FLORIDA (AP) – After months of anticipation, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis formally entered the Republican presidential primary contest on Wednesday.
As of now, he is considered former President Donald Trump’s strongest GOP rival in the crowded 2024 contest, but many voters are only starting to get to know the 44-year-old governor.
Here are five things to know about DeSantis, the Republican Party’s newest presidential contender:
A Florida native with family roots in the Midwest, DeSantis was a standout baseball player in his younger years. He represented the Dunedin, Florida, squad in the 1991 Little League World Series before becoming the captain of Yale University’s team.
After a short stint teaching high school, he went on to Harvard Law School. He then became a Navy Judge Advocate General officer, a position that took him to Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
DeSantis ran for Congress in 2012, won his Orlando-area district and became a founding member of the far-right Freedom Caucus on Capitol Hill. Like many conservatives in Congress at that time, he pushed for changes to Medicare and Social Security, including one measure that would have raised the retirement age to 70.
He served in Congress for three terms before launching what was considered a long-shot bid for governor in 2018. He won that race by less than 1 percentage point before securing a dominant reelection last fall.
Perhaps more than any Republican official in the nation, DeSantis has fought for and enacted policies that enflame the nation’s cultural divisions. He calls it his war on “woke.”
He just concluded a legislative session that establishes him as perhaps the most aggressive and accomplished conservative governor in the country’s bitter culture wars
He signed and then expanded the Parental Rights in Education bill — known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans instruction or classroom discussion of LGBTQ issues in Florida public schools for all grades. He also signed a law that bans state and federal funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programs at state colleges and universities.
This spring, he signed a law banning abortions at six weeks, which is before most women realize they are pregnant. He single-handedly removed an elected prosecutor who pledged not to charge people under Florida’s new abortion restrictions or doctors who provide gender-affirming care.
DeSantis also enacted a law this spring allowing Florida residents to carry a concealed firearm without a permit. He pushed new measures that experts warn would weaken press freedoms. He also he took control of a liberal arts college that he believed was indoctrinating students with leftist ideology.
DeSantis is willing to fight anyone or anything that gets in his way.
There may be no better example than his feud with the entertainment giant Disney, one of his state’s largest employers.
The fight began last year after Disney, beset by significant pressure both internally and externally, publicly opposed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. In retaliation, DeSantis took over Disney World’s self-governing district through legislation passed by Florida lawmakers and appointed a new board of supervisors that would oversee municipal services for the sprawling theme parks and hotels.
DeSantis has threatened to build a state prison near park property.
The dispute has drawn condemnation from business leaders and his Republican opponents, who said the moves are at odds with small-government conservatism.
Disney has filed a lawsuit against the DeSantis administration, a legal battle likely to follow DeSantis through the 2024 presidential contest. Amid the fight, Disney announced last week that it was scrapping plans to build a new campus in central Florida that would have employed 2,000 people.
DeSantis’ allies claim than he is more electable than Trump in a general election.
Just six months ago, DeSantis won his Florida reelection by a stunning 19 percentage points — even as Republicans in other states struggled. His victory represented the largest margin of victory in any Florida governor’s race in decades. He even won Miami-Dade County, a longtime Democratic stronghold packed with voters of color.
Of course, it’s unclear whether that success would translate to the national stage. Voters often view elections for governor differently from those for federal office. Still, DeSantis’ team has signaled it will highlight electability in a clear contrast with Trump, who faces multiple legal threats and presided over Republican losses in three consecutive national elections.
DeSantis’ super political action committee recently distributed flyers to primary voters describing him this way: “A conservative leader who fights and wins.”
Still, there are questions about his ability to connect with both voters and party leaders on a personal level.
Largely for that reason, most of Florida’s Republican congressional delegation have already endorsed Trump over DeSantis. Numerous anecdotes have also emerged in recent weeks revealing the extent to which DeSantis has ignored fellow Republican officials in Florida and elsewhere throughout his political career.
He has also struggled to maintain close network of senior staff. To this day, his wife, former television news journalist Casey DeSantis, is considered his chief political adviser.
While courting voters, DeSantis also struggles at times to display the campaign-trail charisma and quick-on-your-feet thinking that often defines successful candidates at the national level. He has gone to great lengths to avoid unscripted public appearances and media scrutiny while governor, which is difficult, if not impossible, as a presidential contender.
There may be bad blood between DeSantis and Trump, but it wasn’t always that way.
DeSantis has acknowledged that he likely would not have become the Florida governor without Trump’s endorsement in 2018. DeSantis has also adopted Trump’s fiery personality, his populist policies and even some of his rhetoric and mannerisms.
But in recent months, Trump has has been almost singularly focused on undermining the Florida governor’s political appeal. That’s largely because Trump and his team believe that DeSantis may be his only legitimate threat for the Republican nomination.
From Trump’s perspective, nothing is off limits.
Trump has referred to DeSantis as “Ron DeSanctimonious” and “Meatball Ron,” among other derisive nicknames. During his rallies, Trump questions DeSantis’ loyalty. In paid ads and social media posts, Trump has also taken aim at DeSantis’ record on Social Security and Medicare.
He has even questioned DeSantis’ sexuality while sharing social media posts suggesting that DeSantis behaved inappropriately with underage students when he briefly taught high school in his early 20s.
DeSantis was slow to defend Trump after he was indicted earlier by New York prosecutors this spring. At the time, DeSantis said only that he didn’t know “what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.” More recently, he has gone after Trump’s record on abortion.