By Michael Warren and Steve Contorno, CNN
Gov. Ron DeSantis has gotten a rock star’s reception at Republican Party functions since winning reelection this month, solidifying himself as a top-tier possible presidential contender. But the Florida Republican has left some influential members of the party wanting more.
He electrified the crowd at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s conference in Las Vegas last weekend, but arrived just before his speech and spent little time glad-handing with donors. Days earlier at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Orlando, DeSantis received a raucous standing ovation, yet he skipped a reception beforehand and the rest of the RGA’s events — despite the fact that, as the home state governor, he was the meeting’s unofficial host.
“When DeSantis came on, all of the young kids came up. It was like a celebrity showed up,” said one person at the RJC’s conference. “But he didn’t stick around to schmooze.”
The events could have been opportune moments for DeSantis. For big donors and operatives, the RGA meeting and the RJC conference were chances to scout out this potential rival to Donald Trump, just days after his resounding reelection win as governor made him the talk of the party. Instead, some were left wondering how DeSantis might compete at the national level, where so much depends on chatting up donors and fostering friendships among fellow Republicans.
“Does he need the RGA for funding? No. Does he need it to spread acceptability for him on a national scale? Yes,” one donor told CNN last week.
“I do think it matters,” said one GOP operative with ties to another potential presidential candidate. “Politics is a people business.”
From his early days in politics, DeSantis has intentionally kept his party at arm’s distance, choosing to align with outsider movements over establishment forces. He rode into Congress during the Tea Party era, joined the House Freedom Caucus and then allied with the Trump wing of the GOP amid his ascent to the Florida governorship. Now, as some Republicans search for a new face who can usher them into a post-Trump period, they are embracing someone who has never embraced them — and who has often gone it alone.
There are signs DeSantis is looking to break from his reputation as a loner. The governor, who avoided helping Republicans outside Florida during most of his first term, crisscrossed the country in the months before the midterms for GOP candidates in tough battlegrounds and cut endorsement messages for a handful of others.
DeSantis also held a summit this summer for his top donors and favored conservative media influencers to hobnob with some Republican governors and select candidates in Fort Lauderdale. Among the attendees were Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who’s now the governor-elect of Arkansas, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, former Maine Gov. Paul LePage and Nevada Senate candidate Adam Laxalt.
One RGA donor, Bobbie Kilberg, acknowledged that DeSantis had not always presented himself as a team player but told CNN that his speech in Orlando at the RGA meeting last week struck a much more “inclusive” tone that acknowledged the work of other parts of the party apparatus.
“I think that is a change to his prior approach to his relationship with other governors, where it’s mostly been ‘I’m the center of attention,'” Kilberg told CNN the day after his remarks. “I think last night was a welcome departure from that, and I think the governors took notice.”
And DeSantis allies dismissed the idea that GOP donors are unsure about the governor.
“He is all work, all the time, he is about getting things done and not glad-handing donors. But donors have flocked to him anyway, checkbooks open, just because of what he has done as governor,” said Nick Iarossi, a DeSantis fundraiser who attended the RGA conference. “No one seems to care whether he wants to stay at a reception and shake hands. They care more about what he does as governor to improve their lives on a day to day basis.”
But other would-be allies have instead noticed how DeSantis did little to stick up for some of his fellow Republican governors in their own reelection fights this year, including Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp — who had a primary challenger backed by Trump — and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
“He doesn’t have great relationships with the other governors,” said a second GOP operative.
A governor who goes it alone
Multiple strategists point to his lack of participation with the RGA, a donor-driven organization that helps elect Republican chief executives across the country. Last week’s RGA meeting is just the second DeSantis has attended since being elected governor, after making a brief appearance at the 2019 meeting in Boca Raton, Florida.
“He came in for one speech and left,” said the first Republican operative. “Didn’t mingle, didn’t glad-hand, and a lot of people hadn’t met him at that point.”
Nor does he have particularly strong friendships with the GOP governors, an otherwise chummy bunch. During a panel in Orlando to discuss the party’s future, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu gloated about the collaboration between Republican governors and how they share policy ideas and expertise. But in a conversation later with CNN, Sununu acknowledged he didn’t have that kind of relationship with DeSantis.
Asked about DeSantis’ lack of participation at RGA functions, Sununu responded: “Everyone engages at their own level, in their own way.”
And former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who remains a fixture at RGA events, told the Ruthless podcast earlier this year that he does not know DeSantis well.
“I don’t think Ron hangs out with anybody, from what I can tell. You know, like, when I’m at the RGA meetings, Ron’s pretty much to himself with his entourage,” said Christie, who is also a potential 2024 presidential candidate. “I don’t see him hanging with the other governors.”
Former colleagues of DeSantis in the House of Representatives said the 44-year-old was never much for camaraderie.
“He kept to himself a bit in the House,” said Ryan Costello, the former Pennsylvania congressman who served alongside DeSantis. “He had friends, he had allies, but he was not the gregarious back-slapper that some politicians are always characterized as being.”
The establishment starts to embrace him
A decade ago, in a crowded Republican primary for a Jacksonville-area US House seat, DeSantis ran as a candidate offering “bold conservative colors, not pale establishment pastels.”
“Too many of them have been really co-opted by the establishment system in Washington,” DeSantis said of Republicans in an interview with a local television station. “I think I’m somebody who’s coming as an outsider. I’m looking to change the system.”
Once inside, DeSantis earned a reputation as “a bit of an odd duck,” said former Rep. David Jolly, an ex-Republican who served alongside DeSantis in the Florida delegation. DeSantis helped found the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives who led the shutdown of the federal government over the funding of Obamacare and helped push House Speaker John Boehner into retirement.
In 2018, DeSantis took on the establishment favorite, then-state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, for the Republican nomination for governor. DeSantis characterized Putnam as a creature of the Tallahassee swamp and an “errand boy” for special interests. Boosted by a Trump endorsement, DeSantis easily vanquished Putnam and went on to win the general election.
Throughout his first term, DeSantis tried to strike a balance between competent administration of government in Florida and engaging in conservative culture war skirmishes that endeared him to base voters nationally. On issues ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic response to school curriculum to illegal immigration, DeSantis took on liberal pieties, carefully casting himself as a Trump-like culture warrior, only smarter and more effective.
Aided by a close relationship with Fox News, DeSantis began to assume the mantle of Trump successor in the wake of the president’s reelection defeat in 2020. Notably, DeSantis helped campaign for many of the troubled candidates selected by Trump in 2022 — Arizona GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and Senate nominee Blake Masters, Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano and Ohio Senate nominee J.D. Vance — but not incumbent Republican governors like DeWine, Kemp and Sununu, all of whom found themselves crosswise with Trump at some point.
At a March gathering of 2020 election skeptics in Orlando, DeSantis bemoaned that “so many of these Republicans would not stand up and actually do anything” during the Obama administration. At a rally in Kansas this fall, he called out Republican governors who “have caved to corporate pressure.”
“Even some weak Republicans attacked me” during the pandemic, DeSantis told his supporters on the eve of his reelection.
But after DeSantis won reelection by 19 points, establishment Republicans began to signal their acceptance of him as a leading party figure who could depose Trump. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who lost to Trump in the 2016 primary, tweeted his congratulations to DeSantis, adding that he has “done a very fine job as Governor of the state I love.”
And former House Speaker Paul Ryan, speaking to a Wisconsin TV station following the election, made sure to name check DeSantis as he called for the party to move on from Trump.
“Ron got reelected,” Ryan said. “I’m very happy to see that.”
But if the GOP establishment seems to be warming up to DeSantis, it remains to be seen whether the Florida governor will need to reciprocate if he runs for president.
“I don’t think DeSantis has ever shown that he can be influenced,” Jolly said. “Part of his schtick is he does it his own way.”
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Jamie Gangel contributed to this report.