Ron DeSantis is afraid of questions from a 15 year-old

By Jake Lahut, The Daily Beast, September 1, 2023.

Quinn Mitchell has seen at least 35 presidential candidates in person since 2019, when he first started showing up at New Hampshire primary events to ask them questions.

Not a single one of them had ever treated the now-15-year-old as if he were a threat—until Ron DeSantis came to town.

It all started with a straightforward question. In June, when DeSantis stopped for a town hall event in Hollis, Mitchell raised his hand in the crowd.

“Do you believe that Trump violated the peaceful transfer of power,” the teenager asked the governor, “a key principle of American democracy that we must uphold?”

DeSantis dodged the question and said Americans shouldn’t get stuck in the past, but not before remarking—in a somewhat impressed, incredulous tone—on Mitchell’s age. “Are you in high school?” the governor asked.

The moment went viral, with DeSantis’ non-answer encapsulating how even Donald Trump’s lead primary rival could not bring himself to acknowledge the former president’s efforts to undo the 2020 election. CNN even played it during an interview with Chris Christie to tee up a question to the Trump foe.

For Mitchell, however, the exchange kicked off a series of events that deeply rattled him and his family.

Speaking about it for the first time in an interview with The Daily Beast, Mitchell says that he was grabbed and physically intimidated by DeSantis security at two subsequent campaign stops, where the candidate’s staffers also monitored him in a way he perceived as hostile.

The experience, Mitchell said, was “horrifying” and amounted to “intimidation.”

At a Fourth of July parade DeSantis attended, Mitchell was swarmed by security and physically restrained after a brief interaction with the governor—with his private security contractors even demanding Mitchell stay put until they said so.

With his mother alarmed, the situation escalated to such a degree that the candidate’s wife, Casey, spoke directly with her—but to suggest her son was being dishonest about what happened, according to Mitchell.

Then, at an August 19 event—where Mitchell was tailed closely by two security guards—an attendee told The Daily Beast they saw a staffer for DeSantis’ super PAC, Never Back Down, take a photo of the teenager on Snapchat before typing out an ominous caption: “Got our kid.”

Seven other sources corroborated Mitchell’s version of events, either by sharing contemporaneous communications with the family or recounting what they witnessed in person at DeSantis events, including the Fourth of July parade. The teenager and his family say they have yet to receive any kind of apology from DeSantis.

The DeSantis campaign and Never Back Down did not return multiple requests for comment from The Daily Beast.

As astute an observer of the state’s politics as any, Mitchell had a blunt assessment of the fiasco over DeSantis’ treatment of him. “Really stupid,” he said, “in a small state like New Hampshire.”

‘I Just Want to Ask My Question’

As the DeSantis campaign’s summer from hell comes to an end, the governor is not much closer to seriously threatening Trump for the GOP nomination. Amid concerns over his stagnant polling numbers, his fundraising performance, and unsustainable spending, the DeSantis operation has seen substantial turnover, including the ouster of his campaign manager.

Across all of the reboots and turmoil, a consistent thread apparently remained: the DeSantis team’s willingness to go to unusual lengths to prevent a teenage boy from having a chance to follow up with the candidate on his question—and, to hear Mitchell tell it, personally express regret that he made the governor look bad.

More broadly, the teenager’s story distills some key reasons why DeSantis’ presidential bid is struggling: a candidate with clear difficulty making personal connections, a team obsessed with managing every detail on the campaign trail, and a pervasive anxiety over the idea of alienating Trump voters.

Combined together, those factors may ensure DeSantis gets nowhere near the White House in 2024. In New Hampshire, they’ve already pushed a precocious and passionate teenager to consider quitting politics altogether.

“I may be older now and know I can handle this a lot more, but if they had done that to me a few years back, I don’t know if I could have handled that,” Mitchell said. “It’s unfortunate, because I just want to ask my question.”

In the nation’s first primary state, where individual voters can have an outsized impact on the process, Mitchell made himself a staple of the New Hampshire political scene before he was even a teenager.

A self-described political independent who loves history and politics, Mitchell sees it as his “civic duty” to show up to ask questions, especially on behalf of “people who live in other states and the people who want to ask those questions,” who “don’t always get the opportunity.”

Before DeSantis, presidential candidates have not just tolerated the teenager but seemed to genuinely appreciate him. In the 2020 Democratic primary, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) met with Mitchell and later worked his enthusiasm for politics into her stump speech.

More recently, Christie not only gave him a shoutout during the CNN interview—“he goes to every town hall meeting… he asks really tough questions”—but was quoted in a recent USA Today profile of Mitchell. “Quinn, remember me when you are president,” the former New Jersey governor quipped.

‘They’re Watching You’

After his question about Jan. 6 blew up on DeSantis, Mitchell—who was not intending to land a punch on the governor—said he “genuinely felt bad about it.” A few days later, he woke up early for the hour-and-a-half drive to Merrimack, where he intended to personally say as much to DeSantis at the town’s Fourth of July parade.

Once there, the high level of security around the governor’s contingent stood out to Mitchell and other observers. Staffers for the super PAC, Never Back Down, “were nudging the security guys and pointing at me,” Mitchell said. “I actually had a reporter come up and just say, ‘They’re pointing at you and they’re watching you.’”

Unfazed, Mitchell patiently walked along as the candidate crossed from curb to curb, shaking hands with voters; each time he came close to DeSantis, however, the security guards would hold their arms out in front and parry him away.

Finally, Mitchell was able to get within earshot of the governor. When he passed by, he told him, “I’m so sorry that I got you in all that trouble,” and offered him a chance to give a different or more detailed answer to the question.

According to Mitchell, DeSantis nodded in response, at least acknowledging his question, and the two had a quick handshake. That’s when things went south: right after the handshake, Mitchell recalled his shock when he felt a firm tug on his shirt, pulling him away from DeSantis. Suddenly, all he could see were the outstretched arms of security guards and plain clothed aides.

“Usually what they do is they don’t push you or anything, but they put their hands out and kind of body you, so you just don’t move, basically,” Mitchell said, describing a shuffling motion more akin to an offensive line on a football team than a presidential candidate’s security detail.

If that were not startling enough, right after the fracas, a DeSantis security guard cornered Mitchell and ordered him not to move from the spot for another five minutes. In response, he did what almost any 15-year old would do.

He texted his mom.

Toward the end of the parade, Mitchell’s mother reunited with her son and then demanded an explanation from DeSantis for why his security detail was putting their hands on her boy, an interaction that was observed by a Boston Globe reporter on the scene.

What the Globe didn’t catch was the involvement of the second most important person in the DeSantis campaign: Casey, the governor’s wife and arguably his top political adviser.

Instead of diffusing the situation, however, the Florida First Lady suggested to Mitchell’s mother that she was overreacting—and that her son was fibbing.

“Well, I’m a mother, too,” Casey said, according to Mitchell and other witnesses, along with multiple sources who shared contemporaneous communications on the incident with The Daily Beast. “I know what you’re experiencing, and we’re all very afraid for our children—even if they’re exaggerating.”

As for the candidate himself, DeSantis told Mitchell he would “get to the bottom” of the one-sided encounter with security, and even told the teenager to come to his next event.

‘Got Our Kid’

Ahead of their August 19 event, a staffer for Never Back Down reached out to Mitchell. USA Today let the PAC know that a photographer wanted to come photograph Mitchell for the upcoming profile. The staffer just wanted to confirm he would be in attendance.

The teenager obliged. But after walking into the event, held in a firearm factory in Newport, he noticed something odd.

It wasn’t just that he saw a pair of security guards flanking him as he made his way to the far side of the venue. The weird part was that Never Back Down staffers were taking photos of him. It was notable to Mitchell, even before he learned of the ominous caption—“got our kid”—that one staffer was seen attaching to a Snapchat photo.

The governor kept audience questions to a tight 15 minutes, throwing Mitchell a glance but ignoring his outstretched hand, though the teenager now stands over 6 feet tall.

Security kept their defensive posture as Mitchell tried to make his way to stage right—where DeSantis was attempting to chat with voters and take selfies—blocking him from getting toward the group of voters waiting to chat with the candidate.

Even after Mitchell gave up on his months-long pursuit of a follow-up question to DeSantis about his views on Trump and the transfer of power, security prevented him from crossing the room to see a family friend, until they eventually relented.

Since the incidents, Mitchell has not heard from the DeSantis campaign, or the PAC, though he expected to. He could not reach an in-state contact for the governor’s team himself.

“The campaign, they could have called and said, ‘We’re so sorry, this should have never happened, we’ll get to the bottom of it,’” Mitchell said. “Never got a call like that. They never apologized to us for any of it.”

Mitchell often says that it’s a privilege to live in New Hampshire, a state where even a determined teenager can have the power to influence the presidential election in a small way. His dream is to become a political reporter, but he said the DeSantis events almost made him want to hang it up for good.

Whatever happens, Mitchell is likely to keep up his rigorous primary schedule—even if he’s unlikely to try to see DeSantis again anytime soon. But the teenager said if he ran into him “at conventions or a multiple candidate event, I will do my best to press him.”

Still, the political history buff came away with one silver lining after the last DeSantis event.

“I actually got a free hat that day,” Mitchell said, a fine collector’s item, even if it was for the Never Back Down PAC and not the DeSantis campaign proper.

For a 15-year-old who sacrificed more than a few dog days of summer—and more than a few hours of Minecraft—to be treated as a security threat by a major presidential candidate, a free Never Back Down hat selling for nearly $30 online was, he quipped, “probably the only good thing that happened that day.”

 Image Credits: Charles Krupa-AP