“Ron turned it on,” recalled Davis, who said federal officials later apologized. He now wants DeSantis to run for president: “He didn’t have to do that for me. We don’t share the same voting record at all. But that’s Ron.»
Before DeSantis was a phenomenon governor and a potential top-tier presidential candidate in 2024, he spent six years as a quiet, often awkward lawmaker looking for a way to move up the political ladder. He was elected to the House in 2012 after embracing a populist swamp-draining agenda that would later become a centerpiece of Donald Trump’s presidential address.
While more than a dozen of his former House Republican colleagues described him in interviews as a young politician with untapped potential, they said “Ronny D,” as some called him, ultimately had to leave Washington to find his voice.
“As a legislator, you can lead on some things, but you follow through a lot,” the representative said. brad wenstrup (R-Ohio), who entered Congress with DeSantis. «He’s more executive-oriented, where you can lead a lot of things and do less follow-up.»
Now many of DeSantis’s former colleagues, surprised and impressed by his rise, want to help him return to Washington, this time as President Joe Biden’s successor. Several said in interviews that they are willing to help him win the nomination, if he only asks.
“They have my cell phone,” said former Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.). “If they want to use me for whatever they think I can help with, yes I definitely will… because he can beat Biden.”
The offer of help comes as DeSantis enters a critical stretch ahead of his long-awaited run for the White House. The 44-year-old governor, whose office declined to comment for this story, will spend the next month touring the country while overseeing a busy legislative session in Tallahassee that will deliver a laundry list of conservative priorities to his desk.
A ‘smart evil’ loner
A lawyer who graduated from Yale University and Harvard Law School and served as a Navy JAG, DeSantis eschewed the back-slapping, gregarious habits most politicians adopt to climb the political ladder.
A former colleague remembers taking a long car ride with him and talking to his wife, Casey, the whole time because DeSantis barely said two words. Another said DeSantis made it clear that he viewed Washington skeptically and made no effort to build relationships there.
More than anything, DeSantis, a former minor league champion and captain of the Yale baseball team, was probably best known in the House for standing out on the Republicans’ congressional baseball team.
«We’re these fat old men with bad backs trying to get the ball out of the infield, and he’d just take this beautiful little swing and go over the fence, and we’d all go crazy,» Rooney said. .
Like many fellow conservative hardliners, DeSantis was sleeping in his office while in Washington and would return home to Florida as soon as he cast his last vote of the week. He rarely spoke to reporters or stood up at Republican conference meetings.
But when he opened his mouth, the people listened. Two Republican lawmakers separately described him as a «smart baddie.» And on issues that concerned him — from US policy toward Cuba and Venezuela to military and veterans issues — he was adamant. He used his mallet as chairman of the Oversight subcommittee, for example, push through a bill matching vets fighting PTSD with service dogs, one that was finally signed into law in 2021.
“There are some members that no matter what the fight is, they want to be in the middle of it,” said former manager Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.). Not DeSantis: “He was very measured in the issues that he decided to defend and the things that he decided to weigh in on. But when he weighed, he moved the needle ”.
And he would inevitably be prepared, his colleagues recalled. Rep. ken dollar (R-Colo.) recalled a case in which a group of members took a train ride to New York, and DeSantis spent the entire trip talking to donors and working on a speech while his colleagues chatted. And when lawmakers joked around during House votes about football or other frivolities, DeSantis was often in the coat room, his head bent over a stack of papers.
«He’s not the first to crack a joke, gregarious and outgoing, but he showed up and worked hard,» said former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
Even before Trump appeared on the scene, a populist streak pulsed through DeSantis, one that he frequently trained on his fellow lawmakers.
He criticized members for exempting themselves from Affordable Care Act mandates and introduced legislation that eliminates pensions and pay increases for legislators, as well as their ability to use taxpayer dollars to settle lawsuits. for sexual harassment. He also backed a constitutional amendment limiting lawmakers to serve more than three teams, and championed legislation that bars former lawmakers and their staff from lobbying.
There was also a lot of conservative red meat in his portfolio: he openly called for the US to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, mildly criticizing then-President Trump for taking too long to do so. He voted for GOP budgets that slashed Medicare and Social Security, and signed a controversial national sales tax proposal. And he led a campaign to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen amid allegations that the agency had targeted conservative Tea Party groups, even as Republican leaders balked at the idea.
But the lack of action on right-wing priorities frustrated DeSantis, and friends say he was especially put off by the internal politicking required to amass power at the GOP conference. He found common cause with a group of misfit conservatives in the House, including representatives. jim jordan (R-Ohio), Mark Meadows (RN.C.) and Mick Mulvaney (RS.C.), who would start the House Freedom Caucus and repeatedly thwart the party’s leadership.
“To change the current order of things first requires reaching a position with sufficient authority to do so. But the problem is that ascending to that position, whether it be committee chair or party leadership, is generally only possible once the member becomes part of the swamp,» DeSantis would later write in his memoirs, » The Courage to Be Free”. adding, «I often felt like I was spinning my wheels in the House.»
For a while, DeSantis tried to strike a balance. He joined the House GOP whip team, voted for John Boehner as speaker in 2015 despite growing discontent among conservatives and, according to three people who were among several former friends and acquaintances who knew DeSantis during his time in the House, it was kept out of Liberty. Caucus riot to oust Boehner later that year.
But that did not last. When Republican leaders moved to impose discipline, insisting that he vote with them on all procedural matters, DeSantis walked out of the whip operation. And after Boehner quit, DeSantis, at the time, wasn’t a fan of kevin mccarthy‘s — worked with Salmon to try to recruit Ben Carson, the renowned surgeon and future HUD secretary, to run for speaker.
Throughout, DeSantis pushed his agenda primarily from the sidelines, avoiding the media and avoiding the bragging favored by some of his colleagues.
“He didn’t always stand up to make a quick comment, get in the press and impress somebody,” said former Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), who co-hosted one of DeSantis’s first fundraisers when he He ran for Congress for the first time.
That measured approach helped DeSantis maintain friendly relations with his colleagues, even as contempt for the Freedom Caucus grew rapidly among many Republicans. After Francis Rooney, a creature of the Republican establishment, failed to get a seat on the House Natural Resources Committee, DeSantis offered to use his seat on the panel to help advance his restoration bills. of the Everglades and other environmental issues.
Years later, after DeSantis was elected governor and Salmon called him for advice on his own gubernatorial run, he invited Salmon to Florida and then took him on a surprise golf outing with Trump, whose endorsement would be crucial in the race. .
Davis said he feels a sense of «protection» toward DeSantis because of the favor he did him during the closing fight nearly a decade ago. More recently, he took issue with reports that Republican donors complained that DeSantis isn’t giving them enough face time.
“Well cry me a fucking river,” Davis said, noting that Casey DeSantis recently battled breast cancer. «I know how hard it is to watch your wife go through it with little kids around who don’t understand.»
While some of DeSantis’s former colleagues are surprised by his rise as governor, and his newfound willingness to command attention, others have long recognized his ambition and cunning.
«Ron was very interested in the whole ‘inside baseball’ thing — who was running for what, who’s going to be in it, and what is the path to victory for certain people,» said Tom Rooney, who watched as DeSantis plotted his rise. he climbed the ladder, first considering a Senate run in 2016 before turning his sights to the governorship two years later.
«It always seemed to me that Ron knew exactly what he wanted and had a plan to get there and he was focused on that,» he added.
Today, DeSantis doesn’t keep in touch much with his former colleagues. Francis Rooney, who said he would consider him a «good friend» and hopes he will run for president, said he can be «cumbersome» to communicate with DeSantis. Ditto with the salmon.
But they hope that if he runs for president, he’ll come close.
“One by one, clear Trump’s watch,” Salmon said. “We have been looking again for a Ronald Reagan. … Ron is that guy.”