “She was looped in on every email and calendar invite. If Casey said jump, we would pull out the trampoline,” recalled a former congressional staffer. At least once, a staffer didn’t even meet the congressman before starting. “Casey interviewed me over the phone. I met Ron on my first day. It was weird,” one former staffer recalled. Casey’s biggest influence was using her skills as a TV anchor to burnish DeSantis’s media image. “We had to buy his own earpiece and mic she wanted. She bought him these dumbass cowboy boots because she thought it was part of the image. She made sure we picked the right ties,” the former staffer said. A then WJXT colleague noted that Casey gave DeSantis training on the station’s teleprompter.

DeSantis’s focus on television was prescient. “Ron was obsessed with Fox. That’s how he got on Trump’s radar,” a former adviser said. Multiple Republicans who interacted with DeSantis told me DeSantis began tailoring his policies to appeal to Fox viewers. “His first question was always, ‘How will that play on Fox?’ If you give an opinion he doesn’t like, he says, ‘I don’t think that will play well on Fox,’ ” a prominent Republican said. “Fox was on in the office 24/7. Ron made it abundantly clear he would only do Fox,” a former staffer remembered. “Getting Ron booked on Hannity was a high priority,” another former DeSantis staffer said. According to a source, DeSantis texts with Hannity and Fox host Laura Ingraham.

In 2015, DeSantis was among a group of nine Republican House members who founded the hard-right Freedom Caucus. He courted the group’s then chairman, Ohio congressman Jim Jordan. “Jim would call Ron from across the room, and Ron would go running over,” the former DeSantis staffer recalled. But DeSantis was dismissive of his peers. “Ron didn’t respect Mark Meadows. I could see it in the way they interacted,” a former staffer said. “Ron hated Kevin McCarthy. Same with Boehner. He thought he was smarter than them,” a former staffer said. DeSantis was particularly turned off by social conservatives like then Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz. He also “thought the Freedom Caucus guys were all nuts,” a former staffer recalled. “Ron had a Do Not Disturb sign and he’d put it on his door anytime Chaffetz was coming by the office,” another staffer said. A onetime staffer told me the sign, when hung, applied to all staff and visitors, save for Casey.

A former local newscaster, Casey DeSantis is by far her husband’s closest confidant and adviser—smoothing his rough edges and repairing relationships.RON SACHS/ABACA PRESS/ALAMY.

Like many elected Republicans, DeSantis was appalled when Trump ran for president. “Ron made more fun of Donald Trump than anyone I know,” one of the former DeSantis staffers told me. “He thought Trump was fucking nuts,” said another. Two staffers remembered DeSantis was particularly shocked by Trump’s appearance at the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Washington in December 2015. “This room negotiates…perhaps more than any room I’ve spoken to, maybe more,” Trump told the audience. “Ron came back to the office and said, ‘I can’t believe Trump said that!’ Then we pulled up old SNL videos of Trump doing Domino’s pizza commercials and stood around the computer making fun of Trump for 30 minutes.”

DeSantis pivoted after the 2016 election. He hung out at Trump’s Washington hotel, pushed a bill to defund the Mueller investigation, and shilled on Fox News. “I liked him because he was out there defending me very strongly on the Mueller hoax,” Trump told me in an interview last year. In November 2017, DeSantis earned an invitation to fly with Trump on Air Force One to a rally in Pensacola, Florida. DeSantis’s congressional staff lamented his transformation. “Ron is one of the smartest people I’ve come in contact with. He had such potential, but he became nothing but a Trump suck-up. It’s really sad,” a former staffer told me. “Ron is an intellectual. And then there’s this persona he’s a populist-like Trump figure, which is very clearly crafted,” another said.

DeSantis’s MAGA makeover paid off when he ran for governor in 2018. During the GOP primary, Trump gave DeSantis two endorsements and propelled DeSantis to close a 17-point deficit on the front-runner, the state’s moderate agriculture commissioner, Adam Putnam. “Ron went through the roof as soon as I endorsed him,” Trump said. A month before the primary, DeSantis aired a campaign ad that showed him reading Trump’s Art of the Deal to his infant son, Mason, and encouraging his toddler daughter, Madison, to build a wall with toy blocks. DeSantis beat Putnam by 20 points.

DeSantis yoked himself even tighter to Trump when he faced Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum in the general election. DeSantis’s campaign went sideways out of the gate when he told a Fox News interviewer, “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up” by electing Gillum, who would have become Florida’s first Black governor. DeSantis insisted the apparent racist dog whistle was unintentional and privately blamed his staff for failing to clean up the controversy. “He has a hard time taking responsibility for anything that goes wrong,” a member of the campaign said. A month before the election, polls were deadlocked. To right the ship, DeSantis hired Trump’s 2016 Florida campaign chief, Susie Wiles, to run his campaign. Meanwhile, a parade of MAGA royalty campaigned for DeSantis, who defeated Gillum by 30,000 votes. “Trump dragged Ron across the finish line,” a longtime Trump adviser told me.

A rift between the two men opened almost immediately. DeSantis seems to be making the political calculation that, whether Trump runs in 2024 or not, the 76-year-old former president has an expiration date. Trump’s list of legal and political liabilities continues to grow. During the week of August 8 alone, the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago to retrieve hundreds of government documents—more than 100 highly classified—Trump allegedly took from the White House; a Manhattan judge ordered Trump’s company to stand trial in October for criminal tax fraud; and New York attorney general Letitia James deposed Trump in her long-running investigation into his business practices.

The first flash point was a personal feud that exploded between DeSantis and Wiles. In September 2019, DeSantis went ballistic after the Tampa Bay Times published embarrassing fundraising memos that revealed his Wiles-led political action committee wanted to charge lobbyists $25,000 to play golf with the governor. Sources said Casey told DeSantis that Wiles couldn’t be trusted. Wiles denied being the source of the leak. DeSantis was unconvinced. According to a source, DeSantis leaned on Wiles’s business partner, Brian Ballard, to oust her from her lobbying firm. (Ballard has denied this.) DeSantis called Trump’s then campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and demanded that Trump’s reelection campaign exile Wiles. DeSantis also reportedly told donors not to give money to Trump’s 2020 convention then being prepped in Jacksonville because Wiles was involved in planning it. At one point, according to sources, Wiles was so distraught by DeSantis’s efforts to ruin her reputation that she hired a former FBI agent to give her a polygraph test so she could prove she wasn’t behind the fundraising memo leak. She tried to get a meeting with DeSantis to show him the results, but he refused to see her, a source said. “He’s scary,” said a former staffer.

At the same time, DeSantis was still extracting political favors from Trump. According to two sources, DeSantis announced publicly in the fall of 2019 that Trump would attend the Florida GOP’s annual statesman’s dinner before the White House had signed off on the invitation, which effectively forced Trump to appear. Not that DeSantis returned the favor. Throughout 2019, DeSantis turned down interview requests from Fox News in part, a source close to DeSantis said, because DeSantis didn’t want to defend Trump’s erratic behavior in office. According to Media Matters, DeSantis made just three Fox News appearances in all of 2019, down from 81 in 2018.

COVID-19 emboldened DeSantis to further challenge Trump, staking out ground on his right flank in his response to the pandemic: opening schools, banning local mask mandates, and barring employer-backed vaccine requirements. He attended a press conference with an anti-vaxxer who falsely claimed vaccines change your RNA and appointed vaccine skeptic Joseph Ladapo to be the state’s surgeon general. He bullied a group of high school students on camera to remove their masks during a press event. In December 2021, a crowd booed Trump during an onstage interview with Bill O’Reilly when Trump revealed he had gotten a booster shot. At a press conference a few weeks later, DeSantis declined to say if he’d received one because he didn’t want it “to be a weapon for people to use.” Trump made a veiled attack on DeSantis during an interview with One America News when he said politicians who refuse to disclose their vaccine status are “gutless.”


Bucking public health orthodoxy turned DeSantis into a folk hero among his base. One true believer was Christina Pushaw, a 30-year-old staffer at Charles Koch’s Washington, DC, nonprofit Stand Together. On March 19, 2021, Pushaw sent a mash note to DeSantis’s press secretary asking for a job, wanting, she wrote, to fight against “pervasive…false narratives” and prevent the “devastation caused by socialism…from happening in our country,” according to the Tampa Bay Times, which obtained a copy of the email.

Pushaw had already shown she could troll for DeSantis. A month earlier, she published an article on the conservative news site Human Events that defended DeSantis’s COVID policies and savaged the media’s coverage of Rebekah Jones, a Florida health department employee who claimed she was fired for refusing to manipulate COVID data. (The state said Jones was let go for insubordination.) On Twitter, Pushaw took it to another level. According to screenshots, Pushaw’s since-deleted tweets called Jones an “unstable grifter,” a “pathological liar,” and “Fatal Attraction–level obsessed” with her. DeSantis liked what he saw. In May 2021, he hired Pushaw.

Since then, Pushaw has become the tip of the outrage spear in DeSantis’s media strategy. Her Twitter feed is laced with obscene allegations and incendiary language. During her first six weeks on the job, Pushaw fired off 3,800 tweets, the Tampa Bay Times reported. In August 2021, Twitter locked her account for 12 hours after she reportedly sent 200 tweets about an Associated Press reporter’s story during an 18-hour period that led to online threats. In January 2022, Pushaw suggested a small neo-Nazi rally in Orlando was a false flag by Democrats who wanted to damage DeSantis. She became best known when, during the debate over the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, she tweeted: “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.” Pushaw was nervous the tweet crossed a line with DeSantis, according to a source who spoke with her at the time. The governor was thrilled. In August, she moved to his reelection campaign to oversee its rapid response.

DeSantis’s anti-media views have been hardening for years. In October 2013, he gave an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. The six-minute segment was civil, “but Ron didn’t like the way Jake conducted it,” a former staffer said. DeSantis stopped giving access to CNN. Since then, DeSantis has cocooned himself inside the right-wing media bubble. It’s a strategy that in large part assumes he doesn’t need to speak to independents or Democrats. In July, DeSantis headlined the Florida GOP’s “Sunshine Summit,” and the Florida GOP refused to grant access to reporters from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Politico, the Palm Beach Post, and the Miami Herald. “Look at what the corporate media does to advance these phony narratives,” DeSantis said in Pittsburgh. “They know Biden’s not doing a good job. So what do they try to do? They try to concoct a blizzard of lies to try to get people to not recognize the failures of his leadership. And they do it day after day. And they lie day after day.”


If current polls hold, DeSantis will secure a second term as governor. And then he faces the most consequential decision of his career: Should he run for president? And if he wins, what would a DeSantis administration look like?

DeSantis shares the Trump agenda. On immigration, he wants to wall off the southern border and deport undocumented immigrants. In a wanton act of political theater in September, DeSantis sent two planes of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. He’s talked about instituting strict voting ID laws that would disenfranchise underrepresented groups. On foreign policy, he advocates confronting China and Iran. He’s looked rather soft on Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. DeSantis signed a 15-week abortion ban and has opposed gender reassignment surgery for trans children. Like Trump, DeSantis harbors grudges and seeks revenge on enemies, real or perceived. DeSantis has a dark vision of the country. “[Democrats] consider us to be subjects to be ruled over. They don’t consider us to be citizens on equal footing with them. They think we should bow down to their ideology,” he said in Pittsburgh. DeSantis’s politics have become increasingly paranoid, people close to him said—as have his personal habits. According to two sources, DeSantis and his wife communicate in writing as little as possible. “They won’t text people. They don’t want a paper trail,” a prominent Republican said. DeSantis is also far more disciplined and hardworking than Trump, which means he could carry out policies Trump’s ever-chaotic White House didn’t have the wherewithal to achieve. In Florida, DeSantis has already used the power of the state to punish opponents.

Of course, DeSantis’s stardom could fade. The risks are considerable. According to one source, DeSantis has told people he’s worried about “peaking too soon.” Recent presidential cycles are filled with examples of governors who stormed onto the national stage and raised millions of dollars—Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Arkansas’s Mike Huckabee, Ohio’s John Kasich come to mind—only to see their stars fizzle before or during the primaries. DeSantis also understands that every politician has his or her window. Multiple Republicans said DeSantis is keenly aware that New Jersey governor Chris Christie should have run for president in 2012 when he was riding high on his handling of Hurricane Irene. (Christie waited and got mired in the Bridgegate scandal.) If DeSantis runs, it’s likely he won’t announce until well into 2023.

Then there’s the Trump factor. DeSantis is careful not to provoke Trump into open conflict while at the same time opening distance between them. Other Republican contenders have said publicly they won’t challenge Trump in a primary. DeSantis hasn’t. DeSantis has also refused to endorse Trump’s 2020 election lie, but, as I saw in Pittsburgh, he’s campaigned for candidates who do. According to a prominent Florida Republican, DeSantis is happy to let the January 6 Committee damage Trump for him. It’s an open question how the visual of DeSantis standing next to Trump on a debate stage would play on television. DeSantis is several inches shorter and has a nasal voice, which could leave him looking diminished.

“He’s like a mini-Trump,” another Trump adviser said. It was not a compliment.

DeSantis’s biggest liability is probably himself. It’s hard to see how he would perform in early primary-season states like Iowa and New Hampshire that reward retail politicians who connect with voters on the ground. “Can a guy who doesn’t have any time for the rituals and practices of politics—the backslapping, handshaking, how are the kids?—succeed?” asked a longtime Trump adviser. “When you have a CNN embed with you videoing you every day meeting voters, then we see who you really are,” said another Republican.

DeSantis has flashed his notorious temper in front of donors. In December 2021, DeSantis had a mini-meltdown when he was interviewed onstage by billionaire investor Charles Schwab during a fundraiser at The Breakers in Palm Beach. According to an attendee, DeSantis monopolized the discussion until a visibly frustrated Schwab interjected. “You don’t get to ask the questions and give the answers,” Schwab said. DeSantis looked enraged. After the interview, DeSantis left the stage without shaking Schwab’s hand. “This was in front of donors paying $50,000,” the attendee said. Last February, DeSantis annoyed donors at a fundraiser at the JW Marriott in Washington. “He was onstage and said, ‘I’m the reason why people move to Florida,’ ” an attendee recalled. Arizona governor Doug Ducey leaned over and whispered to the attendee, “I’ve had enough of this guy.” (Ducey did not respond to a request for comment.)

There’s also the danger that DeSantis’s history of burning through staff would unravel a presidential campaign. In DeSantis’s world, the only constants are Ron and Casey. “They use people like toilet paper,” a top GOP strategist says.

Maybe DeSantis’s unlikability won’t matter. Trump, after all, demonstrated that open hostility and a bully posture are assets in the modern GOP. But if DeSantis stumbles, many Republicans will break out the popcorn.

“DeSantis is like Andrew Cuomo,” a longtime Trump adviser said. “He ruled by fear. He kept everyone off-balance. But the moment he slipped, he’d made many, many enemies. Ron has made a lot of enemies.”