Taking on the elite becomes go-to brand for DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) loves to despise “the elite.”
In speeches, remarks at news conferences and even in an op-ed he penned in The Wall Street Journal last year, his message has been the same: “Don’t trust the elites.”
“We rejected the elites and we were right,” the governor said to a crowd attending the National Conservatism Conference in September, referring to how he bucked the system and railed against everyone from public health experts to government officials during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even Republicans acknowledge that the 44-year-old DeSantis — who attended Yale University and Harvard Law School and served half a dozen years as a congressman — could be seen as a member of the elite itself.
Yet like other Republicans — including former President Trump — rallying against the elite has become a major part of his political brand, his strategy and his blueprint for others in his party.
“All of this anti-elitist stuff … he’s the first person to tell you where he went to school,” one top Republican strategist said of DeSantis’s tack. “It’s the performance art, when you know better. When you’re really smart and you act dumb.“
“He’s playing a role, but it’s a role the base says it wants,” the strategist added.
The strategist and other political observers say the approach is working for DeSantis and parallels rhetoric used by Trump, who could end up being his rival for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
Trump is already in the race, and many Republicans see DeSantis as the strongest potential opponent against him in the primary.
The former president, a wealthy New Yorker who was born into a well-heeled family and spent much of his adult life living on Fifth Avenue, won the 2016 election as a champion for the everyman.
All that said, some Republicans say DeSantis’s story is quite a bit different from his would-be rival’s.
“He came from a working-class family and used baseball to get a scholarship to an Ivy League university,” said Republican strategist John Feehery, an opinion contributor for The Hill, said of DeSantis. “A true rags-to-riches story, which is incredibly powerful.”
“One of the truly exceptional things about America is you can work hard and no matter how rich or poor your family may be, you can possibly be president one day,” Feehery added.
Tobe Berkovitz, a professor emeritus at Boston University who worked as a political media consultant, noted that a number of previous presidents from both parties have elite status when it comes to where they were educated.
“Where did Obama go to college? Law school? Clinton?” he asked of the former Democratic presidents. “I rest DeSantis’s case.“
Obama went to Columbia University and then Harvard Law School. Clinton attended Georgetown University and later graduated from Yale Law School.
“It’s not your real background but how you portray yourself,” Berkovitz continued, adding that DeSantis can position himself as a “fighter for the ordinary families.”
That’s what DeSantis has sought to do during his time as governor, and he’s unapologetic to establishment-types who stand in his way.
Last year, for example, the governor pushed a controversial bill — later signed into law — that would regulate how businesses and classrooms handle discussions about critical race theory.
“Nobody wants this crap,” DeSantis said last year as he lobbied for the legislation. “This is an elite-driven phenomenon being driven by bureaucratic elites, elites in universities and elites in corporate America. And they’re trying to shove it down the throats of the American people. You’re not doing that in the state of Florida.”
DeSantis’s star is rising, political observers say. Last month, he was able to win reelection by a high margin — 20 points — over Democrat Charlie Crist.
Since then, polls have shown him closing the gap with Trump as the favored candidate for the GOP nomination in 2024.
A Club for Growth survey last month showed DeSantis beating the former president in several early primary states, including Iowa and New Hampshire.
“It seems like he’s figured out the secret sauce — at least for now,” a second Republican strategist acknowledged. “In politics, you need a strong message, and he has one. The us-against-the-world message is working well for him. The rest of our party still has to figure that out.”
Republicans have been doing some soul-searching on what went wrong for their party during the midterm elections. Asked this week for his thoughts, DeSantis pointed to a “huge underperformance” by Republicans across the country and said his state showed the party “how it’s done.”
“I think what we’ve done in Florida is we’ve shown that we’ve exercised leadership, we’ve not kowtowed, we’ve been willing to take on big interests … but producing results,” the governor said Thursday at a press conference in Miami. “And so that ends up attracting more people to want to be on your team.”