“Three, two, one,” chanted the crowd as SpaceX’s Starship – the most powerful rocket ever built – prepared for lift-off from the launchpad in south Texas on 20 April. The engines ignited. The rocket began its slow ascent through the thick clouds of smoke and dust. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s owner, watched from the flight operations centre known as Star Command. But then the booster rocket failed to separate. The spacecraft began to spin. “This does not appear to be a nominal situation,” commented a SpaceX engineer, moments before the rocket exploded.
Getting into orbit is challenging. This goes for presidential campaigns, too. As Starship’s remnants plummeted towards the Gulf of Mexico, another, slower implosion was taking place on the gulf’s eastern coast, where the Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s presumed presidential bid appeared to be coming apart. Though 44-year-old DeSantis has not yet publicly announced that he is running to be the Republican nominee for the presidency in 2024, he has privately told allies that he intends to do so. He is also doing everything that an aspiring candidate usually does. He has published a self-aggrandising memoir, begun touring early primary states and started raising money. He also embarked on a tour of US allies – with stops in Japan, Israel and the UK to meet with leaders and government ministers, including the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly – to boost his minimal foreign policy credentials.
Yet DeSantis’s early forays into national politics have fallen flat. The man who so recently looked like the great hope of the Republican Party, after his landslide re-election victory in Florida’s gubernatorial election in November, is floundering. The US polling website FiveThirtyEight showed DeSantis 25 points behind Donald Trump in national primary polls on 23 April.
More worrying for DeSantis is that Republican donors have voiced concerns about his electability following his decision to sign a ban on abortions after six weeks. “I have put myself on hold,” the billionaire Thomas Peterffy told the Financial Times when asked about previous plans to help fund DeSantis’s campaign. “Because of his stance on abortion and book banning… Myself, and a bunch of friends, are holding our powder dry.” Ken Langone, another billionaire investor, said that he would prefer to see DeSantis be a “little more conciliatory” on abortion legislation. DeSantis has also blundered on foreign policy, describing Russia’s war against Ukraine as a “territorial dispute”. He later claimed that his remarks had been “mischaracterised”.
DeSantis has pitched himself as a warrior in the fight against “woke ideology”, promising a cheering crowd after his November re-election victory: “Florida is where woke goes to die.” In practice, this has meant restricting access to books that offend some conservative groups in Florida’s public schools, including Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and prohibiting education on sexual orientation and gender identity. The latter, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by its opponents, began last year as a ban on classroom instruction for children from kindergarten to third grade (eight years old), but was expanded on 19 April to include all grades up to the final year of high school.
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Then there is the governor’s bewildering decision to pick a fight with Disney – one of the US’s most beloved cultural corporations and Florida’s largest employer. After the then CEO Bob Chapek spoke out against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in March 2022, DeSantis attempted to dissolve Disney’s special tax status, which was established in 1967 and lets the resort essentially function as its own county government. After DeSantis failed to do so, he signed a bill that would subject the company to more oversight through a state-appointed board. In response, the previous Disney-controlled board passed a development agreement that would limit the new board’s powers and retain the company’s control over any future Disney World construction. This move appeared to outflank DeSantis. “That’s not the guy I want sitting across from President Xi,” remarked the former New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
Since announcing his bid for re-election, Trump had struggled for months to land a meaningful blow on his presumed opponent. He had experimented with a variety of nicknames for the governor – Ron DeSanctimonious, Meatball Ron, and Tiny D – without much success, but he appears to have finally created one that might stick: Pudding Fingers.
Drawing inspiration from a Daily Beast report about DeSantis’ supposed messy eating habits, including one incident when he allegedly used his fingers to eat a chocolate pudding from a cup, a Trump-aligned campaign group launched an attack ad in April recreating the incident. As a DeSantis stand-in lovingly scoops chocolate gloop into his mouth, the narrator warns that he “loves sticking his fingers where they don’t belong” and claims that he wants to cut social security and medical benefits. But the message that stays with the viewers is how revolting – and weird – the whole incident is. DeSantis has denied the pudding incident, insisting he does not “remember ever doing that”.
The bigger problem for the Florida governor, along with the other would-be Republican candidates, is how to navigate the recent criminal charges against Trump, which have turbocharged the former president’s previously lacklustre campaign. After his arraignment on 4 April on 34 counts of falsifying business records, senior Republicans lined up to condemn the charges against him. Even DeSantis denounced the case against him as “un-American”. The challenge now is how to distance himself from Trump without alienating his supporters, whom he needs to win the Republican nomination.
Perhaps most critically, DeSantis’s initial attempts to position himself as “Trump without the chaos” have come across more as “Trump without the charisma”. He has struggled with basic retail politics, appearing aloof in interactions with voters in early primary states. “He doesn’t like talking to people, and it’s showing,” a DeSantis supporter confided to the Washington Post. Despite travelling to Washington DC on 18 April to meet House Republicans in the apparent hope of securing their endorsement for a presidential run, several announced on the eve of his visit that they were backing Trump instead. David Trott, a Republican congressman from Michigan, dismissed him as an “arrogant guy” who is “very focused on Ron DeSantis”.
It is still too early to disregard DeSantis. The first Republican primary is still more than eight months away, and Trump could yet face more criminal charges. If the former president’s prospects fade, DeSantis holds a commanding lead over the rest of the field. As Elon Musk explained after the fiery demise of his rocket, they had not expected to reach orbit – or even the upper atmosphere – on the first attempt. “Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months,” he said.
There is still time for Ron DeSantis to learn from his early mistakes and refine his pitch to the US electorate. But not much. In this respect, presidential politics can be less forgiving than space flight. If he does not turn this around soon, then the aspiring leader who was once dubbed “DeFuture” is in danger of becoming yesterday’s man.
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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age