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The Ron Revival

donald trump ron desantis
DeSantis is after a relationship with the potential future president, a reputational reboot within his party, and the possibility of a primetime speaking slot at the convention. Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
May 23, 2024

Last month, at the Shell Bay Club in Miami, Ron DeSantis finally made amends with Donald Trump. The meeting, brokered by their mutual donor and New York real estate tycoon Steve Witkoff, was reciprocally beneficial and grudgingly accepted. Trump, according to my sources, was told that the détente was required for Witkoff to drop even more money into his campaign. He was also assured that the Florida governor would commit to raising money for him.  

DeSantis, who insisted on a neutral site, was after something even more valuable: a relationship with the potential future president, a reputational reboot within his party, and the possibility of a primetime speaking slot at the convention—itself a way to paper over the ignominy of a disastrous year. “Witkoff was like, ‘You have to make nice with Ron,’” said a source close to the donor. “Witkoff believes DeSantis is the future, and [DeSantis] knows he needs Trump’s endorsement in his future. There’s a repair job and it’s donor-driven. The donors are playing the long game.” 

DeSantis, it appears, is playing the long game, too. After issuing a hostage statement Trump endorsement in January, DeSantis went into hibernation long enough to ensure that the former president got his various nickname jabs out of his system. Now he’s re-emerged, leaning into his familiar if contrived posture as a far-right culture warrior provocateur. This week, DeSantis banned rainbow lights on Florida bridges ahead of Gay Pride Month and deleted the phrase “climate change” from Florida law. The legislation also bans offshore wind turbines, protects endangered gas stoves, frees state agencies from the tyranny of fuel-efficient vehicles, and so on. Pure MAGA red meat.

More ambitiously, DeSantis is also strategically preparing to throw the weight of his remaining political capital behind Florida’s highly controversial six-week abortion ban, which he signed into law in April, and now faces a ballot initiative in November that would amend the state constitution to guarantee broader abortion access. It is, of course, a high-risk strategy, considering that nearly 60 percent of registered voters in Florida support the ballot measure—the same margin that would be needed for it to pass into law. It also positions DeSantis to the right of Trump, a flanking maneuver that failed him during the Republican primary. Trump, who said he’s leaving abortion up to the states, initially called the Florida ban “too harsh.” 

So far, DeSantis has been relatively quiet about the looming abortion battle. But sources tell me that he’s building out a campaign to defeat the effort and will spend as much as $50 million on it. “He wants to be able to make the point that in his state the ballot initiative failed, unlike Ohio or Kansas,” said a source familiar with the governor’s thinking. “He wants to be able to say that Florida is redder than Texas.” 

’28 Maneuvering

Abortion bans remain unpopular nationally, even among Republican voters. But DeSantis is said to believe that the presidential primary landscape will be much different in 2028 without Trump on the ballot. If he can come out of the gate with something like a six-week abortion ban on his résumé, it might position him to win, once again, the key endorsement of evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats in Iowa, setting him up favorably in early state voting. 

Vander Plaats doesn’t seem to totally disagree. “Sometimes the right thing to do matches up with good politics,” he told me. “I have not been coaching him or advising. I did discuss it early on in regards to the referendum. I know that his heart will be to defeat it. As far as using it to launch his 2028 campaign, he’s got a lot of things that he’s done right. This would be another one in a long list of things.”

Just as importantly, perhaps, it’s an opportunity for DeSantis to raise heaps of cash that he can sock away for 2028. He still has control over a massive budget as governor, which allows him to fly around the country for fundraisers and media appearances, and provides him the capability of raising unlimited sums of cash through Florida political committees. State law also allows for the balance to be transferred to super PACs. Last year, of course, DeSantis transferred $82.5 million from his 2022 reelection campaign to support his presidential run. 

“It’s not so much that his star has fallen, his fave/unfavorable is the same as it’s always been,” said Republican David Jolly, the former Florida congressman. “It’s that he’s become irrelevant to the national conversation. He needs a high-intensity issue, and there’s none more intense than abortion.”

Convention Wisdom

As a result of the Shell Bay Club truce, I’m told, DeSantis agreed to raise money for Trump, and Trump said he would consider giving DeSantis a coveted primetime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. Typically, these spots are reserved for surrogates who can energize a specific constituency, like Black or Hispanic voters, although they may also be offered to runners-up as a sign of party unity. Getting that nod would be a major coup for DeSantis, especially given the beef between Trump’s team and his own. Trump campaign advisor Susie Wiles, who defected from DeSantis, really doesn’t care for her former boss.

DeSantis, for one, is keeping up his end of the bargain while managing his own relationships. According to a seemingly strategically placed leak, DeSantis hosted a fundraiser for the pro-Trump super PAC Right for America, which is supported by his ally and donor Ike Perlmutter, the Disney scourge. (These DeSantis donors were wary of putting money into Trump’s primary super PAC, MAGA Inc., out of concern that the entity is paying for many of his legal bills.) Sealing the deal, Trump called in to the event and made a point to announce over speakerphone, “Ron, I love that you’re back.” DeSantis is also slated to host fundraisers for Trump in South Florida and Texas. “There’s at least a détente,” remarked a Florida insider.  “Everyone will tell you that the only thing Trump cares about is winning. He’s willing to put some things aside.” 

Meanwhile, DeSantis is keeping the engine warm for his future political revival. He hosted a donor thank-you event in Fort Lauderdale two weeks ago. Indeed, there are lots of DeSantis donors who have little interest in donating to Trump, but they do business in Florida and want to know that DeSantis can work with him. “He’s been cognizant of mining his donor network,” noted the Florida insider. However, bigger names like Ken Griffin are unlikely to give to Trump even at DeSantis’s behest. 

As for the prospect that Casey DeSantis, the media-savvy first lady who polls high in ranked-choice voting scenarios, will run for governor when her husband’s term is up in 2026, Florida insiders tell me that she’s still “traumatized” by attacks on the campaign trail—at least for the moment. Not so long ago, Casey was the object of endless speculation that she might continue the DeSantis political dynasty in Florida, perhaps as a sort of placeholder until the couple move into the White House in 2028. “She took it on the chin like DeSantis,” said one Florida pollster. “Her agenda is tied to Ron’s culture wars, but she’s polling ahead of Matt Gaetz, Wilton Simpson, and Ashley Moody by double digits. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s a candidate one day. She wins a four- or five-way race where you don’t have to have 50 percent.” 

There are hard choices to be made for the DeSantii, for whom being in office has become a lifestyle. DeSantis had a net worth of $300,000 when he was elected governor; now he has a $300,000 golf simulator in the governor’s mansion and a lot more money in the bank, thanks to sales of his bestselling 2023 autobiography. He uses the state-owned, $15 million Cessna Citation so often that local reporters have dubbed it “Air DeSantis.” With friends like these, a trip through the private sector will serve him well.