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Ron DeSantis: Keys to understanding the GOP presidential candidate

The governor of Florida gained notoriety during the Covid-19 pandemic and now he’s looking to get to the White House. Here’s what you need to know about him

Republican presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis, participates during the fourth Republican candidates' U.S. presidential debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign at the University of Alabama.
Republican presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis, participates during the fourth Republican candidates' U.S. presidential debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign at the University of Alabama.BRIAN SNYDER (REUTERS)
Alonso Martínez

Ron DeSantis has become a leading figure in the conservative movement in the U.S. in the last few years. He was re-elected as governor of Florida last year by the largest margin in the state in 40 years, with 19%, according to Politico, and since he assumed office, more than 155,000 people have registered as Republicans in the state. As his presidential campaign continues, he is seen by some as an alternative to Donald Trump as a GOP candidate, however, as the election dates comes closer, his road may find more obstacles. Here are some key facts to know more about the politician.

DeSantis went to Yale University, where he studied History and captained the varsity baseball team. He graduated in 2001. After graduating, he briefly worked as a teacher at Darlington school, a private boarding school in Rome, Georgia. DeSantis later attended Harvard Law School and graduated in 2005 with cum laude honors.

In the Navy

While studying, DeSantis earned a commission in the U.S. navy as a judge advocate general’s corps (JAGs) officer. In 2006, he was stationed at the detention center in Guantánamo Bay. According to a report by Al Jazeera, a former Guantánamo detainee, Mansoor Adayfi, claims that DeSantis was present while he was being force-fed after being on hunger strike. DeSantis denies the allegations.

In 2007, he was deployed to Iraq, where he served as a legal adviser to Seal Team One. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Meritorious Service and the Iraq Campaign Medal.

Congress

In 2012, DeSantis ran for congress and defeated six candidates for Florida’s 6th congressional district. He was reelected in 2014 and 2016. During his tenure, he supported budget cuts to social security and Medicare and, in 2013, voted on a proposal that aimed to raise the social security retirement age to 70. He also voted against Hurricane Sandy aid, and against a new version of the Violence Against Women Act. He also opposed gun control and was a critic of President Obama’s immigration policies. In 2015 he co-founded the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, which had the goal of shifting Republican leadership and policies farther to the right.

Governor of Florida

In 2018, DeSantis launched his candidacy for the elections for governor of Florida, which he won. Although his margin of victory over Democrat Andrew Gillum was minimal, he claimed that his election was “the most consequential in the history” of the state. During the beginning of his tenure, he focused on improving his image with “nonwhite voters, independents, suburban voters and young people”, said Matt Gaetz to Time magazine.

DeSantis gained national notoriety during the Covid-19 crisis, in which he opposed lockdowns and mask mandates, and also spread vaccine disinformation. In 2021 he said without scientific evidence that Florida’s first responders “have had Covid and have recovered, so they have strong protection.” In 2023 he announced a proposal to permanently ban any Covid mandates in his state. On his website, he is credited with “saving livelihoods from job-killing lockdowns and vaccine mandates.”

“Woke culture”

DeSantis is also against “woke” culture. He famously said that “Florida is where ‘woke’ goes to die” and he has signed into law several bills that have been condemned as violations of individual freedoms, especially against the LGBTQ+ community and other minorities. In 2022, he approved the Parental Rights in Education Act, more commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which was controversial for prohibiting public schools from having discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. DeSantis also banned African American studies from Florida’s high schools, stating that the subject “lacks educational value,” and has plans to block critical race theory programs on state colleges, and others on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Disney feud

The “Don’t Say Gay” bill started a feud with Disney — one of Florida’s biggest employers — after the company opposed the ban. DeSantis asked the state’s legislature to end the special self-governance privileges granted to Walt Disney World and its theme parks in Florida and signed a law to strip Disney of those special privileges. He later showed interest in gaining more control over Disney’s special district board. On February 10, 2023, Florida senators approved a bill that gives the governor control over the board. However, the new board didn’t have the ability to govern because of changes made by the board before the law was signed by DeSantis. On April 26, Disney sued DeSantis, claiming the governor violated its free speech rights by punishing it for expressing opposition to his political actions.

Abortion and immigration

DeSantis has also been described as “pro-life.” He signed a bill approving a six-week abortion ban in Florida, which has been criticized by abortion rights advocates, who as a response launched an initiative to ask voters in Florida to allow abortions up to 24 weeks. DeSantis has also been criticized by anti-gun organizations, as he recently enacted a law that allows Florida residents to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.

In 2022, DeSantis transported undocumented immigrants who had arrived in Florida to other states. He has been critical of President Joe Biden’s immigration policy and his administration has presented legal challenges against it. Planes with migrants arrived in Massachusetts, New York and California.

Donald Trump

His relationship with Donald Trump began in 2012, after Trump wrote a tweet praising Ron DeSantis. Although, according to a former staffer, DeSantis mocked him and “thought he was nuts,” he sought Trump’s support when he ran for Governor of Florida in 2018, after he launched his presidential campaign. DeSantis appeared regularly on Fox News supporting and defending him, which resulted in Trump endorsing his candidacy.

However, during their recent campaigns, their relationship has changed as Trump is undermining DeSantis’ political appeal. He has publicly given him negative nicknames (like “Meatball Ron,” “Rob” or “Ron DeSanctimonious”), has questioned his loyalty and has even questioned his sexuality. DeSantis has defended himself by criticizing Trump’s stand on abortion and some of his legal woes.

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