She was there to woo the conservative moms of Iowa. So Casey DeSantis, the wife of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, wasted no time talking about her three young children — and how badly she wanted to leave them home.
“It’s funny, someone outside at the snowball machine asked, ‘Did you bring your kids?’ she said, sitting on a small stage Thursday in suburban Des Moines for her first solo appearance on her husband’s presidential campaign. Her answer was unequivocal: “No.”
The last time she had the bright idea to campaign with one of her young children, she told the crowd, was at an event for her husband’s re-election campaign in Florida. For most of her remarks, Madison, then 5, swung by her side. In the final moments, Madison tugged on her sleeve and whispered that she needed to go to the bathroom, Ms. DeSantis recalled.
“What you have, moms, is one of those out-of-body experiences. Do I need to get up? Do I need to walk her?” she said as the audience roared. “Like, what’s going on?”
Widely considered to be her husband’s most important advisor, Mrs. DeSantis is the “a not so secret weapon,” the “second-in-command” and the “primary sounding board” of his political operation. Now, in the early weeks of his presidential campaign, she has added yet another position to her portfolio: humanitarian-in-chief.
Deploying a spouse to try to soften a prickly political image is a tried and true tactic of presidential politics. In 2007, Michelle Obama charmed Democratic primary voters with an all-female pitch devised to base her husband’s unusual life story. Four years later, Ann Romney toured Iowa and New Hampshire, offering “the other side of Mitt” – a caring, empathetic family man who did not fit the caricature of the heartless corporate raider drawn by his rivals. And in the final days of the 2016 campaign, Melania Trump made a rare campaign appearance in the Philadelphia suburbs to counter her husband’s raw image with female voters.
But rarely does this strategy appear early enough in the primary campaign, a reflection of both Mr. DeSantis’ struggles to connect with voters and the central role his wife has long played in his political career.
During her husband’s first congressional run, Ms. DeSantis, then a local news reporter, rode through neighborhoods in their northeast Florida district on an electric scooter, knocking on doors and making her case. Years later, when he was running for governor, she recounted his most attention-grabbing campaign, a 2018 spot in which he encouraged their then-toddler to “build the wall” with large cardboard blocks. Her role expanded along with his: After he won, she landed a prime office in the governor’s Capitol suite, participated in staff interviews as he hired staff for his new administration and shared the podium at hurricane briefings — some of the governor’s most high-profile. appearances in stormy Florida.
In recent weeks, she has joined her husband in embracing the strange traditions of the early state primary circuit, praising Iowa’s gas station pizza and making headlines for wearing a black leather jacket emblazoned with the unofficial campaign slogan “Where the Dead Wake Up.” at an annual motorcycle-themed Republican fundraiser in Des Moines.
Her high-profile role has created a war of conflicting spin, as supporters and detractors offer their assessment of the couple’s professional partnership. She is his greatest asset. Or, depending on who thinks, perhaps his greatest responsibility. She is the antidote to his much-documented struggles to connect. Or a virus infecting his island campaign, encouraging her husband’s distrust of those outside his strict political orbit.
Yet for Mr. DeSantis, the hope is simply that his wife can offer a way to secure the holy grail of presidential campaigns: relatability.
That message was not subtle Thursday in Johnston, Iowa, where Ms. DeSantis appeared alongside the state’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, for a question-and-answer session. “How the hell do you do that?” gushed the governor, herself a mother of three daughters and grandmother of 11 grandchildren.
“It’s a bit of organized chaos. I’m not going to lie,” Ms. DeSantis said, before launching into a series of stories about her three young children — Madison, Mason and Mamie — and their adventures in the governor’s mansion.
Then, it was just a matter. Mrs. DeSantis came to officially launch “Mamas for DeSantis,” a national version of the statewide group she started during her husband’s 2022 re-election bid. In her remarks, Mrs. DeSantis tried to position him as an avatar for the conservative anger against school administrators and school boards that exploded during the pandemic.
Much of her remarks were focused on a loose social agenda often described as “parents’ rights,” a mix of movement that includes efforts to limit how race and LGBTQ issues are taught, attacks on transgender rights, support for publicly funded private school vouchers. and opposition to vaccine mandates.
“I’m concerned about protecting the innocence of my children and your children,” she told the audience Thursday. “As long as I have breath in my body, I’m going to go out there and I’m going to fight for Ron DeSantis, not because he’s my husband — that’s part of it — but because I believe in him with every ounce of my being.”
It was a message that resonated with some in the audience, which included many who were affiliated with Moms for Freedom, a group that has emerged as a conservative force on social issues. Mr. DeSantis, said Elicha Brancheau, a member of Moms for Freedom, was a strong champion for parents’ rights, and she said she was impressed by his wife’s commitment to the cause.
“I really like her. She is so smart, well-spoken,” said Ms. Brancheau, who met Ms. DeSantis before the event. “I love the dynamic of their family.”
Not everyone was so convinced.
Malina Cottington, a mother of five who began homeschooling her children after the pandemic, said she was looking for a candidate who would take the strongest position on preserving what she described as parental rights. She was impressed by Mr. DeSantis but liked the bolder plan of one of his Republican rivals, Vivek Ramaswamy, the multimillionaire entrepreneur and author who has promised to abolish the Department of Education.
“I think we need something that drastic,” said Ms. Cottington, 42, who lives in suburban Des Moines. “We just want to be able to make sure we can raise our kids the way we want to raise them.”