TAMA, Iowa — Ron DeSantis opened a campaign stop here with his three-year-old daughter perched on his shoulders and a reference to “Field of Dreams,” the Iowa baseball movie he said his five-year-old son was quoting when they got to town.
Then the Republican presidential hopeful pivoted to a darker message involving his children.
“You’re not going to have to worry about them bringing cocaine into the White House,” DeSantis quipped to several dozen voters in a barn, taking a shot at President Biden’s adult son, Hunter Biden, who has struggled with drug addiction. (Cocaine found last month in the White House has not been linked to Biden.)
“Hunter Biden gets a million dollars for his paintings,” DeSantis went on in a riff he has used repeatedly on the trail, referencing artwork offered for as high as $500,000. “Come on. My 6-year-old daughter does a better job than Hunter.”
The Florida governor is prominently featuring his three kids in his 2024 campaign and doing so in an unusually political way, observers said — not just regaling voters with parenting stories but also weaving them into sharp attacks on his frequent targets of criticism and referencing them as he taps into conservative angst about what kids learn about race, gender and sexual orientation in the classroom and beyond.
It’s nothing new for DeSantis, who in 2018 famously broadcast his allegiance to then-President Donald Trump with a gubernatorial primary ad that showed him reading Trump’s book to one child and teaching another to “build the wall” with blocks. It’s also familiar terrain for a candidate who often appears more comfortable turning personal discussions into policy talks and embraces combative exchanges targeting rivals and critics on the left.
While many candidates rely on their loved ones to help humanize them on the trail, DeSantis, 44, stands out for his decision to meld family and politics. Campaign aides view his identity as a father of young kids as a helpful contrast with both Biden and Trump, who are decades older, according to a person familiar with the campaign’s strategy who spoke on the condition of the anonymity to discuss internal thinking.
“We haven’t really seen that where they’re also used in punchlines against opponents,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee. “But he gets good laughs from them.”
DeSantis’s children are omnipresent on the trail in part for practical reasons, so the family can spend time together, but they also factor heavily into his message as he talks about policy through a parental lens, the person familiar with the campaign’s strategy said. In Iowa this Saturday, DeSantis repeatedly kicked off stops with a kid on his shoulders, at one point observing that 3-year-old daughter Mamie had gotten cookie in his hair.
“One of the reasons there is so much excitement around Ron DeSantis’ candidacy is because voters identify with how he talks about the issues important to them as Americans — but also as parents,” said Andrew Romeo, the communications director for the DeSantis campaign, which recently cut staff and shifted strategy amid a cash crunch and struggles to make headway against Trump, the runaway leader in polls of the Republican race.
DeSantis has made his family highly visible throughout the campaign, with his wife, Casey DeSantis — by all accounts his most important political adviser — speaking regularly at events. While the governor has been dogged by viral videos of awkward interactions on the trail with voters and criticism from some that he’s stiff, his family has helped him showcase a softer side, and many voters say they like the family package.
“It’s almost like a Kennedy,” said Shari Smith, an undecided voter who arrived at the Tama barn event with her 13-year-old daughter.
At the next stop, a Pizza Ranch, Casey DeSantis played catch with the kids as the governor made his pitch in a side room. “My wife and I, we’ve got our kids on the bus tour,” DeSantis told the crowd. “You’ll be seeing a lot of us over these next six months.”
The DeSantis campaign recently turned to Mason, their son, to take one jab at Anthony S. Fauci, a key official in the U.S. coronavirus response, whom the Florida governor routinely bashes. The campaign shared a clip of Fauci flubbing a ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game — alongside Mason playing with his dad. “Mason has a better arm than Fauci!” the tweet read.
Many presidential candidates have been reluctant to put their children into the harsh spotlight that follows a national campaign. Barack Obama said he regretted granting an interview with his daughters, then 10 and 7, while running for the presidency in 2008.
Others are consistently eager to showcase their kids. Vivek Ramaswamy, 37, the other GOP contender this year with young children, often has his two young sons at his side while campaigning and delighted people at a recent Moms for Liberty summit by bringing them onstage for his Q&A.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a contender for the 2016 GOP nomination, featured his daughters — then aged 5 and 7 — in an overtly political message: A parody ad in which Cruz read them Christmas stories such as “How Obamacare Stole Christmas.”
A Washington Post editorial cartoonist criticized Cruz with a drawing titled “Ted Cruz uses his kids as political props,” which showed the senator holding two dancing monkeys on leashes — and sparked a firestorm as Cruz and others said the girls should be out of bounds. The Post took the drawing down.
It’s more common for kids to feature in a biographical ad, said Travis Ridout, who tracks political advertising as co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “Usually when a candidate has small children, they use them very selectively,” he said.
The DeSantis children and parental identity have only seemed to grow more prominent as the campaign goes on. Casey DeSantis last month launched a “Mamas for DeSantis” initiative tying together Republican outrage at mask mandates for children, coronavirus-era school closures and certain curriculums — flashing pictures of the DeSantis parents with their kids amid ominous footage of protests and masked kids.
Last week, as the campaign amplified DeSantis’s line in a television interview about his daughter and Hunter Biden’s painting skills, Casey DeSantis weighed in on social media.
“Fact check: True,” she wrote, alongside a picture signed, “Madison.”