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.