Tracing the Power of Casey DeSantis

Photo for The Washington Post by Travis Dove
Casey DeSantis stops by Coastal Coffee Roasters in Summerville, S.C., on April 19.

Where’s Casey?

Ron was asking.

“Where is she at?”

Ron was always asking.

Ron DeSantis was in the middle of a picnic in Sioux Center, Iowa, bent over a homemade poster. Four photos, arranged in a neat grid, stared back at him: Ron and Casey, smiling on election night, 2022; Ron and Casey, smiling outside the governor’s mansion, 2021; a headshot of Ron; a headshot of Casey. The governor signed his name in the corner, leaving room for his wife’s signature. He was the one running for president, but of course she should sign it, too. “I don’t know where the first lady is, but she’ll do it,” he said.

Casey DeSantis was on the other side of the room. She knew, starting with his early days in politics, when Ron was still a member of Congress, elected at the age of 34, how she wanted to figure in his world. She knew the staff he should hire, former aides said, the invitations he should accept and the invitations he should decline. She knew his walking path at events, the people he’d stand next to on a stage. She knew his schedule, down to every meeting and call and fundraiser and congressional vote, because she asked to be copied on every calendar entry. She knew the cowboy boots he should wear, even though, at first, he complained that they hurt his feet, until a staffer suggested he buy dress shoes instead, at which point he said, “Casey got them for me,” and that was the end of the conversation about the cowboy boots. She knew the earpiece he should use for live interviews, because she had spent 15 years in television, even though, at first, the earpiece was uncomfortable in his ear, at which point an aide said, “Casey got this for you,” and that was the end of the conversation about the earpiece.

Ron was always talking about the two of them as one – when “we” got elected, when “we” protect freedom, when “we” fight the woke agenda – as if it was hard to see his role and hers in clear relief. Reporters approached Casey’s story with phrases like “co-governor,” “secret weapon,” “not-so-secret weapon” – the “X-factor” who “knows what’s best for Ron.” Ron was known to inspire fear, even in his allies. “If you can’t make ’em see the light,” he has said, quoting Ronald Reagan, “make ’em feel the heat.” But Casey – she was a subject they wouldn’t touch if they didn’t have to.

She stood, as many political spouses do, whether they wish to or not, as a mirror onto which the public could project its doubt and its criticism: Where Ron was hard and bellicose, people said, Casey was soft. Where he was unable to connect with voters, she was charming, telegenic, warm to the touch. Where he broke his stage presence – with an angry outburst, or a wild, sarcastic look in his eyes – she was steady in front of an audience. As a young TV anchor, she would stand in front of her bathroom mirror, practicing, practicing, practicing. Before debates during his campaign for governor in 2018, he was instructed to write “LIKABLE” in all-caps across the top of his notepad, according to footage published by ABC News, like a reminder.

To the voters she met in Iowa, Casey was likable. She was 42, a mother of three kids, ages 3, 5 and 6. She had survived breast cancer after insisting on a mammogram, even when her doctors were reluctant, because she had “felt something,” not physically, she said in 2021, but in her gut – “something sitting inside me just didn’t feel right.” Next to her husband, in his loose-cut blazers and jeans, with his boots curved over the base of a lectern, as if he were trying to scale it, Casey had steel-straight posture and a precise, sure way of speaking – clasping the mic with one hand, turning her thumb and forefinger in the other, as if adjusting a dial.

Her message was always this: She was there to support Ron. If the line ever blurred between his role and hers, she drew it back again, sharp and clean.

Yes, Casey would sign your poster. But first, with a small laugh, she would say, “This is when it goes down in value.” Yes, Casey would take a photo. But first, she would take a few steps back and gesture toward her husband. “Get one with him,” she told a group of police officers in South Carolina this spring. “Get one with him.” Ron stood beside the officers and smoothed his blazer, making small talk: “You guys municipal?” A woman raised her phone to take the picture. “All right, first lady,” she said, “you wanna hop in there?” Sure, Casey would hop in there. But first: “This is when it goes down in value,” she said, squeezing in beside her husband. The officers laughed. Ron smiled. Casey smiled. The camera flashed.

It wasn’t that Casey wanted to make herself small. As a unit, Ron-and-Casey, one word, have become one of the most guarded and feared partnerships in politics. In the shifting light, they could have the look of a traditional husband and wife – or of two modern partners, coequals in life and work, a couple in their 40s, next-generation. Often, he deferred to her. And often, she deferred to him.

Where was Casey? In 2011, she was in the back of small Republican gatherings, handing out copies of the book her husband had paid to publish, “Dreams From Our Founding Fathers,” a treatise on constitutional conservatism that mocked Barack Obama’s best-selling memoir. In 2012, she was working one TV show in Jacksonville, and planning to launch another, while spending her weekends knocking on doors for her husband’s first congressional campaign. In 2013, she was packing up their house in Sawgrass, a gated club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to move to his new congressional district, making her commute to work an hour and seven minutes each way. In 2016, she was home with a newborn while he spent weekdays in Washington. In 2018, she was leaving TV altogether to help him run for governor. And then she was packing boxes again, this time to move to 700 N. Adams Street, the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee. She deactivated her cellphone number and didn’t give out the new one widely. She had always been exceptionally private. But there were friends and colleagues and people she mentored who didn’t hear from her again. “You’re chasing a ghost,” one said.

Casey declined requests to be interviewed for this article. In response to an email detailing the reporting in this story, a DeSantis spokesman declined to comment.

Casey faded from an entire life in Jacksonville to be here, by her husband’s side as he runs for president. She was with him on stages, telling voters she got to marry her “hero.” She was with him on rope lines, wearing a black leather jacket bearing his slogan, “Where Woke Goes to Die.” She was with him at picnics like this one in Iowa, where the governor moved through a tent to grill steaks for the cameras. Or he thought she was. He tied a red apron around his waist and gripped a spatula. “Where’s your better half, governor?” someone asked. Behind him, a matching apron, printed with CASEY DESANTIS in bold, lay untouched beneath the tent.

“Where’s the first lady at?” Ron said.

Casey was back in the SUV. The wind was causing a disturbance in Iowa, with gusts reaching 30 mph and tornado warnings on the radio. After her husband’s speech, she had made it about 15 yards toward the tent, before she grasped her hair with both hands, twisted it low around the nape of her neck and retreated for the calm air of the car. The wind was a no.

“I gotta get my missus,” the governor said under the tent. “I gotta make sure she’s good.”

Casey does not have to be physically present, though she very often is, to make her influence felt. Her role in Ron’s political and governing life has no exact limit or shape. It is the air in which he moves.

To try to define the relationship between politician and spouse is to muddle around in a marriage that only two people really know. But over the years, the practice has yielded a tradition of bad, gendered clichés, in which fear and suspicion glimmer just below the surface. There is fear of crossing the person closest to the politician – in this case, his wife. There is fear of a woman exerting control where, traditionally, she should not – fear of hidden influence, communicated in intimate spaces, behind closed doors, in darkened SUVs. People have ideas about what a first lady should be. There is a collective, tacit sense that when she oversteps her role, in what she does or says or wears, we will know it when we see it, even though the role itself has never been well defined or sufficiently updated. People feared Barbara Bush, whose image as “America’s grandmother” cloaked a caustic wit and opprobrium. People feared Nancy Reagan as the calculating secret power in the White House. People feared Hillary Clinton for making no secret of her power.

“It’s an incredibly weird job,” the first lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, once wrote.

Fear was always going to follow Casey, in part because so many people are scared of Ron, many around him acknowledge. He wields fear like a currency in Tallahassee. The city is small. In the late spring, when the undergraduates are leaving and the state legislature is in session, the streets are humid and empty, and the city tenses with unseen activity – lobbyists and legislators navigating the force of the man in the governor’s office.

When a group of state lawmakers pledging to support DeSantis for president received invitations to the governor’s mansion last month, they refused to talk about the gathering with anyone who hadn’t been there, treating it like a state secret, according to two people familiar with the meeting who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. Of the 113 Republicans in the legislature, 100 are backing DeSantis for president. Twelve have stayed out of the race. Just one, state Sen. Joe Gruters, has been willing to publicly support Donald Trump. In Tallahassee, if you cross the governor, you aren’t just shown the door – you leave with the belief that he and his enforcers will try to harm your career. “People are terrified of them,” said a former Republican state House member. “These guys are not normal politicos. There’s no inner circle, because they just chop off heads and move on so quickly.”

The culture has helped DeSantis force through item after item on his agenda: no vaccine mandates, no abortion after six weeks, no diversity and inclusion programs in the classroom, no laws requiring the governor to disclose his travel records. He loosened gun restrictions. He tightened limits on undocumented immigrants. He outlawed gender-affirming care for minors.

And he has done it with the language of zero tolerance. Listen to him talk on stage: The pandemic was a “Faucian dystopia.” Woke ideology is a “mind virus.” Parents are seeing gender identity issues “shoved down their throats.” The governor’s office would “wield 100 percent of executive power.” It would “spit nails” for its mission. If a member of the team wasn’t on board, that person would be eliminated: “Pack your bags right now – you’re gone,” he’s explained to crowds. No “leaks,” “no drama,” no “palace intrigue.” Other Republicans, they were like “potted plants,” DeSantis says. They didn’t do anything. Whatever “S.O.B.” succeeds him as governor would have nothing left to accomplish. “I’m getting all the meat off the bone.”

Ron and Casey live as an inner circle of two. They were always two private people, trusting of each other, often exclusively so, but the level of prominence and power they achieved in Tallahassee seemed to insulate their world further, creating a level of distance between Ron and Casey and everyone else. They don’t take social calls to the mansion, except for Christmas receptions and Easter egg rolls and the like. DeSantis’s supporters say this is a good thing, to be so focused on “the mission” at work and on their family at home. They say Ron and Casey are normal people in abnormal positions. Normal people go to Chick-fil-A, they say, just like Ron and Casey do. Normal people play T-ball with their kids, just like Ron and Casey do. At the residence, invited guests post Instagram photos standing next to a sign that reads “Governor’s Mansion: Closed to Visiting.” Outside, new layers of security fencing have been added to the perimeter.

“It’s just them,” said Javier Manjarres, a journalist at the conservative-leaning Floridian Press who describes himself as friendly with Ron. “They don’t have time for girl friends and guy friends. Ron doesn’t go fishing. Maybe he’ll go golfing with legislators. But it’s not, like, his buddies. That’s not a thing with him. And same for her. It doesn’t exist.”

People looked to Casey as a way to explain something about the governor – to reinforce or mitigate their ideas about his hardness. They noticed what she wore. They mocked or admired her white gloves and caped gowns – an imitation Jackie Kennedy or Melania Trump, depending on who was looking. They criticized her for going by her middle name, Casey, instead of her first name, Jill, even though she has always gone by Casey. Online, they could find ugly conspiracy theories about her breast cancer – that she had exaggerated or even faked it for political gain. In photos from the time of her treatment, you can see she is wearing a wig. (“I am lucky to even have hair,” she told the New York Post.) The diagnosis “was a real gut punch to everyone,” said Scott Wagner, a classmate of Ron’s from Yale University who also has become close with Casey. He remembers one holiday reception at the mansion in 2021: “She was doing her thing, but you could see that she was tired. She never said a word about it, but you knew: You could see that it was not easy for her.”

“That to me is probably the most infuriating situation,” Wagner said of the theories. “At the end of the day, we’re talking about human beings. We’re talking about a happily married man and woman with kids, and she’s got breast cancer, and people are taking these little potshots? Yeah, it makes you mad.”

People also had a tendency to attribute Ron’s decisions to his wife, to cast blame or credit in her direction. To say that Ron knows what he wants to do, but Casey knows how to get there – that she is the “executive producer,” as one former administration official said.

Donald Trump liked to poke at Casey’s influence. “I know more about him than anybody,” he told a group of reporters on his plane last fall, adding, “Other than perhaps his wife, who is really running his campaign.”

But it was Ron who pushed lawmakers to pass laws and then signed them. It was Ron who transformed Florida, who appointed conservative judges. Casey embraced his hard-line policies, and his tactics, in ways that surprised her former colleagues. She talked about Ron’s agenda as a mission ordained by God. She called his ability in politics “a God-given gift.” Part of creation itself. “And on the eighth day,” the narrator says in an ad she circulated on Twitter during his 2022 reelection campaign, “God made a fighter.” “I love you, Ron,” she wrote in the caption. By all accounts, Casey believed in the mission as much as he did. But it was Ron’s name on the ballot.

“I think it’s easier for people to try to attribute decisions to her because she’s so real and engaging, and he’s so mission-focused,” said Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee lobbyist and longtime DeSantis supporter. “But his staff doesn’t even make the decisions. Everything you see is a Ron DeSantis decision that his staff carries out.”

“I mean, that is just a fact.”

It is difficult to find friends or former co-workers in Jacksonville who are still in touch with Casey.

She spent 15 years in the city, 160 miles east of Tallahassee. It was 2003 when she arrived. She was still Jill Casey Black, 23 years old, unmarried, a graduate of the College of Charleston, an economics major, a French minor – and the newest traffic reporter at WJXT (Channel 4). She did some hosting around town: charity golf competitions, grocery drives. She competed on “Hot Local News Babe Jeopardy,” on Rock 105 radio, “to see who’s the babe with the best, er, brains,” the Florida Times-Union wrote at the time. But she was serious about doing serious work. She covered crime and the military and became a regular on the anchor desk. In 2010, she left for a short stint with the PGA Tour broadcast, before taking a job at a Jacksonville TV program called First Coast Living. There, she became the face of the morning talk show, running local-interest stories and paid segments designed to sell products like AquaGuard and home security systems. People in Jacksonville knew her face. She was a small-time local celebrity who then disappeared into politics.

Texts and calls went nowhere. Friends who wanted to get in touch could try to reach her staff. Who still talked to Casey? Former colleagues came up with only one name: Ramona.

Ramona worked at a hair salon in Ponte Vedra Beach that had a contract with First Coast Living. She still did Ron and Casey’s hair, and the kids’ sometimes, too, which people in Jacksonville knew only because she posted Instagram pictures of Casey and her hair. Ramona showed it braided in a low up-do here, flowing across one shoulder there. Ramona politely declined to be interviewed, saying, “I’m sure the first lady can answer any questions you have more accurately than I ever can.”

People were hesitant to speak for Casey – or to even speak about her. “Nine and a half times out of ten, you won’t find anyone that’s gonna say, ‘Oh, yeah, me and Casey used to hang out. We used to bake cookies together,'” said Henrietta Stewart, who got her break in Jacksonville television after Casey advocated for her talent. “No, Casey does not roll like that. Casey was private. Casey was all about her business. Casey was laser-focused. I admired her hustle.”

In 2006, Casey met Ron DeSantis at a driving range. He asked her out, and she followed him in her car to the nearest place he could find, a Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, the burger-and-wings chain. Casey told friends that Ron made her happy. She was 29, he 31, when they got married. The ceremony took place at Disney World, in a chapel that is “actually really nice,” Ron says now, and really “traditional,” and “in fact, you look at our wedding pictures, and you wouldn’t know that it was anything out of the ordinary.” The choice of venue has become a well-rehearsed riff at the “fireside chats” Ron holds with Casey on the campaign trail, now that his office is at war with the Walt Disney Co. Onstage together, Casey and Ron say the wedding venue was her idea – Casey’s parents always loved visiting Disney. “We had a lot of fun – before they went woke, obviously,” she tells the crowd.

By the time Ron was in Congress, Casey was preparing to launch a show called “The Chat.” The idea was a women-led talk show airing every weekday at 3 p.m., a local version of “The View.” She gravitated toward projects that felt like news reporting. She had a mantra in production meetings: “What does the viewer value?” For every segment, every guest, every topic: “What is the viewer value for this?” When the journalist Laura Ling was freed from captivity in North Korea, Casey didn’t wait for her producers to reach out – she booked the interview herself. When she learned about the story of J.T. Townsend, a high school football player left paralyzed by a spinal cord injury on the field, she wrote and produced a documentary that earned a Suncoast Regional Emmy nomination. “You could tell that that was her passion – telling stories like that,” said Chanel LeBlanc, one of Casey’s producers.

Colleagues often found Casey at her desk, reviewing old footage, remarking on what she could have done better. She was hard on herself. And self-critical about her appearance. “She didn’t like to watch herself, but she did,” a former colleague said. Casey kept changes of clothes in the trunk of her car. She came in with wrinkles or dog hair on her dresses. She walked around in sweats and without makeup until it was time to get ready for the show. Stewart, who worked as an operations manager before Casey helped her become a co-host on “The Chat,” once asked her mentor for advice. “Casey said, ‘Practice.’ She told me she would do it in the mirror and practice in the bathroom for hours.”

Casey maintained tight boundaries at work. She didn’t talk about politics, but people knew she was conservative. She always had the television by her desk tuned to Fox News. She read the Daily Mail. Casey’s partner in creating the show, the co-executive producer, Bonnie Solloway, was an outspoken liberal. She pitched segments about racism in the community – one was about a Black girl being forced to straighten her natural hair for a dance troupe. Former colleagues don’t remember Casey pushing a political agenda on the show. She just wanted to know: “What does the viewer value?” She rarely talked about Ron, either.

On a Tuesday afternoon in 2015, Casey was on the set of “The Chat” when her phone rang about 15 minutes before the show. Co-workers heard a guttural “Oh my God, what?” Ron’s 30-year-old sister, Christina Marie DeSantis, had died of a pulmonary embolism. Casey ran off the set. It was one of the few times people saw her cry. “She was completely devastated,” a co-worker said. They did the show that day with one fewer host.

“If you didn’t know her, Casey could come off as standoffish or maybe a bit of a snob, but it was really her introvertedness,” said Toni Foxx, one of the co-hosts on the Chat.

“She was extremely private,” said LeBlanc.

LeBlanc was one of the producers who developed a friendship with Casey. They worked together every day. They called each other “thin mint” and “stick bug” because both were skinny, LeBlanc said. She could tell right away, in 2016, when Casey started showing. LeBlanc didn’t say anything, because Casey hadn’t said anything. Time went by, and still Casey said nothing. Her condition became “more than obvious,” LeBlanc said, “to the point where it was kind of funny.”

When it was just the two of them in the office, LeBlanc finally asked Casey if she was pregnant. “She was like, ‘Oh! No,'” LeBlanc recalled. She let it go. About a week later, she received a text from Casey with an official pregnancy announcement, released through Ron’s office.

You were right, Casey texted LeBlanc. I just couldn’t tell you.

In those days, Ron was usually gone.

Casey was in the office by 7:30 a.m., ready for the morning show, and she was out as soon as “The Chat” finished taping at 4 p.m. She had a baby at home, a girl named Madison, and a long commute. Ron was in Washington on weekdays, sleeping in his office, eating from the vending machine, always booked on the first flight home.

Casey had been the one to tell his staff that if there were any meeting requests after the last vote of the week, they should be declined, a former aide said. “Ron always wants to be on the first flight out,” the staffer recalled her saying. If votes ended at noon, by 12:06 he was in the car, airport-bound.

It wasn’t unusual that the directive came from Casey. As the couple adjusted to life in Congress, Casey had eyes on everything: calendar items, personnel decisions, questions from staffers. She wanted to know where her husband was, what times he was available and what times he was busy, while she was at home caring for the baby. But she also was becoming an indispensable political partner, the role that would soon become her full-time pursuit.

Ron did not like Washington. One of the first things he asked his team to do was order a “Do Not Disturb” sign to place on his office door. The placard was double-sided, but both sides said “Do Not Disturb.” The office wasn’t toxic, recalled a former aide; it was just “weird.” DeSantis had his quirks: He kept the same yellow stadium-style cup by his desk that he filled daily with water and soft drinks. No one ever touched it. There were three things he liked to talk about with his staff: the Constitution, baseball and golf. The one thing they joked about, the former staffer said, was Trump. “Ron always said this guy was just an idiot.” Often, communication with staffers occurred through text message, even if they were in the next room – or it happened through Casey.

Congress isn’t a period of the DeSantis track record that he talks about much. Inconvenient components of the couple’s past – Ron’s short U.S. Senate run in 2016, Casey’s career in a field he now says is “so corrupt” – have a way of being ignored or erased.

As Ron prepared to run for governor in 2018, Casey left her job at First Coast Living, and staffers at “The Chat” noticed that some of the archival footage featuring Casey had disappeared, one former co-worker said.

In the governor’s race, people called DeSantis “The Résumé.” His degrees from Yale and Harvard Law School were something impressive. Now, he and Casey say he spent his college years “up in the Northeast.”

Then there was the name. It was always “DEE-Santis.” His nickname was D in high school. In the office at First Coast Living, when Casey’s phone lit up with a call from Ron, it said “D” on the screen. “D! D! D!” the Little League players chanted when a young Ron DeSantis stepped to the batter’s box during a championship game. “‘D’ doesn’t stand for anything,” he said after the game. “I just want people to call me D because I like that better than my real name.”

Now, it was Deh-Santis. “You know what, I’ve never even noticed,” Casey said when asked about the old pronunciation in a 2018 interview. But even during the campaign that year, two former staffers said, Ron and Casey had reminded people to pronounce it correctly, the old way: “DEE-Santis.”

“It’s just always been Deh-Santis,” Casey said in the interview.

“Deh-Santis,” she said slowly.

At a certain point, people just assumed: The change in pronunciation was Casey’s idea.

By the time Ron was elected governor, aides could see that Casey would not be a typical first lady.

As Thanksgiving approached ahead of the inauguration, staffers planned for Ron and Casey to spend the day before the holiday at Trinity Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter in Jacksonville. The couple helped prep and stuff turkeys in the kitchen. Afterward, an aide suggested that Casey sit down with children at the shelter to read a book, a soft-focus event they might have arranged for Florida’s departing first lady, Ann Scott. The aide, who recounted the visit, said that after it ended, “it was made clear to everyone present that she didn’t want to do what Ann or other first ladies had previously done.”

Instead, Casey began taking daily, in-depth meetings at the Republican Party of Florida offices. Aides watched her drink cup after cup of Bulletproof Coffee. As she was preparing for her new role, she asked an aide what Melania Trump would do or wear, what stores and designers she liked, looking to the president’s wife as a model.

When it came time to plan the seating chart for the inauguration ceremony, including the reserved “Friends and Family” section, Casey provided a list of just eight names, according to a copy of the seating chart.

An aide asked Casey whether anybody had been left out.

That was the full list, he was told.

As he finalized the plans, he double-checked again. He got the same answer: No, no. That’s it. Eight names: Six family members and one of Ron’s friends and his wife.

Wagner, Ron’s classmate, said other friends attended the inauguration but were simply “spread” around. Ron and Casey “immerse themselves in their family and, to be honest with you, it’s pretty refreshing,” Wagner said.

As he prepared to take office in 2019, Ron ordered his deputies to assemble a thick D-ring binder outlining the powers of the governorship. Casey had no such binder, because there were no set powers to fill it. But she would take on a big portfolio as first lady. Not just one signature issue. Many. She created lessons on resilience and mental toughness in schools, a cancer research initiative, a program blending public and private resources for underserved children and families. Her predecessor had worked out of the governor’s mansion, but Casey took over an office in the Capitol previously reserved for the chief of staff. It was a large room, big enough for a conference table, and attached directly to the governor’s office. Shane Strum, the chief of staff at the time, moved into a smaller office once occupied by an executive assistant.

How did Casey help him as governor, a reporter once asked Ron?

“Messaging,” he replied.

She knew how to contextualize Ron’s agenda in plain, family-oriented terms. She liked to say “mamas” instead of mothers. That was the tone. “She had a seat at the table every time,” said Stephen Lawson, the communications director on the 2018 campaign. “Her focus is always on putting the governor in the best light possible.”

But sometimes decisions happened the way they did – whole campaign ads were produced and paid for, event sites were moved – simply because Casey wanted it so. Lawmakers expecting direct communication from the governor sometimes got handwritten notes on “First Lady of Florida” letterhead instead. “Nothing really happened without Casey’s blessing, approval or awareness,” said a former administration official. “I do think that she puts the fear of God into people.”

Another thing happened when Ron and Casey arrived in Tallahassee. They wanted new phones with disabled text-messaging. This required lengthy calls with AT&T customer service, followed by lengthy visits to an AT&T store, a former aide recalled. Finally, Ron and Casey’s MMS and SMS capabilities were shut down. In Florida, where state “sunshine” laws provide access to emails and texts as public records, the request was not unheard of among state officials.

But it was the way they changed their numbers, the former aide said, that seemed so stark. Like something old had ended and something new had begun.

At the time, the couple told staffers they wanted “a fresh start.”

She’s a force,” the governor told a crowd in Clive, Iowa.

At the first rally of his presidential campaign, he invited his wife onstage. Casey walked to the lectern. Ron placed his hand on her back and stepped aside.

“Let ‘er rip,” he said into her ear.

In five events across Iowa, Ron introduced himself to the voters who will get the first chance to pick the Republican presidential nominee – and at each stop, he yielded the microphone to Casey. This insular couple, who didn’t let people in, who made Tallahassee into an island of their own power, was now asking to be seen and known.

There was one recent trip this April, a speech at a Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner, that took Ron and his wife and their two eldest children, Madison and Mason, to West Chester Township, Ohio, just one hour south of Casey’s hometown, a small place called Troy. On the way to the dinner, they took a short detour. It was her first time back in 20 years to the town that shaped her, she told the crowd that night. Her parents had long since moved away to South Carolina.

Hardly anyone knew about the visit. The only reason Sandy Gurklies did was because, a few days earlier, she was eating breakfast at K’s Hamburger Shop when one of the managers came up to her table and said, “The big guy’s coming. I thought you might wanna know.”

The big guy was the governor of Florida.

“Oh,” Gurklies said, “so Casey’s coming to town.”

Gurklies, an archivist at Troy’s Local History Library, remembered the family. She used to teach, so she knew Casey’s mother, a speech pathologist who had worked with children at the same school. She knew Casey’s father because he was the best eye doctor in town. She knew that sometimes Casey and her sister Kate were off at competitions: Casey for horseback riding, Kate for ice skating. But the town of Troy was only vaguely aware that Casey Black was now Florida first lady Casey DeSantis.

Casey’s family is used to reporters calling now. Her mother, reached by phone, said, “The answer is no.” Her sister, who lives in Colorado, also wasn’t interested. “We just don’t want to be involved,” her husband said on the phone.

It was a Thursday in April when Ron and Casey, a group of aides and a staff photographer walked into K’s. Gurklies was waiting inside with an old yearbook, hoping to get an autograph. Yes, Casey would be happy to sign it. Sitting in a booth, she and Ron flipped through the pages together. There were photos of Casey on student council, in the homecoming court, playing basketball, running track.

Two days later, news of the visit arrived via an article on Fox News’s website. Official photos, provided by the Office of Gov. Ron DeSantis, showed the first lady touring the halls of her elementary school, walking Main Street, eating at K’s, pointing to a photo in the Troy High School yearbook.

The Fox story was written with an air of remove. “According to DeSantis’ office, the family visited K’s. . .” the scene began.

What they saw, what they felt – there were only two people who knew. It was just Ron and Casey.

Photo for The Washington Post by Travis Dove
Casey DeSantis shares the stage with her husband at a “fireside chat” in North Charleston, S.C., on April 19.