If Republican primary politics are all about reaching out to the conservative base, then on paper, Jacksonville-area U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis should be a strong contender as the GOP Senate nominee in 2016.
The Sunshine State native (who grew up in the quaint Pinellas County town of Dunedin) has only been in elected office for three years, having won a congressional seat in Florida’s 6th District in 2012, but his profile has been growing statewide since he became the first Republican to announce his candidacy for the Senate in early May. A trifecta of endorsements from the Tea Party wing of the GOP immediately followed, with the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks all giving him their blessings.
His resume includes a distinguished military background that began at the U.S. Naval Reserve Center in 2004 while still a student at Harvard Law School. He was later deployed to Iraq in 2007 as the legal adviser to the SEAL Commander in Fallujah.
In an interview conducted with Florida Politics in a hotel room in Tampa during the Republican Party of Florida’s summer quarterly meeting in late August, DeSantis began with an anecdote regarding his Ivy League academic background, which, in addition to Harvard Law, includes his undergrad years at another iconic emblem of the East Coast Establishment, Yale.
“I like to remind Republican primary audiences that I’m one of the few whose gotten through both and come out more conservative than I went in,” he says, smiling broadly.
DeSantis was a standout baseball player at Dunedin High School, where he dreamed of being recruited by one of the big three universities in Florida — UF, FSU or Miami. Instead, it was Harvard, Yale and Princeton that came knocking. He says he was unformed politically upon graduating from high school, but his worldview was affected by what he calls flat-out the anti-American sentiment he encountered while at Yale.
“Yale’s motto was, ‘For God, For Country, and for Yale,'” he recounts. “I’m a Catholic kid growing up there. Not only were they not for God, they were actively hostile toward any religion. They were not only not for country, they banned ROTC! So that was a little bit much for me.”
Born in Jacksonville (where his father worked for Nielsen), his family moved to Orlando for a few years before relocating to Dunedin when he was 6. That became home until he moved away for college. After graduating from Harvard, he was ordered to serve as a military prosecutor at the Naval Station Mayport, which is where he met his wife, Casey, a former reporter and now television host.
Sitting down for our interview, the soon-to-be 37-year-old’s thoughts and words flow freely regardless of the topic, and he emits a warm presence, something that he wasn’t able to duplicate when speaking of some of the same subjects in two subsequent speeches at the RPOF event.
Like many in the GOP, DeSantis gets the dissatisfaction that Republican voters are feeling toward Washington these days in the summer of Donald Trump. He says it’s been a colossal disappointment that a Republican House and Republican Senate haven’t passed more bills, even if it simply means daring President Obama to pull out his veto pen.
“There are millions of Republican voters throughout the country who are demoralized, depressed and dejected about what’s happened since we took over the Senate in November. And that’s just a fact,” he declares. “We’re in a representative business. I mean, the people who walk streets for us, who knock on doors, who donate money, who do all that stuff they do … you need to represent when you get up there, basically (do) what you told them you’d do, and if the gap gets big, well, those folks are either going to stop supporting you or look elsewhere or what not, and so I think that there’s been a lot of disappointment.”
DeSantis says that with Republicans needing 60 votes to pass bills in the Senate, it’s simply not as easy to pass legislation as he and Republican everywhere would hope could be the case since they control Congress.
“I’m realistic. I understand separation of powers, checks and balances. Obama still has the veto pen, but I really did think that we would be able to put a lot of legislation on his desk. I thought we’d be forcing a lot of vetoes and that hasn’t happened, and so I sit here today thinking that we could be doing a lot more.”
He said he’s doing his part, reciting pieces of legislation he’s offered or supported since his election nearly three years ago: term-limits, a balanced budget amendment, eliminating congressional pensions. “I mean, let’s show the American people that we’re not a separate, elite governing class, that we’re a servant class, and that we’re actually listening to them. I think that if we did that, the beauty of that if you started doing that, the voters listen to you on a whole host of different issues.
DeSantis is a hawk on immigration, yet he’s not about to go down the path of some GOP presidential candidates have in trying make the argument that the 14th Amendment can be overturned in the courts.
“I think someone like (Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia will just apply the language as written and he’ll say, ‘look, people who come legally on a Green Card are subject to American jurisdiction, but even if they come illegally, they’re still subject to jurisdiction,” he says. “You commit a crime, you can absolutely be prosecuted.” He says the best way to solve the issue of birthright citizenship with undocumented immigrants is to stop them from crossing the border.
When asked if after having sufficient resources provided to seal the border he could be open to a system of at least shielding the millions of undocumented people from deportation, he says abruptly that he’s not supportive of any “shortcut” to citizenship. “The fact of the matter is, we have a huge backlog of legal immigrants, four million people. Those are folks that deserve priority.”
DeSantis can get particularly wonky talking about one of his strengths, foreign policy. He believes that the American public does support an aggressive stance in confronting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but says that President Obama simply hasn’t made the case by declaring he wants to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.
“I’m a Reagan Republican when it comes to defense, but when the Syria issue came up a couple of years ago, I actually did not support that because I’m sitting in these briefings, and they (the Obama administration) could not articulate what it is they’re exactly going to do. So my view is that when you use force, you gotta have a clearly defined objective, you gotta have to deploy the means to achieve the objective, and I do think you do need to have the public behind you. We’re a representative government, and when the polls were like 80-20, it’s tough.”
And even though like every other Republican DeSantis faults Obama for threatening Syrian leader Bashar al- Assad if he dared used chemical weapons (as he was alleged to have done two years ago), he believes it was the right thing not to intervene there. “Authorizing something that wasn’t very well thought out where Kerry is saying we’re going to use an unbelievably small amount of force, I want to see us using force overwhelmingly to achieve a message, so I think he was dinged on both sides. But you do not lay down red lines that you’re not willing to keep. “
At the RPOF meeting last week in Tampa, one of DeSantis’ Senate opponents, Todd Wilcox, said that there was very little distance between all four of the candidates in terms of policy. One difference is that on Cuba, David Jolly has voted in support of liberalizing the travel restrictions. DeSantis says he disagrees, saying increased travel benefits the Castro regime, its military and intelligence services, and not the Cuban people. And he believes the new rapprochement with the Communist island is ultimately futile.
“The bottom line is that the president took them off the state- sponsored terrorism list. They still have Joanne Chesimard; she’s a fugitive, she’s a cop killer, they have not returned her [Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, was convicted in the 1973 shooting death of a New Jersey state trooper. She was serving a life sentence in 1979 when she busted out of prison and ended up in Cuba]. They have not done anything for us so on balance I think the policy is counterproductive and I don’t think we should be helping the Castro brothers solidify their power. They belong in a prison cell not as leaders of a country.”
In addition to Wilcox and Jolly, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, running hard as a Florida vs. Washington Republican, is a DeSantis opponent in the Republican primary election next August.