Can Ron DeSantis Displace Donald Trump as the G.O.P.’s Combatant-in-Chief?

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Can Ron DeSantis Displace Donald Trump as the G.O.P.’s Combatant-in-Chief?

When I knocked, the Governor’s father, also named Ron, came to the door. He was dressed in a Florida State University T-shirt and shorts, and there was a day’s stubble on his face. “I’d rather not talk to you,” he said. “You might be a good guy, but, if I tell you something, somebody—maybe not you—will twist it around.” Then he stepped outside and started to talk. The F.S.U. T-shirt, he said, came from his daughter, Christina, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. “When my daughter graduated from F.S.U., I thought it was the last time I’d ever have to make the drive to Tallahassee—two hundred and thirty-one miles,” he said. In fact, his wife, Karen, who is a retired nurse, was in Tallahassee that day to visit their son at the governor’s mansion; Ron, Sr., had stayed home alone.

DeSantis told me that he’d brought his family to Dunedin from Jacksonville, where Ron was born, in 1978. He had a job with Nielsen, the television-ratings company. For years, he traversed neighborhoods, asking people if they would agree to have a Nielsen box attached to their television. “It’s incredible how many people would just let me into their houses, even though they didn’t know me,” he said. “I’d be there until eight o’clock installing the thing.”

I asked what Ron was like growing up. “He was stubborn,” DeSantis said. “If he set his mind to something, you couldn’t shake him.” DeSantis pointed into the street, where he and his son used to play catch; there were ball fields nearby, where he had coached Ron’s Little League teams. “I tried not to favor him, and Ron didn’t like that,” he said. Early on, his son had read “The Science of Hitting,” by Ted Williams, the baseball great, who advised young hitters to take care in choosing pitches to swing at. “I must have thrown a half million pitches to Ron, and I think he swung at about five hundred of them,” he said. “I wish he would have never read it.” In 1991, when DeSantis was twelve, his team made it to the Little League World Series.

The young DeSantis attended Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School and then Dunedin High, where he was a star outfielder. He was focussed and motivated, his father said, adding, “He didn’t get that from me.” DeSantis scored in the ninety-ninth percentile on his SAT and was accepted to Yale, his father said: “It’s still the thing I’m most proud of.” But he didn’t like to make too much of it. “Everybody wants to brag about their kids, and people ask me about Ron. I try to be modest.”

At Yale, DeSantis majored in history and played on the baseball team, in the outfield. In the Yale tradition, the team never had a winning season while DeSantis was there. (“Pretty sure we were the worst team in Division One,” one of his teammates told me.) In his senior year, he was among the best hitters, batting .336, and was elected captain. His former teammates’ recollections are sharply divided, but nearly everyone I spoke with remembered him as singularly focussed, with little time for parties or goofing off; he worked several jobs to help pay his tuition. “Ron was a bit of a loner, not a social butterfly,” Dave Fortenbaugh, a former teammate, told me. “He spent a lot of hours in the library.”

Some recalled that DeSantis was so intensely focussed that he wasn’t much of a teammate. “Ron is the most selfish person I have ever interacted with,” another teammate told me. “He has always loved embarrassing and humiliating people. I’m speaking for others—he was the biggest dick we knew.” But the same teammate praised DeSantis’s intellect. “This is the frustrating part. He’s so fucking smart and so creative,” he said. “You couldn’t even plagiarize off his work. He’d take some angle, and everyone knew there was only one person who could have done that.”

After graduating, with honors, DeSantis taught history for a year at the Darlington School, a private institution in Rome, Georgia, before enrolling at Harvard Law School; a friend told me that he’d been inspired by the movie “A Few Good Men.” In the film, Tom Cruise plays a judge advocate general—a Navy attorney—who defends marines accused of a deadly assault at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. With the war in Iraq still raging, DeSantis, too, became a judge advocate general. He was posted to Naval Station Mayport, near Jacksonville, and also to Guantánamo, where he dealt with detainees. A colleague who served with DeSantis remembered, “Ron was a voracious worker, and he worked at phenomenal speed. He was a superb writer, especially for his age.” Even then, his ambition seemed consuming. “Ron’s a user,” the former colleague told me. “If you had utility to him, he would be nice to you. If you didn’t, he wouldn’t give you the time of day.”

In 2007, DeSantis deployed to Iraq as a lawyer for SEAL Team One, which was conducting operations in Ramadi. The SEALs have a reputation for being secretive and insular, but DeSantis enjoyed their company, his father told me: “He worked out with them.” DeSantis briefed the SEALs on rules of engagement—when they could shoot, how they should treat prisoners. “Of course we were worried about him,” his father said. “Ron told us he was just in one place, in Ramadi, but afterwards we found out that he’d been moving all around the area, from city to city, with the SEALs. It really upset my wife.”

Back in Florida, DeSantis started dating Casey Black, a television news reporter for WJXT, in Jacksonville; in 2010, they were married. Not long afterward, a seat opened up in the Sixth Congressional District, south of Jacksonville Beach. In 2012, DeSantis entered the race.

DeSantis campaigned on smaller government and lower taxes, arguing to overturn Obamacare and eliminate entire federal agencies. “My mission was largely to stop Barack Obama,” he told a crowd later. As the campaign got under way, DeSantis published a book titled “Dreams from Our Founding Fathers”—a swipe at the President’s memoir. For a campaign book, it’s unusually wide-ranging, with carefully argued sections on the Federalist Papers, the Progressive Era, and the leftist theoretician Saul Alinsky. The basic contention, though, would have been familiar to followers of Barry Goldwater: “The conceit that underlies many of Obama’s policies and his allies is that virtually any issue, from the waistline of children to the temperature of the earth, is ripe for intervention of expert (and progressive) central planners.” DeSantis’s book was largely ignored—he once told a crowd that it was “read by about a dozen people”—but his message resonated in the Sixth District, one of the most conservative in the state. He won the election, and was reëlected twice by wide margins.

In Congress, an institution where seniority matters, DeSantis had little time to make a substantive impact. Theatrically, though, he created an impression. He helped found the Freedom Caucus, an invitation-only club of hard-right conservatives, and he was among the Republicans who took the government to the brink of default by refusing to raise the national-debt ceiling. Many people worried that the move would harm the government’s credit rating and the country’s economy. Even John Boehner, the House Speaker, opposed it. In response, DeSantis joined a group of Republican congressmen who threatened to remove Boehner from his post. “There were governing conservatives and shutdown conservatives,” David Jolly, a congressman from Florida who served with DeSantis, told me. “Ron was a shutdown conservative.”

Many of DeSantis’s colleagues remember him as remote. A former member of the Florida delegation told me, “He always had his earbuds in, to keep people away.” Others, like Jolly, had a more temperate view. “He’s a little reclusive, a bit of an odd duck,” Jolly said, “but he’s just incredibly disciplined.”

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