Florida’s governor is searching for a winning strategy to overcome Trump’s populism.
Elon Musk has increasingly dabbled in conservative politics: He advocated for a Republican Congress in the last election and has made friendly visits to GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill. | Pool photo by Ludovic Marin
Ron DeSantis has found a lane. Now he has to find out if it’s wide enough to drive a winning campaign through.
With Donald Trump holding a lock on the populist right, and the remnants of the GOP establishment split between several low-polling alternatives, Ron DeSantis is casting in his lot with a third group: very online, anti-“woke” Silicon Valley moguls.
DeSantis’ decision to announce his presidential run on Twitter Spaces, scheduled for Wednesday evening with Elon Musk and the outspoken venture capitalist David Sacks, represents an embrace of a strain of right-leaning, anti-establishment politics that has gained currency in recent years among the tech set in the Bay Area, Austin and Miami.
This particular strain — defined by libertarian frustration with everything from federal agencies to progressive prosecutors to American foreign policy — was incubated during the pandemic era on the voice-chat platform Clubhouse, on Sacks’ influential podcast, “All In,” and, above all, on Twitter.
It shared with DeSantis’ brand of confrontational politics a set of common antagonists, including the “woke mind virus,” as Musk once termed surging progressivism — as well as mainstream media outlets, which DeSantis is notably snubbing in his online campaign rollout.
Musk himself has increasingly dabbled in conservative politics: Though calling himself an independent, he advocated for a Republican Congress in the last election and has made friendly visits to GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In recent months, Sacks and Musk have both expressed public support for DeSantis, while the governor and the entrepreneurs quietly courted each other behind the scenes.
By announcing his run with the two moguls on Twitter Spaces, DeSantis is betting that his ultra-wealthy supporters will be useful not just for writing checks, but for framing his campaign for public consumption.
One prominent DeSantis supporter though, expressed doubt that their brand of neo-libertarian politics will appeal to enough Republican voters to dislodge Trump.
Veteran Republican Ed Rollins, a senior political strategist at Ready for Ron, an unauthorized PAC devoted to drafting DeSantis, questioned the decision. “Is it going to be his issue or is it going to be the Twitter show?” Rollins asked. “You’ve got to win Iowa. You’ve got to win New Hampshire, and that’s where you should spend a lot of time.”
Rollins, who said his priority is defeating Donald Trump, said he was already souring on DeSantis. “I think the campaign has not been effective,” Rollins said.
“It’s a big coup for Twitter and Elon, but I’m not sure it’s the smartest choice for the DeSantis campaign,” said Nu Wexler, a former congressional aide and veteran of Google and Facebook who now works in public relations, and is a close observer of tech-world politics. “It’s an extremely online candidate talking to an extremely online host, likely about niche issues that will be lost on voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
While Musk is the bigger name, Sacks has become the more hands-on political player in recent years, engaging with a mish-mash of candidates that includes Rep. Ro Khanna, the tech-friendly Silicon Valley Democrat, and Democrat Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a guest earlier this month on Sacks’ podcast.
Like Musk, Sacks worked at PayPal with Peter Thiel, and donated to the Senate campaigns of the Palantir founder’s Republican acolytes, J.D. Vance and Blake Masters .
In addition to meetings with DeSantis, he has been quietly building out a political operation that includes the formation last summer of a dark money nonprofit, Purple Action Inc., according to Puck’s Teddy Schleifer.
He has also become a bellwether of sorts for a class of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who were once cozy with the Obama-era Democratic Party, but who have drifted rightward and away from the East Coast establishment in recent years.
A fourth member of the “PayPal Mafia,” investor Keith Rabois, has also been vocal in his support of DeSantis. Rabois, who is married to a man, recently praised the Florida governor’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law on Twitter.
Since his takeover of the platform last fall, Musk’s anti-“woke” rhetoric has alienated many users, some of whom have migrated to Mastodon, a Twitter alternative. In covering the campaign launch news, a Vanity Fair headline compared Musk to the notorious white nationalist David Duke.
But Musk’s public standing remains stronger than that of any other public figure, according to one recent survey.
A Harvard/Harris poll of registered voters conducted last week found that Musk has the highest net favorability rating of the 22 public figures assessed, 14 points above water. DeSantis was tied with Republican primary rival Nikki Haley for second, with a net favorability of eight points. Trump was one point underwater, and President Joe Biden 10 points underwater, in the poll.
And the rollout serves at least one shared interest of both DeSantis and the Silicon Valley libertarians: bypassing mainstream media.
DeSantis has made a point of snubbing mainstream outlets. And Twitter, in recent weeks, has sought to position itself as a platform where right-leaning users can consume media content directly.
Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson said earlier this month that he would take his show to Twitter after being fired by Fox News, but further details have not been forthcoming, and Carlson reportedly remains embroiled in negotiations with his former network. On Tuesday, the Daily Wire, a conservative outlet, announced it would begin streaming its most popular shows on Twitter, citing its hands-off approach to content moderation.
Whether or not the launch format serves DeSantis with Republican primary voters, it is already playing well with Silicon Valley libertarians on Twitter.
“The media landscape has changed,” tweeted investor Jason Calacanis, a co-host of Sacks’ podcast, in response to the announcement plans. “CNN or Fox would drive 1-3m viewers, Twitter will probably drive a multiple of that.”