The Florida governor is appealing to the GOP’s right flank as he tries to peel support away from Donald Trump. But many are still drawn to the former president, who leads by a wide margin in the polls
June 25, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
DeSantis supporters depart a May 31 event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after remarks by the Republican governor of Florida. (Nicole Neri for The Washington Post)Comment
GREENVILLE, S.C. — Standing outside an auditoriumwhere Ron DeSantis drew more than 1,500 people this month, Dolores McManus explained why she’s supporting him for president — bringing up a TikTok video making the rounds on conservative media that shows a “fairy godmother’s apprentice” wearing a purple gown, blue eye shadow and a mustache andwelcoming a young girl to Disneyland. A Fox News host dubbed the employee “Cinderfella.”
“It’s horrible,” said McManus, 76, who fretted about the shifting ideas of gender awaiting her great-grandchildren. “It’s not the world that I grew up in.” She liked that DeSantis took aim at Disney after it opposed the limits he enacted on discussions of gender and sexual orientation in schools and argued he’s better suited than Donald Trump — whom she calls “too crass” — to carry a conservative agenda forward.
“We need somebody that is a little more tame but yet is willing to go and do what’s right for the country,” McManus said, whether or not “other people think it’s wrong.”
As he seeks the Republican nomination, DeSantis has the support of more than 1 in 5 GOP voters, polls show. Many are longtime Trump supporters who have cheered the polarizing fights the Florida governor has waged over pandemic restrictions, schools and gender and now view him as a more effective champion for the battles to come, according to several dozen interviews at DeSantis events and other venues around the country. As a result, DeSantis is running ahead of every other non-Trump candidate in the GOP field.
But DeSantis has yet to bounce back from a double-digit drop in the polls this spring, and Trump has averaged more than 50 percent support in national polls of Republican voters since mid-May. The former president’s pull is clear even at DeSantis campaign stops, where some Republicans intrigued by the Florida governor were blunt about why they still find Trump more appealing — posing a stark challenge for DeSantis.
“I feel like, you know, he is more seasoned,” Anne Marie Lamb, 69, said of Trump at a recent DeSantis event in New Hampshire.“I feel like Trump, when he comes out and talks, I mean, where does that energy come from? You feel a little pumped after you listen to him.”
Voters lined up outside DeSantis’s recent stops sporting “Awake but not woke” pins, “FREEDOM” T-shirts and, in one case, an Army hat bearing the crossed-out words “critical race theory,” a reference to an academic framework that views racism as deeply embedded in U.S. institutions. These are some of the themes DeSantis and his allies are emphasizing as they try to make further inroads with Trump backers — the “culture fight of our time” playing out in classrooms, businesses and other arenas, as Kristin Davison, a top official at the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down put it. DeSantis is also preparing to roll out national policy proposals on the border, the economy, crime and other issues after initially focusing heavily on his record in Florida.
DeSantis’s self-described “war on woke” in his home state has included banning “diversity, equity and inclusion” programs at public colleges, barring gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers for minors, and rejecting an Advanced Placement African American history course over its coverage of topics such as “Black Queer Studies.” Trump has taken up similar issues in his campaign but has at times appeared taken aback at their potency.
“I’m talking about cutting taxes, people go like that,” he said at a recent speech in North Carolina, mimicking a dutiful clap. “I talk about transgender, everyone goes crazy! Who would have thought?”
Democrats and some civil rights advocates have long been troubled by the movement Trump has assembled with policies and rhetoric targeting minority groups such as Muslims and Mexican immigrants, and they are voicing similar concerns about the following DeSantis has built. Shevrin Jones, a Black Democrat who in 2020 became the first openly gay member of the Florida Senate, said DeSantis “has gotten his rise off of going after marginalized people and beating down on marginalized people.”
Shopping at a Walmart in Iowa, nurse Heather McLean noticed a reporter conducting interviews about DeSantis and approached with her own visceral reaction. “He’s a mini-Trump,” said McLean, 50, a Democrat who noted that she has a gay brother and transgender friends. She used to tell people that Trump’s policies “could hurt people I love.” Now she says the same about DeSantis.
Recent polling has shown DeSantis trailing Trump by far less with Republicans who have college degrees or higher incomes, while Trump remains especially dominant with self-identified “strong” Republicans and the working-class GOP voters he first energized in 2016. DeSantis has touted his nearly 20-point reelection win as evidence he can attract voters beyond the GOP’s base: He posted wide leads with independents and traditionally Democratic-leaning groups such as Hispanic voters and women.
But his immediate focus is on the Republican Party’s right flank. He has enacted some of the furthest-right legislation in the country on immigration, abortion and education in recent months and focused heavily on the issues that fire up voters likeMcManus.
Days after McManus cited the video of the fairy godmother’s assistant, the pro-DeSantis super PAC included it in a video accusing Disney of “forcing radical ideas on our children.” It asked on social media: “What did Donald Trump do about it?” The same clip also features in a seven-figure ad buy the PAC launched this month in Iowa and South Carolina.
‘I love the way he fights’
DeSantis voters say they are impressed by battles DeSantis has waged and the enemies he’s made — including the media, liberal governors and Disney. “He’s taken arrows and it doesn’t stop him from doing what I think is right,” said Daphne Maingot, 63, who is backing DeSantis and went to see him in Greenville.
Other voters still loyal to Trump were also drawn to DeSantis’s combative style. “I love the way he fights,” North Carolina physician Steve Hamstead said at his state’s GOP convention this month, where both Trump and DeSantis spoke.
He and his wife argued it just wasn’t DeSantis’s “turn” to be president with Trump in the running. But Hamstead conceded the governor’s fight with Disney “almost puts him at the level of Trump, the way Trump is not afraid of taking people on.”
While Republican rivals for the nomination have criticized DeSantis’s efforts to strip special privileges from Disney, saying it’s hostile to business, the issue is another reliable applause line at DeSantis events — where “DeSantisland” hats are now for sale. Attendees arrived with stories of “woke” entertainment that made them uncomfortable: One couple started monitoring what their children watched on Disney Plus and wondered why “Lightyear,” the Toy Story spinoff, had to feature a same-sex kiss.
In Gilbert, S.C., 23-year-old Heather Buzzo said she thinks it’s inappropriate for young kids to learn about transgender identities and supports DeSantis in part because of his approach to LGBTQ+ issues in schools.
“Hands off on our children,” her mother, Rachel Randolph, who also plans to vote for DeSantis, chimed in as they waited in line to hear from the governor. She recounted objecting to a graphic novel her son brought home from elementary school, “Drama,” which includes a gay character who, in a pinch, steps in for a female actor in a play and shares a kiss with a boy.
In Council Bluffs, Iowa, 29-year-old Geno Foral came away from another DeSantis event impressed with the governor’s discussion of gender identity and children and leaning strongly toward supporting him for president because of his stance on that issue as well as the coronavirus.
“I just would be scared to death if my daughter left for college and came back three months later, ‘Hey dad,’” he said, dropping his voice low to imitate a man.
Many DeSantis backers said their support began with his handling of the pandemic — a political awakening for some voters affected by shutdowns, suspicious of vaccines, and outraged by mask mandates in schools and other settings.
The pandemic “showed how much the government will control people if you let them,” said Amy Blankenburg, who supports DeSantis and wore a “Make America Florida” hat to his campaign kickoff outside Des Moines. She said DeSantis’s coronavirus response in the Sunshine State was “a beacon of hope” amid other states’ overreactions — a signal to the rest of the country that “you do not have to be afraid of this.”
While DeSantis initially ordered some shutdowns and capacity limits on businesses and schools to slow the virus’s spread, he lifted them sooner than many other governors and became a leading voice against mask and vaccine mandates. He also limited businesses, schools and local governments’ ability to impose their own mandates, drawing a torrent of criticism as Florida recorded more than 80,000 coronavirus-related deaths. DeSantis supporters said that took courage.
“We sometimes call it the ‘free state of Florida,’” said David Gooding, a retired judge from Jacksonville, Fla. “Because we were free to do what we thought best.”
DeSantis went further in the run-up to his presidential campaign, requesting that a grand jury investigate “wrongdoing” surrounding coronavirus vaccines he once promoted and holding an event featuring a doctor who has baselessly claimed the shots caused the death of Elvis Presley’s daughter. At his Iowa campaign launch, DeSantis promised a “reckoning” for the federal government’s coronavirus response.
The next day, at a barn in a small town an hour away, the crowd was muted as DeSantis discussed “election integrity,” an issue that Trump elevated with his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Then DeSantis turned to covid-19 and Anthony S. Fauci, the former White House coronavirus adviser reviled on the right for advocating business closures and mandates. The crowd erupted in some of its loudest applause yet.
‘We have to get more serious’
Voters backing DeSantistend to have a common refrain: “I like Trump, but …”
“DeSantis would be a fresher … version of Trump?” Steve Van Veen, 50, said while out shopping at a Walmart in Pella, Iowa. He paused for the right words. “Just kind of a lower key.”
“I think Trump is more about chaos, pointing at the media and screaming and everyone is laughing,” said Connor Barry, a Bedford, N.H., voter in his early 30s. “I think we have to get more serious.”
In a briefing last month to donors, DeSantis adviser Ryan Tyson quoted a focus group participant to explain the mind-set of voters already backing DeSantis: “He’s Donald Trump without the crazy.”
For Rock Valley, Iowa, resident Ron De Weerd, their differences come down to personality. DeSantis “doesn’t have the same kind of charisma,” he said. “I think he’s got a different kind of approach that people have to find a way to love or find a way to trust.”
Still, De Weerd is committed to DeSantis. He said one of the governor’s interviews with Newsmax convinced him that DeSantis has a plan — and he liked that the governor didn’t resort to name-calling and even gave Trump credit for his past work.
In interviews with The Washington Post, many DeSantis supporters didn’t show the singular devotion to one man that Trump has cultivated. Some spoke of DeSantis primarily as the most viable alternative.
“I’m tired of Trump’s rhetoric — otherwise it would be him,” Van Veen said to explain his support for DeSantis.
Trump’s federal indictment this month deepened some voters’ concerns about his ability to win the general election. But polling suggests that, for now, it’s done little to change the minds of the majority of Republicans still backing Trump. Margeaux Holland, 63, who attended the North Carolina GOP convention just after Trump was charged, suggested the former president’s enemies are trying to “wear down” his supporters.
“They can’t wear down Trump,” she said.
Hoping to win over more Trump backers, DeSantis and his allies are questioning Trump’s ability to win back the White House, arguing he’s less conservative on key issues and asking why Trump didn’t fire Fauci, his former coronavirus adviser, or finish the wall he promised at the southern border.
Yet many of the Trump voters who are open to DeSantis found reasons to dismiss the criticisms.
“If he would have had more time, I believe he would have done it,” South Carolina voter Claris Hamlin said, speaking about Trump’s border wall proposal, as she stopped for food in a Greenville, S.C., mall.
She liked DeSantis’s moves to restrict discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida schools, because, she says, the Bible teaches that homosexuality is wrong.
“I told my daughter the other day — I just jump from one to the other,” Hamlin said of Trump and DeSantis. “I’m listening.”
Sitting at a picnic table under a pavilion at a DeSantis stop in Salem, N.H., two couples said they liked how DeSantis handled the pandemic in Florida, where they have second homes. “And he’s cute,” said Anne Marie Lamb, 69, one of several voters who compared DeSantis and his young family to the Kennedys.
But, “I still like Trump. I do,” she said.
“I think we’re undecided,” said her friend Karen Chandler, 69.
“We just wish he’d waited another four years,” Anne Marie’s husband, Jim, said of DeSantis as the other three nodded their heads.
Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.