IOWA — Ron DeSantis called his wife, Casey, to the stage in West Des Moines. And in Salix. And in Council Bluffs. And in Pella.
Each time, she received boisterous applause, and talked about their three children, starting with an explanation for her hoarse voice — she’d been “telling a 3-year-old why she cannot color on the dining table with permanent marker” — and a joke about finally getting to speak to adults.
Eventually, she’d meander into why her husband should be president, promising each time that he’d get the job done and would always stand “up for what’s right,” as she told a small crowd packed in an event barn in Pella.
After DeSantis’ Wednesday morning speech, at a welding company outside Sioux City, the couple sat for a “fireside chat” with each other, a John Deere tractor parked prominently behind them. The governor loosened up as they swapped stories about their kids — sleeping under a desk during a press conference, demanding a “little potty” in a fried chicken restaurant bathroom after a lengthy wait.
“These are those fundamental years where the memories you have will last a lifetime,” said Casey. Then, the conversation turned to the charitable programs she’d led in Florida, working with faith groups, connecting mothers with jobs, and getting them off government assistance — “laser focused,” according to her husband, “on utilizing our faith based community to lift people up.”
“I see stories of moms, in their apartments, cooking in their kitchen for the first time for their kids,” she said. “Three weeks ago, they had been in their car wondering what their next move was.”
She also wasn’t afraid to throw a culture war punch, telling voters how DeSantis stood up to “the corporate media, the left, the White House, Fauci” on COVID-19.
As the candidate worked his crowds, Casey DeSantis joined in, taking photos with voters at each event. On Wednesday, she wore a jacket embroidered with her name on the front, and a “Florida: Where Woke Goes to Die” icon on the back.
“She didn’t have to do anything. She could have just done pageantry, but she really wanted to do things to make a difference,” Ron DeSantis said in the fireside chat. “So I said: Go get ‘em.”
Shelby and David's View
Politicians often rely on spouses to soften their harder edges and humanize them for voters, but in Ron DeSantis’ case her strategic role could be significantly more important.
DeSantis himself is not known for his retail politics (in fact, quite the opposite), and has been plagued by headlines painting him as an awkward, at times anti-social stiff. In recent weeks, he has been noticeably trying to improve that aspect of his presidential run, but even his close allies will admit it’s not his bread and butter.
This is where his wife, Casey, comes in. Florida’s First Lady — a petite woman who’s been compared to Jackie Kennedy, recently overcame a battle with cancer, and comes from a journalism background — appears to be well-liked by Iowans. She’s more natural at the handshaking and small talk that’s so vital to a 2024 campaign, and is consistently swarmed by people vying for photographs.
“She’s great at this and it works very well for Ron. They really connected with Iowans. It’s a night and day contrast to Trump’s dysfunctional family dynamic,” a person close to DeSantis texted during the couple’s Iowa swing this week.
It’s also well-known that she’s his closest advisor, a fact that has in recent weeks sparked in-depth media stories — both positive and negative — about her unusual involvement in her husband’s political career.
DeSantis and his supporters have been protective of her, especially after a Politico Magazine profile that (jumping off a quote from Trump ally Roger Stone) repeatedly likened her to the ambitious, scheming Lady Macbeth. Attacks from Trump’s friends have a tendency to migrate to the candidate himself, who has not been above dragging rivals’ families into the muck.
“Well, I think she’s wonderful,” 81-year-old Marge VanHaaften said after the event in Pella. “She stood up behind her husband, that’s really important. That’s what God asks us to do.” And in Council Bluffs, as the governor signed autographs, one voter loudly commented on how the First Lady had been “sharp as an arrow,” even more impressive than him.
No spouse has been more visible in the primary’s first months. Former First Lady Melania Trump hasn’t accompanied her husband to early-voting states; Nikki Haley’s husband Michael, a major in the South Carolina Army National Guard, is frequently mentioned in her speeches, but hasn’t built a profile of his own. (He will be on active duty in Africa for much of the year.) Sen. Tim Scott, who entered the race days before DeSantis, is a bachelor. Even former Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, who has served in one of the highest spousal positions in the country, doesn’t receive the same fanfare.
Room for Disagreement
Some believe that Casey’s front-row presence on the campaign trail will ultimately hurt the Florida governor, and serve to highlight his shortcomings.
“All Casey does by going on stage is actually remind voters just how unlikeable DeSantis is. But what’s the plan for when DeSantis has to stand on a debate stage? Or if he has to negotiate with Xi, or Putin? Good luck,” one national Democratic strategist argued.
- Politico Magazine published a profile of Casey DeSantis earlier in May, in which she was described as Ron DeSantis’ “greatest asset and his greatest liability.” The article, which included a former staffer who suggested she is “blindly ambitious,” was widely derided by DeSantis’ team and his allies.
- The New York Times did a deep dive into — yes — the Florida First Lady’s wardrobe choices. The piece, written by Vanessa Friedman, noted that Casey’s choice of attire is part of why “she triggers associations with terms like ‘Kennedy’ and ‘Trump’ and even ‘royalty.’” “To acknowledge that is not to undercut her substance — the work she has done for mental health, cancer research, hurricane relief — but to credit her with understanding a basic truth of modern campaigning,” Friedman wrote.