Florida governor Ron DeSantis, his wife Casey, and their children at an election-night party after DeSantis won his race for reelection in Florida, Tuesday, November 8, 2022 (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell).

The 2024 Republican nominating contest has all but taken its final form. Former President Donald Trump is the front-runner, while Florida governor Ron DeSantis far outpaces the rest of the pack and seems to be his only serious GOP opponent in a race that, for those who dread Trump’s potential return, seems disturbingly reminiscent of 2016.

DeSantis rose to national prominence in Trump’s shadow and, famously, with Trump’s crucial endorsement in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary. So far he has refused to directly attack the party’s undisputed leader, but he has also struggled to draw meaningful contrasts with the former president. His argument seems to be that he agrees with a lot of Trump’s policies, but Trump’s administration missed opportunities to exert maximum conservative influence on policy, governance, and society. DeSantis’s record in Florida proves that he can attack the Left, disdain the media, and trigger the libs all while, unlike Trump, delivering big conservative policy wins with impressive discipline and precision.

It seems unlikely to work. If, after formally entering the race, DeSantis had unveiled a more impressive array of endorsements, raised more money than he has, or increased his standing in polls, it might vindicate the Trump-but-more-disciplined strategy. None of those things has happened. But, while no votes will be cast for more than six months, DeSantis could offer a contrast less obvious than his age or efficiency, but far more personal: his family.

Casey DeSantis, known by insiders to be the governor’s closest political confidant, could be a potent campaigner in her own right. A much discussed Politico article in May depicted the governor’s wife as both his greatest asset and his greatest liability. And while some sources describe her as vengeful, echoing her husband’s tendency toward obstinacy, Casey could be what a lot of Republican primary voters are looking for.

After all, the GOP has made a self-conscious decision at least since 1992 to portray itself as the party of family values. Yet since the Clinton years, there has not been a foil. There are no children in the Biden White House. The Obamas’ stable, loving marriage yielded no fruitful lines of attack. The Bush twins were in college by the time George W. was elected president in 2000. Though the elder President Bush and GOP nominees Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney all extolled the virtues of family life, they had only truly embodied it in their earlier years, coming across as more grandfatherly while on the national stage. And Trump exudes indicted mob-boss vibes far more than warm domesticity. DeSantis may have none of the charm of John F. Kennedy, whose young family captivated the nation in the early 1960s. But Republicans have not yet had their JFK.

And still “family” continues to dominate the Republican Party’s ethos, messaging, and, it hopes, its policies. It’s not just about removing “objectionable” books from school libraries. The governor seems genuinely interested in appealing to parents trying to raise children in a chaotic, fast-changing world that they fear, maybe with reason, is controlled largely by distant elite institutions hostile to their values. The DeSantises somehow embody both the viral videos of dads and especially moms screaming at local school board meetings about “cultural Marxism,” and the benign, if idealized, image of quiet, private family life.

With a primary electorate composed of fewer status-anxious social climbers and more aggrieved, culturally Christian suburbanites, other parts of DeSantis’s biography no longer resonate. He can boast that he survived Yale and Harvard Law without becoming indoctrinated by progressives and that he served in the navy before the military succumbed to wokeness. But proximity to elite institutions is now a net negative with most of the party base.

While no votes will be cast for more than six months, DeSantis could offer a contrast less obvious than his age or efficiency, but far more personal: his family.

So why not draw a contrast with Trump using his family?

In 2016, Republicans bought into the faux glamor of the Trump clan, the naked aspiration and tacky display of wealth papering over a brokenness that turned out to be more relatable to ordinary Americans than many supposed: adultery, divorce, children by multiple women, a complicated step-family. But as 2024 approaches, the Trump offspring are either boring, unappealing, or disengaged (daughter Ivanka has explicitly ruled out a role in her father’s campaign). While ardent MAGA dead-enders might still line up to hear them speak, no one will be clamoring to see Trump’s over-privileged kids at county fairs in Iowa and New Hampshire. Meanwhile, the third Mrs. Trump—who as first lady often acted as if she were being held hostage—has almost completely disappeared from her husband’s public life.

By contrast, Ron and Casey DeSantis’s children—Madison (six), Mason (five), and Mamie (three), are adorable. Casey DeSantis’s style decisions often seem to deliberately echo those of Jacqueline Kennedy, while her husband lately appears to be sporting a fitter, more youthful look. This is the closest the Republican Party has come to producing a JFK-esque first family. It may hold some appeal to older voters who remember that era—as well as younger ones raising children they hope might be more like Ron and Casey than Donald and Melania.

In June, the DeSantis children accompanied their parents on weekend campaign trips to both Iowa and Nevada. Though wrangling three young kids, Casey nevertheless impressed, perhaps enough to keep stories of the governor’s awkwardness or aloofness at bay. Debbie Walsh of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics recently told The Hill that first-ladies-to-be often fill a retail politics role. “They’re, in a way, humanizing their spouse and filling in some of the ways that they may not be as skilled or adept.”

One of Florida’s indispensable political observers, Peter Schorsch, has suggested that Casey and the children could be incorporated into the campaign to greater effect: The “only path to saving this campaign is more bio, more Casey, more kids, more Florida economy; ‘Florida was opened on Date X and Disney sucks’ just ain’t working.” Commenting on DeSantis’s odd decision to launch his campaign in a virtual Twitter forum with Elon Musk, Schorsch offered the contrast of a launch more positively covered by the media: a scripted event at a Little League field in his hometown of Dunedin, Florida, with Casey and the children at his side.

In any event, before DeSantis draws a contrast between himself and Joe Biden, he will have to sell a vision to Republican primary voters who, for now, remain sufficiently enamored with Trump to make his own campaign a long-shot (see recent polls). The fact that DeSantis is not under federal indictment should speak for itself. But Republicans hardly see that as determinative. Trump grossly personifies the gulf between rhetoric and reality in the GOP’s ethos of traditional values. DeSantis will need to exploit that, perhaps even tempting Trump into attacks that will backfire.

Ron DeSantis has enough humility to know that his personality is not his greatest asset, and enough of a sense of decency not to use his family as a political weapon. But if this campaign remains too timid to attack Trump, “more bio, more Casey, more kids” might be the only option.

Jacob Lupfer is a political strategist and writer in Jacksonville, Florida.

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