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Porn stars vs. parenthood: Ron DeSantis plays the family card against Trump

DeSantis is leaning into an image that projects wholesome family values to win over Iowa evangelicals who may be turned off by the drama around Trump.
Ron DeSantis with his wife Casey and children Madison, Mason and Mamie at an election night watch party in Tampa, Fla, on Nov. 8, 2022.
Ron DeSantis with his wife, Casey, and children, Madison, Mason and Mamie, at an election night watch party in Tampa, Fla., in November.Giorgio Viera / AFP - Getty Images file

SALIX, Iowa — It has become a bit. In these early days of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ bid for president, Casey DeSantis joins her husband onstage, and the stories start to roll. 

There’s the one about bottled water from the Sea of Galilee, preciously savored for the children’s baptisms, that’s accidentally tossed out by a housekeeper at the governor's residence. Then there are Casey’s attestations of mom-hood, battling permanent marker scrawls on furniture and dragging by day’s end, when her husband comes home from work and she hands over the three children.

The couple fires off all the indicators of wholesome family values to a conservative evangelical-heavy GOP audience. And even without mentioning Donald Trump's name, they set up an inescapable antithesis to the former president, who faces charges related to a porn star payoff and was found liable for sexual abuse and who, when he landed in Iowa on Thursday, wasn’t accompanied by his wife.  

The DeSantis team knows whom it’s playing to in Iowa and beyond. At a retreat for donors last week in Miami, campaign officials estimated that 65% of Iowa GOP caucusgoers are evangelical Christians. According to a person with knowledge of the DeSantis team’s early-state strategy, it's betting that that segment of the party is sick of the sexualized drama from a man also under investigation for classified documents seized from his sprawling Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago.

But breaking off conservative evangelical support from Trump is no easy feat, given that he is credited with having appointed three Supreme Court justices who eventually joined a conservative majority to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Nevertheless, the DeSantis team sees it as a necessary path to winning early states.

“Clearly, that is an opening for us with evangelicals,” the source familiar with early strategy said. “It’s authentic. You can’t fake your family. You can’t fake your commitment to your children and your wife. Once they see it’s authentic, that’s definitely a contrast. Who as a Republican thought we’d be defending payoffs to porn stars?”

At the Miami retreat, a donor pointedly asked DeSantis’ chief pollster, Ryan Tyson, about Trump’s sex scandals and how the campaign planned to contrast them appropriately with DeSantis’ “beautiful” family. 

“I’ll answer it this way: A wise man told me once when I was about to have my first kid, he said 70% of being a good dad is showing up,” Tyson said, according to an audio of the retreat posted by Florida Politics. “The governor's going to show up. … Iowans are ripe to see that, and I think you’re going to see something pretty special happening as he shows up, as they meet the first lady, as they meet the family.” 

This week, in his first travel since he launched his campaign, DeSantis and his wife are barnstorming the three early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Casey DeSantis' role veers between moderator of staged fireside chats (husband and wife sat in cozy armchairs on the floor of a welding factory here near Sioux City on Wednesday morning) and featured speaker. An audience in Cedar Rapids later Wednesday gave her two standing ovations.

The couple also announced Wednesday that they plan to take two of their three children with them on the campaign trail. “The 6 and the 5” — DeSantis shorthand for his oldest kids’ ages — will get their first taste of the presidential campaign life this weekend at Sen. Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” in Des Moines, Iowa.

Beyond that, images of their children are sprinkled into social media posts, featuring a family meal the last week of school or a video in which the two are holding children at different times while talking to the crowd. 

“You’ll see some very interesting moments with us,” Casey DeSantis told an audience of about 150 at the welding shop in Salix. “But we’re going to bring them, because, honestly, it’s so tough. You can’t get these years back, right? I mean, these are those fundamental years where the memories that you’ll have will last a lifetime.”

DeSantis often tells GOP crowds that he has “no time for drama” or for “palace intrigue” — subtle allusions to Trump’s administration, which featured his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner in high-profile advisory roles. Ivanka Trump has said she wouldn’t be part of her father’s 2024 campaign.

But it may be his wife's absence that's most conspicuous. Melania Trump didn’t accompany her husband to his Manhattan arraignment on charges related to the porn star payoff, nor did she attend a follow-up speech at Mar-a-Lago even as he boasted of having built his business with his family. In May, Melania Trump told Fox News that she fully supported her husband’s 2024 campaign and that it would be a “privilege” to serve as first lady again.

Aside from trying to exude family values and relatability as parents, DeSantis' emphasis on his young family could help send subtle signals to Republicans that, at 44, he could represent the next generation of the party, over Trump, who is 76, or President Joe Biden, who is 80.

“Their family is a great picture of what Americans are, and that’s about working hard to support your family,” Dan Zumbach — an Iowa state senator who has endorsed DeSantis and who introduced him Wednesday night to a crowd of about 500 in Cedar Rapids — said of DeSantis' family in an interview. “And I think they’re doing a great job of presenting the American story. We want a future for these kids and our grandkids, and they know how to get it done.”

But when he was asked whether he saw DeSantis’ emphasis on his young family as a pointed contrast to Trump, Zumbach demurred.

“Trump has a family, too,” he said. “And he’s just a little older, but no, I don’t see much of a difference.”

A Trump campaign spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

At nearly every event in Iowa this week, Casey DeSantis began her remarks by apologizing for her hoarse voice, which she blamed on the amount of time she had spent telling their 3-year-old daughter she couldn’t color the dining room table and the bathroom walls with permanent marker. (In Salix and again in Cedar Rapids, she made sure to note that mom and dad had FaceTimed the kids beforehand.)

“It’s like a hamster on the wheel when you’re trying to talk to a 3-year-old,” she said.

At the welding shop, the governor recalled the family’s return from his recent overseas trade mission at 3 a.m. 

“Our 6-year-old and the first lady had dance practice at 8 a.m., and Mason, our 5-year-old, and Mamie, our 3, had T-ball at 9 a.m. So we’re out doing our thing as parents … and I’ll tell you, I usually have a lot of endurance, but I was really dragging,” he said. 

“So they’re doing all their things,” he added, “then they had a birthday party, then Madison had a dance recital —”

“At the beach, by the way,” the first lady interjected. “So, sandy bathing suit, back into the leotard.”

How the strategy plays with Iowa caucusgoers and other voters remains to be seen. None of the dozen voters interviewed at DeSantis’ events Wednesday cited his family as a main reason they were interested in him. Some said they liked the emphasis they put on their young family and family values, but they were careful not to interpret it as a contrast with Trump.

“Well, you can tell Trump loved his family. He counted on them a lot,” Morris Denson of Marengo said as he waited for DeSantis to speak in Cedar Rapids. “Family meant a lot to Trump and means a lot to DeSantis. Everybody has a different way to present it.”

After having seen the DeSantises in Salix, Brenda Croker said effort to promote the family narrative is an “iffy” strategy. She was more impressed with how Casey DeSantis described her work connecting single mothers with faith-based organizations.

“I believe in helping people but also in giving them the gospel — helping them get out of their situation without the government,” Croker said.

But conservative Iowa-based radio show host Steve Deace saw the character differences as a compelling case for DeSantis, particularly with evangelicals.  

“If you’re worried about your kids and grandkids coming to you and saying, ‘How come it’s OK when Trump behaved like this as president and you look the other way, but you never looked the other way when I was behaving like this?’” Deace said. “Those are a lot of uncomfortable conversations that have been had in evangelical households the last few years. And if you have someone that can give you a lot of that same disruption but with some modicum of self-control, that’s not that hard of a sell.”