Ron DeSantis is in.
The two-term Florida governor officially filed the paperwork to run for president Wednesday, kicking off his much-anticipated showdown with Donald Trump — the man who helped make his political career but now wants to end it.
DeSantis plans to publicly announce his bid Wednesday evening. He will take the unconventional step of launching his campaign on Twitter in a conversation with Elon Musk. The billionaire tech mogul has amassed an intense conservative following since buying Twitter and transforming it into a social media platform more welcoming to right-wing voices — including those who were once banned for spreading disinformation.
The discussion will be moderated by David Sacks, a tech entrepreneur who is a Musk confidant and strong DeSantis supporter.
Musk’s involvement with DeSantis’ presidential launch was quietly negotiated for weeks by his inner circle of political advisers, and first reported by NBC News.
The DeSantis campaign hopes that the star power Musk offers will create a moment to alter trend lines that in recent months have seen Trump build an early advantage in key states across the country.
DeSantis' rise into national politics
Now that he is formally in the race, DeSantis supporters believe he will quickly be able to regain the energy he built up after his sweeping re-election victory in November.
DeSantis began to build a national following in 2020, with his largely hands-off approach to the Covid pandemic, and he continued his growth by putting Florida on the vanguard of the culture war fights that conservative base voters most intensely care about.
DeSantis signed several bills focused on cracking down on undocumented immigration, banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors, prohibiting higher education institutions from spending tax dollars on most diversity programs and, most notably, picking a fight with Disney, one of Florida’s biggest employers, over LGBTQ rights.
Those policies, which will make up the core of DeSantis’ primary platform, drew intense pushback from Democrats and a wide range of advocates, but were overwhelmingly popular with conservatives, many of whom started referring to DeSantis as “America’s Governor.” It’s that sort of momentum supporters think DeSantis will quickly regain now that he is officially in the race.
“He still has momentum from a historic re-election in Florida. Now that he is finally going to be in, it is going to be a reset for this whole campaign,” said Nick Ragone, a St. Louis-based Republican bundler who is raising money for DeSantis. “This is going to be a two-person race, and that’s great news for DeSantis. I think the GOP base is really excited to see him get in the race.”
DeSantis last week held a conference call with donors and top supporters to make his case for why he will beat Trump. The roughly 25-minute call, which was first reported by The New York Times, focused a lot on his conservative policy wins in Tallahassee since taking office.
“He talked a ton about what he got done and through the Legislature,” a Republican who was on the call told NBC News. “He touched on many things, but if you did a poll of what people remember from that call, it was his pitch about why Trump can’t win.”
Going up against Trump
There is little question that DeSantis’ entrance comes at a pivotal political moment.
For most of last year, DeSantis was neck and neck with Trump in public polling, but since that time, the former president has hit DeSantis with near daily attacks. In addition, MAGA Inc., a pro-Trump super PAC, has spent more than $15 million on television advertisements mostly attacking DeSantis, a huge sum for a candidate who has not yet formally been in the race. That one-two punch has tarnished some of DeSantis’ shine with the national conservative base.
The steady drumbeat has hurt DeSantis in most public polling and created a perception he is entering the presidential contest from a position of weakness.
Trump has long taken credit for the Florida governor’s ascent in national politics after his 2018 endorsement helped DeSantis beat a better-known and financed Republican opponent. Strains in the relationship emerged during and after Trump’s unsuccessful re-election campaign when DeSantis contrasted his less-restrictive management of the Covid pandemic with Trump’s approach. Although both favored lockdowns in the early stages, DeSantis moved to quickly reopen Florida and drew criticism for his opposition to mask mandates.
DeSantis also has not deeply indulged Trump’s debunked theories that the 2020 election was stolen from him, though he campaigned last year for several strident election-deniers.
Though Trump has used withering attacks to stake out his front-runner status, DeSantis does enter the race with some structural advantages.
Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC, has already raised more than $30 million and hired staff in key states to build a long-haul delegate approach to knocking off Trump. DeSantis himself has proven to be a powerful fundraiser, bringing in more than $200 million for his 2022 re-election campaign, the most by any governor in U.S. history. He has been a huge draw at Republican events across the country, and is preparing a show of force by gathering bundlers in Miami to start quickly raising money on the same day as his launch.
"We are going to be raising hard dollars for the campaign, that's the goal today. Not the super PAC stuff," Hal Lambert, who served on the Trump inaugural committee in 2016 but is now supporting DeSantis, told NBC News as he was driving to the Miami event.
Lambert said he met with DeSantis about a month ago, and switching to support him after being a major Trump donor was a "no-brainer."
"He played college baseball, served in the military, was stationed in Iraq, served in Congress, so he knows how D.C. works," he said. "And he just does not have the same baggage."
Early state connections
DeSantis has spent the first months of this year traveling across the country, ostensibly to promote a book and his “Florida Blueprint.” The trips also allowed him to forge connections with GOP activists in a combination of states that vote early in the primary process and states that send large slates of delegates to the nominating convention. Strong showings in early primary proving grounds such as Iowa and New Hampshire are likely to make or break DeSantis’ presidential ambitions.
“This go around, I think Iowa is so crucial. If the former president wins Iowa and wins big, no one is going to stop him for the nomination,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the socially conservative Family Leader, and an influential GOP Iowa operative. “Iowa might not always pick the primary winner, but it is crucial to narrowing the field.”
Vander Plaats, who says he remains friends with Trump but is looking for a new Republican standard-bearer, has met with DeSantis in Tallahassee and says he really likes the governor, but says he is also meeting with most other Republican candidates ahead of his organization’s mid-July presidential summit.
In New Hampshire, DeSantis was the keynote speaker at the party’s annual Amos Tuck dinner, and helped raise a record amount for the state party — almost 10 times as much as the dinner usually brings in. Of that, more than $130,000 was raised directly by DeSantis through his donor network, something that did not go unnoticed in the context of his forthcoming primary battle with Trump.
“In Trump’s seven years of being president and not being president, he raised zero dollars,” a veteran New Hampshire GOP operative said. “In one night, DeSantis got us $132,500. That is a guy who puts his money where his mouth is.”
But plenty of Republicans still aren’t sold on the idea that DeSantis is the one to take down Trump to go up against President Joe Biden, with at least seven other candidates vying for the GOP nomination and others likely to jump in.
The continued expansion of the field is seen as helpful to Trump, whose MAGA political base is likely to stick with him no matter what. As a result, the more candidates in the mix, the more DeSantis’ portion of the Republican primary electorate vote is chipped away. Trump has done nothing to downplay analysis that a big field is good for him. He has praised other GOP primary candidates, most recently welcoming the entrance of Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., earlier this week.
Other governors, including North Dakota’s Doug Burgum, New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu and Virginia’s Glen Youngkin have also signaled interest in running. Youngkin attracted attention last month when he received a $1 million contribution from billionaire GOP donor Thomas Peterffy, who just days before the contribution said he was reconsidering supporting DeSantis, Politico first reported.
“I think it is certainly out there he [Youngkin] has thought about it and people want him to run,” said a Virginia Republican operative with ties to Youngkin’s political operation. “I do not think DeSantis is the powerhouse he was made out to be, and as it becomes clear he is not going to run away with it as the alternative candidate to Trump, you’ll continue to see talk of the field expanding.”
MAGA Inc., the pro-Trump super PAC, has also directly made the connection that a growing pool of candidates is a sign of DeSantis’ inability to seal the deal as the top non-Trump candidate.
“Ron DeSantis’ failed shadow campaign has opened the floodgates for career politicians looking to seize an opportunity to raise their profile ahead of the 2028 race,” Taylor Budowich, CEO of the Trump-aligned MAGA Inc., said Friday in a response to Scott’s campaign filing. “Tim Scott’s entrance, and aggressive media purchase, doesn’t only kneecap DeSantis, but Scott sees the same thing as Youngkin, Sununu, Burgum, Christie and others: the path to second place is wide open.”