Ron DeSantis May Have a Successor in the Wings: Byron Donalds

Ron DeSantis May Have a Successor in the Wings: Byron Donalds

“He’s as well-spoken…as any member of Congress is,” says Rep. Ralph Norman, pausing midsentence for three awkward seconds before completing his thought. “That’s why I put him up for Speaker,” he says, smiling.

“I think it was originally Chip Roy’s idea,” Rep. Matt Gaetz clarifies to me later.

“Yeah, he did,” Byron Donalds laughs. It was Roy, not Norman, who, on January 4, 2023, catapulted Donalds from obscure House GOP backbencher to front-page political news when the group of hardline House Republicans stalled Kevin McCarthy’s bid for House Speaker by voting for Donalds through eight roll call votes over two days. “I had to pray about it, talk about it, then go do it,” says Donalds of accepting the nomination. Six months later, Donalds is trying to catapult himself into a voice for his party, and maybe into the Florida governor’s mansion.

“Oh yeah, I would do it,” Donalds, 44, tells me when I ask him if he wants to run for governor. “Would I do it, yes. There’s a lot of other things that have to be answered between saying yes, I would do it and…” Donalds trails off just as it sounded he was going to explain further. “Nah, come on man, I can’t give you everything,” he says, again with a laugh.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s political future is uncertain; either he’s president in 2025, or term-limited out of the governor’s office by 2026. Either way, in a couple years time, Donalds has an opening to succeed one of the most staunchly conservative governors in America. “I stay ready for everything,” Donalds says. “If it opens up and there’s a possibility to do it? You make a decision and you go.” Some are already planning for that possibility. Chris Collins, the disgraced former Republican congressman who pleaded guilty to insider trading and lying to FBI investigators, and was later pardoned by Donald Trump, recently said if Donalds runs for Florida governor he would run for the vacant seat. (For what it’s worth, Sen. Rick Scott, who was Florida’s governor when Donalds was in the Florida statehouse at the nascent of his political career, was quick to throw water on the idea. “I think he’s working hard, but there’ll be a lot of people that will run for governor.”)

Donalds has clearly been cultivating his rising star status with a more robust national media presence. He debated Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman on CNN and eagerly recites unsubstantiated MAGA claims about collusion between the media, Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and the “Communist Chinese” with the so-called “Biden Crime Family” on Sean Hannity’s podcast. After Donald Trump’s now-infamous town hall, CNN again turned to Donalds in the post-event panel, where he refused to accept Joe Biden’s victory, a position he maintained when I asked him point blank if he believes Biden is a legitimate president. “I mean, me, personally? No.”

His Speaker fight gambit landed him a seat on the coveted House Republican Steering Committee, which determines lawmakers committee assignments. He serves on the high-visibility House Oversight committee, where he has focused on Republicans’ feverish attempts to mire Hunter Biden in a so-far unsubstantiated corruption scandal, backed attempts to ban textbooks for allegedly teaching critical race theory, and defended the oil and gas industry. “Let’s be very clear, you need an apology,” he told energy executives in 2021. “What I witnessed today is rank intimidation by the chair of this committee. … It is disgusting, it is absolutely disgusting.” His actions have already won the favor of the party’s right flank, making him a top booking as a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference and the Faith and Freedom Coalition summit. “It’s more than gender identity. It’s more than CRT. They are indoctrinating our children to think that socialism is somehow equivalent to capitalism,” said Donalds of congressional Democrats at CPAC last year.

He’s also the only Black member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, which apparently factored into some of his colleagues’ decision to nominate him to rally against McCarthy.

“Democrats play the race card every single frickin’ second, so I didn’t mind shoving it down their throats,” Roy tells me of nominating Donalds, who didn’t clap during Roy’s nominating speech on January 5—not even when his Freedom Caucus colleague turned to House Democrats and solemnly declared, “Here we are, and for the first time in history there have been two Black Americans placed into the nomination for Speaker of the House.” Democrats had nominated Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. The line got a bipartisan standing ovation, but Democrats, such as Cori Bush, attacked Donalds’s nomination as sheer tokenism. Donalds retorted, saying Bush should have supported his rise, regardless of his politics. « As a Black man to a Black woman, I’d never do that to you, » he wrote on Twitter. On January 10, MSNBC host Joy Reid asked Donalds about being “a diversity statement” by the Freedom Caucus. “That was not the idea because I was in the room when the decision was made by people who chose to nominate me. That never came up.”

All together, it’s almost difficult to believe that at the start of the year, after each Speaker vote, Donalds would step into the corridors outside the House chamber to throngs of reporters, some of whom had just searched his name on Google for the first time. 

Raised by a single mother and two sisters in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, Donalds frequently leans on his working-class upbringing in congressional hearings. “Poor people don’t have the money to buy an electric vehicle,” Donalds said during a May hearing on new tailpipe emissions rules from the Environmental Protection Agency. “I know because I grew up poor.” In the past he has described his upbringing as strict and focused: school and sports. He went to a Quaker middle school, and a private Catholic high school, enrolling in Florida A&M University before transferring to Florida State University. He had legal trouble as a teenager and into his early 20s. In 1997, Donalds was arrested on a marijuana charge, but the case was dropped as part of a pretrial diversion. Three years later, he pleaded no contest to a felony bribery charge that was part of a plan to defraud a bank. “Fifteen years ago, I came in contact with a girl. She offered me $1,000 for my debit card and my PIN number. I never got the thousand dollars, but I had to make restitution to the bank in excess of $7,000,” Donalds explained to the Fox affiliate in Naples, where he lives, in 2014. “These were the actions of a young kid. I can’t undo that.”

He graduated from college, went on to work in finance, and then switched to politics. Donalds was a Democrat before joining the most extreme factions of conservatives in the House of Representatives. He says he was motivated to attend Tea Party rallies out of disdain for the Troubled Asset Relief Program instituted during the 2008 financial crisis. In 2012, he cited Milton Friedman as a political mentor in a local news interview. He lost his first congressional race that year before winning a seat in the Florida statehouse in 2016, later campaigning on restrictive immigration policies, gun rights, private education and platitudes about “conservative leadership” and “educational excellence.” Donalds, whose wife served on the local school board and is now on the advisory board of conservative group Moms for Liberty, sponsored a bill allowing community members to object to the public school curriculum, and worked to expand charter schools and voucher programs, diverting money from public schools.

In 2020, Donalds won a tight nine-way GOP primary to replace retiring incumbent Rep. Francis Rooney in Congress. After cruising to an easy general election win, Donalds came to Washington where one of his first House votes was to overturn the presidential election of Joe Biden. He represents a coastal stretch of southwest Florida that skews older, wealthier, and much whiter than the rest of the state, according to census data. Donalds won reelection in a landslide last November after crushing moderate Jim Huff, a Fort Myers engineer who canvassed by skateboard and electric scooter to bring “civility back to politics,” as Donalds’ only challenger in the GOP primary.

“He’s got a great story,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican and Freedom Caucus member. Roy calls him “a no nonsense guy.”

In person, Donalds comes across as low-key. He hangs with the other Freedom Caucus bomb throwers in the back of the House chamber, where early Tea Partiers staked their ground. Unlike most members of Congress, he’s almost rarely flanked by his staff. He’s more than willing to give press interviews and seems to relish in his teasing responses to otherwise anodyne questions—such as when I asked him who his mentors are in Congress. “Stay tuned,” he said. He’s operating as a Black Republican in a party increasingly full of white culture warriors, and seemingly totally comfortable with it. Donalds says he spent Juneteenth at home with his sons watching CNN. “Peaceful,” is how he described the weekend to a colleague as he entered the Capitol on his way to the first House vote of the Washington workweek. “Nothing crazy.”

“We dap each other up when we see each other being young Black men here,” said Rep. Maxwell Frost, the young Florida Democrat from Orlando, who was quick to note that this camaraderie with Donalds stemmed more from culture than shared policy positions. “I obviously disagree with him on a lot of different things,” said Frost.

In interviews, Donald denies racism is systemic in America today. “A white kid today didn’t own slaves. A white kid today didn’t persecute people from voting in the Jim Crow South,” Donalds told Alex Wagner last year on Showtime’s The Circus, defending DeSantis’s efforts to regulate race-based conversations in schools and businesses. “A hundred years ago if you would have told me that (there was) systemic racism in the United States, I would have said absolutely there was,” Donalds told Politico’s Eugene Daniels in 2021, leaving the reporter flabbergasted. “System and institutionalized racism today in the United States? No. No. No,” Donalds pushed, before arguing that if there was systemic “anything” that less regulation was the answer. 

In June, two of Donalds’s aides stopped by the House press gallery to inquire about a plaque on the wall commemorating Frederick Douglass. The plaque has a storied history; as editor of New National Era newspaper, Douglass and his son were credentialed between 1870 and 1874 to cover the House until the outlet went belly up. It would be 73 years before the next black reporters, Percival Prattis and Louis Lautier, were credentialed to cover Congress, in 1947. Donalds wants to rename the press room for the abolitionist icon.

“Stay tuned,” Donalds said, coyly. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tells me she would support the measure if Donalds did it. Even Rep. Paul Gosar, who employs an actual white supremacist on his staff, isn’t opposed to renaming the press room, either, calling Douglass “a very good speaker.” Douglass, said Leah Wright Rigueur, a history professor at Johns Hopkins and author of the book The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power, has become a trope in the modern GOP, “something that’s easy for Republicans to hold on to even as the values of the party have changed to be in direct contradiction to who Douglass was and what he did.”

Having Donalds’s name behind an effort like this isn’t of any comfort to Democrats. Democratic staffers are already gaming out ways it could be done in bad faith; Donalds could attach the measure to something Democrats would have to vote against, forcing them to vote against commemorating a civil rights leader, one tells me.

After all, Donalds’s ascension—per Roy’s telling—was to “own the libs.” Donalds himself doesn’t shy away from that genre of political gamesmanship. Just last week he tweeted a photo of Hunter Biden in his underwear alongside photos of celebrities of color who went to jail. The tweet linked to a call to action on Donalds’ website: ‘Tell Democrats to stop preaching “white privilege” while they let Hunter roam free.’

“He’s bold,” said Rep. Burgess Owens, another Black Republican who represents a district in Utah, praising Donalds’s willingness to put himself out there.

Donalds joins a line of Black Republicans who have sought to expand the party’s appeal from the inside, alongside the ranks of former secretary of state Colin Powell and Sen.Tim Scott of South Carolina, now a candidate for president. Despite running against McCarthy in January, Donalds isn’t the Speaker’s biggest critic. He seems keenly aware of political third rails. Alongside conservatives, he voted against the Speaker’s debt deal with Biden but didn’t call for McCarthy’s gavel. McCarthy’s « the guy that we’re with. We’re going to roll with him, » he said per NPR. « Listen, I don’t always have to be happy with the coach. » He endorsed Donald Trump for president in April, but is a longtime ally of DeSantis, whom he has called “America’s governor.” He also doesn’t mind intraparty feuding, even if it weakens Republicans’ negotiating position. “I will prefer a majority with drama as opposed to a majority that just moves in lockstep and doesn’t question anything, and doesn’t have legitimate disagreements,” said Donalds.

Whether he can play that game to a governorship—should he go for it—remains to be seen.

“Black Republicans are conspicuously aware of the boundaries of their party, which makes them think they have control but is really a thorny trap,” Wright Rigueur said. “Donalds has to walk a tightrope toward being able to pull the strings on multiple contingents of his party, but there hasn’t been a Black Republican and modern times to pull that off.”