The DeSantis campaign will test whether Casey DeSantis can bring suburban women back to the GOP after Trump lost them

Casey DeSantis, left, looks on as her husband, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaks to a crowd at First Baptist North on Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Casey DeSantis, left, looks on as her husband, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaks to a crowd at First Baptist North on Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Spartanburg, South Carolina.Meg Kinnard/ AP Photo

  • Ron DeSantis’ wife, Casey DeSantis, is a chief confidant key to his political rise.

  • The two already held “fireside chats” in early voting states, where she interviewed her husband.

  • Allies see an opening to connect with suburban women, a demographic weakness for Trump.

For weeks, as the powerful Trump campaign apparatus bore down on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis before he even made a 2024 run official, the governor’s team began painting a striking yet little-covered contrast with their soon-to-be top rival.

Suddenly, DeSantis wasn’t alone onstage at his promotional book events that were captured on camera. He finished boasting about his “Florida Blueprint,” and then his wife, Florida first lady Casey DeSantis, glided onstage. DeSantis held her hand and kissed her cheek.

Then, instead of waving and exiting behind the curtain like so many other political couples do, they each picked up a microphone and took a seat across from one another.

A lighthearted conversation between the two ensued about falling in love, the irony of getting hitched at Walt Disney World during “the pre-woke era,” and the nervousness of living in Tallahassee’s stately governor’s mansion with three young children who’ve left crayon marks over 18th Century French wallpaper.

The format is unusual, and has charmed Republican audiences, organizers said. The DeSantises performed their so-called “fireside chats” twice in Ohio and twice in South Carolina. In the geography was Casey DeSantis’ autobiography: raised in Troy, Ohio, and college-educated at the University of Charleston.

Voters didn’t just get to know Ron DeSantis; they got to know the woman he called “my better half and the star of the show.” While ex-President Donald Trump allies mocked DeSantis over his social skills and table manners, audiences in these forums got to know Ron as a husband and father through Casey’s polished storytelling, through a voice perfected during her time as a former talk show host in Jacksonville, Florida.

“He’s a good dad,” Casey DeSantis said onstage about her husband at an appearance in Caucus-first Iowa. “He’s a good person. He’s in it for the right reasons. He’s fighting for our children just as much as he’s fighting for your families.”

All of it signals a point of contrast between the way DeSantis is presenting himself — as a father whose young, telegenic family is a centerpiece of his public image — and the saturated coverage of Trump as a septuagenarian, twice-divorced man convicted of sexual abuse and indicted over hush-money payments to an adult film actress (he denies both).

The DeSantises were showcasing that they have something Trump appears to lack: a wife fully supportive and engaged in her husband’s political rise. Together, they’ll be stopping at all 99 counties in Iowa, DeSantis said this week.

As Florida’s first lady, Casey DeSantis’ initiatives included childhood emotional resiliency, child welfare, and — as a breast-cancer survivor herself — cancer research. She even spoke alongside her husband during Hurricane Ian recovery efforts. When DeSantis became governor in 2019, she took the unusual step of setting up her office close to her husband’s.

“I didn’t want to be that proverbial potted plant,” Casey DeSantis said at one book-tour stop, invoking one of her husband’s go-to criticisms about Republicans he viewed as ineffective.

She is anything but. In a lengthy Insider profile, people close to the couple have described her as ambitious, a crucial partner, skilled image maker, and powerful confidant to a man who — despite a drop in national polls — is still the only Republican who comes anywhere close to rivaling a twice impeached former president.

Together, the DeSantises will test the question of whether their equal partnership will be alluring to women voters, especially moms. It’s an appeal that could matter against Trump, who lost suburban women in 2020.

“I think it’s very compelling to young professional women who have young children,” Jennifer Stoddard Hajdu, chairwoman of the Dallas County Republican Party, told Insider. “I think they look at her and say, ‘That’s awesome. She knows what I’m going through. She understands the challenges.'”

But the pitch will and has hit criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. Polarizing policies in Florida risk undermining the overtures, particularly in a general election and as US suburbs have become more diverse.

Some big donors openly worry that DeSantis went too far by signing a nearly all-out abortion ban into law in Florida, or that he risks alienating voters with his ceaseless, bitter crusade against Walt Disney World.

Offering a preview of how President Joe Biden would attack DeSantis over his purported pro-family stance, the White House has called the governor “shameful” for loosening gun laws in the wake of another school shooting and “cruel” for using vulnerable migrants, including women and children, in a political stunt.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, and his wife Casey are escorted to their seats for a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, not in picture, at Iikura Guest House Monday, April 24, 2023, in Tokyo.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, and his wife Casey are escorted to their seats for a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, not in picture, at Iikura Guest House Monday, April 24, 2023, in Tokyo.Eugene Hoshiko, Pool/AP Photo

‘You can tell he respects her opinion’

Casey DeSantis, 42, has long been at the forefront of DeSantis’ political and policy operation, ever since she appeared alongside him to knock on doors and drudge up support for his successful 2012 congressional run. During a fireside chat in Butler County, Ohio, the Florida governor said his wife won over more people than he did.

“They looked at her and it’s like, ‘Well, if he was good enough to get her to marry him, he’s probably good enough for Congress,'” he said as Casey DeSantis sat beaming across from him.

Casey DeSantis is viewed as more politically savvy and likeable than her husband, someone instrumental to his electoral success, Insider previously reported. Together, they’re known to be careful about whom to trust. She both softens his image and hardens his positions, echoing his message through her own voice at events and on social media.

Reflecting on her husband’s successful 2022 reelection campaign before an audience in Spartansburg, South Carolina, Casey DeSantis said women voters were “fired up” about “parental rights in education,” a term coined by conservatives to refer to controversial state restrictions in public schools on how LGBTQ topics and racial relations are taught.

“They did not want woke ideology shoved down the throats of their five years olds while they were in school,” Casey DeSantis said. “They said full stop that they didn’t want it. So they were very proud that the governor was standing up for that.”

She channeled the schools platform in 2022 to mobilize 1.1 million mothers and grandmothers to support her husband through her “Mamas for DeSantis” campaign initiative. Making the political personal, she then starred in an emotional campaign ad about how the governor supported her and took care of their children during her cancer treatment.

The result? DeSantis won female voters by 9% over his Democratic challenger, former US Rep. Charlie Crist.

“It speaks to her ability to rally, organize, and inspire women and mothers to support her husband,” Justin Sayfie, a partner at the lobbying firm Ballard Partners, told Insider.

Whether the messaging will play nationally is still an open question. As DeSantis prepared to launch a presidential bid that officially began Wednesday, the rest of the country, and even parts of the world, were just starting to get to know Casey DeSantis.

The DeSantises first used the fireside chat format in a Sirius XM Patriot radio interview that kicked off the governor’s book tour. In early March, they did it again during a Palm Beach GOP event and another in Dallas, Texas, which has a particularly strong GOP women presence.

“You could see him coming home at night, whether as governor of Florida or president of the United States, and saying, ‘Casey, this is what happened today. What do you think?’ You can tell he respects her opinion,” Stoddard Hajdu said of the impression she had following the event in Dallas.

Jennifer Carroll, who used to be a guest host on Casey DeSantis’ Jacksonville talk show, saw the first lady’s fingerprints on the events. “I bet you it was her idea,” Carroll, who was lieutenant governor to DeSantis’ predecessor — now-US Sen. Rick Scott — told Insider.

Appearing onstage together and traveling to events with their children shows “they are working in unison to take care of their family at the same time as their obligations on the political front,” Carroll said.

“You still have your traditionalists that want to see a wholesome family, want to see someone without the drama of extramarital affairs and the context that goes along with that,” Carroll said. “Those people may gravitate to a DeSantis presidential candidacy and the wholesome appearance of his family. “

The press reviews were mixed as the DeSantis presidential campaign neared its launch. At the end of April, Casey DeSantis accompanied her husband on an international trade mission. Tabloids swooned over her glamour and fashion. But other outlets, such as Jezebel, have been unimpressed with her outfits in the past, accusing her of cosplaying as FLOTUS and carrying “the glow of weaponized white female grievance.”

Indeed, not everyone has embraced Casey DeSantis’ deep involvement, and in at least some cases it underscores the delicate balance women in US politics still face in how to present themselves. Politico, for instance, quoted sources complaining she was too influential in her husband’s operation.

Sexist assumptions about gender roles can arise when a wife is an important and powerful adviser to male politicians, presidential historian Lindsay Chervinsky told Insider. “People tend to get uncomfortable with that,” when it comes to first ladies, she said. “There’s this trope of taking on too much power and authority as though that job has been defined in any way — which it hasn’t,” she said.

In a New York Post interview published Monday, Casey DeSantis said she would “move mountains” to help her husband. Asked about criticism regarding her appearance, the cancer survivor brushed it off with, “I’m lucky to even have hair.”

Florida first lady Casey DeSantis stands next to her husband Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as he campaigns for re-election during a "Unite and Win" rally on the eve of the US midterm elections, at Hialeah Park Clubhouse, in Hialeah, Florida, on November 7, 2022.

Florida first lady Casey DeSantis stands next to her husband Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as he campaigns for re-election during a “Unite and Win” rally on the eve of the US midterm elections, at Hialeah Park Clubhouse, in Hialeah, Florida, on November 7, 2022.Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP via Getty Images

‘It’s very clear she’s his closest adviser’

Trump is already trying to shatter the DeSantis’ carefully crafted family man image. After DeSantis taunted Trump in March, saying he wouldn’t know “what goes into paying hush money to a porn star,” the ex-president insinuated on Truth Social, without evidence, that DeSantis was gay and involved with minors.

It’s too early in the election to know whether 2024 voters yearn for the appearance of a picture-perfect family in the White House, or if they’ll overlook a politician’s personal life and gravitate, as they did in 2016, to Trump.

As first lady, Melania Trump famously delayed a move from New York to DC so her son, Barron, could finish his school year. While she took on a “Be Best” initiative focused on bullying and addiction, she admitted in confidence to a former friend that she found certain FLOTUS duties mundane, saying, “Who gives a f-ck about the Christmas stuff and decorations?”

The Trump campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment. Trump told The Messenger that his wife was “very enthused” about his 2024 run and she provided a statement to Fox News saying Trump had her support.

But she hasn’t yet appeared at a 2024 Trump campaign rally. His first daughter, Ivanka Trump — who took on some of the duties generally associated with a first lady during the Trump administration — bowed out of the 2024 contest to focus on her children.

The way adversaries and the media portray political couples can be “brutal and unpleasant,” Carole Crist, who was married to Crist when he was governor of Florida, told Insider. The job requires spouses to be supportive “through everything,” she said.

“It’s something that maybe on the outside people think is so glamorous, but they forget the grind,” she said. “It’s a lot of work. It’s a big commitment, and it’s public service.”

To Republican women who have organized fundraisers featuring the DeSantises, the prominence of Casey DeSantis is all positive. “Not one negative comment” followed the duo’s appearance in Charleston, South Carolina, Tara Wood, who chairs the area’s Moms for Liberty group and helped organize an event there, said.

“I had some people tell me that, if he were to run, they were questioning whether they would support him,” Wood said. “But after that event they were 100% on board. That’s how effective it was.”

Carroll said that, to her, the equal partnership on display sent a positive assurance about DeSantis to women voters, showing he was “confident” and “secure in who he is” in sharing the limelight with his wife.

“I don’t see any downside,” Crist said. “Why wouldn’t you want your best friend, your closest advisor, your family, by your side wherever you go? Wouldn’t that uplift you and help you do the best job possible?”

Casey DeSantis seems to represent a triad of first-lady models that have appeared throughout history: embracing the role of hostess and mother, that of adviser, and also being a political player in her own right, Chervinsky, the presidential historian, told Insider.

“What was most obvious to me is how very closely in tune they are to one another,” she said of the DeSantises. “It’s very clear that she’s his closest adviser and they’re very much in lockstep. Whether that works for a national campaign, I don’t know. But I think as a dynamic it’s very much on display.”

Event organizers shared glimpses behind the scenes with Insider, too. The DeSantis operation couldn’t confirm until the last minute that Casey DeSantis would appear in South Carolina, cautioning that if anything were to come up with one of her three children then she would be prioritizing their needs. Her team also reached out ahead of the Dallas event inquiring about places her children might enjoy visiting.

“Regardless of your political persuasion, a lot of us are ready for a younger leader,” Stoddard Hajdu said. “It really hits home that they’re from a different generation.”

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