The former President’s increasingly fantastical obsession with an election that he lost shows his determination to pin the Republican Party’s future on a personal quest for vengeance that would restore his tarnished self-image as a winner. But DeSantis is directly engaging President Joe Biden, who plans to run for reelection, on multiple fronts that send an electric political charge through the GOP base.
Trump was most recently seen on conservative network Newsmax, downplaying the January 6, 2021, insurrection and insisting, falsely, that ex-Vice President Mike Pence could have made him president again. At the same time, DeSantis was opening a direct front against Biden on immigration – an issue that fired up Trump’s first campaign – and lacerating Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has become a favorite target of conservative media.
Sure, the 2024 election is still a ways away, and the rightward march of the GOP risks damaging all of its candidates with a broader electorate. And Trump still appears to have the next Republican primary by a stranglehold. The noncommittal responses from Republican senators asked whether they’d back him in 2024 after his vow to pardon Capitol insurrectionists was proof of that. As was news that the former President has a $122 million campaign war chest. And a possible new Republican House run by Trump’s henchmen and women after the midterm elections would give him real access to power and a vehicle for vengeance.
But successful candidates position themselves well ahead of time to take advantage of future openings. All a potential GOP presidential hopeful can do now is prepare for a post-Trump era, if it happens. And DeSantis is using his flair for leveraging his official role as governor and his reelection race to pick fights on issues that matter to Trump voters, to saturate conservative media and to emerge as the dominant potential 2024 Republican not named Trump. If the ex-President stumbles, decides not to run or becomes embroiled in his own legal troubles, DeSantis is already presenting himself as an alternative. And in some ways, their shadow boxing is offering the first sign of a fork in the road for the Republican Party.
With Trump, activists can get a relitigation of an election that would then be four years in the past and the promise to use a second term to wreak havoc on the political, legal and foreign policy elites that thwarted him in his first term. There are few signs of new policies or approaches that might look to the future.
DeSantis, however, offers all the ideological and culture war ammunition that Trump would bring without the bellyaching about 2020, although he has proposed Trump-inspired ideas about voting restrictions and an election police. He’d be a lightning conductor for conservative fury over undocumented migrants, the teaching of race in schools, transgender athletes playing on sports teams and the perceived crushing of freedoms by Covid-19 restrictions. And he’d have a governing record on all of them.
Trump retains fierce support in the heartland – the number of signs bearing his name alongside major highways and homes remains remarkable testimony to the connection forged by the former President. But it’s not a given that all of those voters, while still viewing Trump with affection, will necessarily want to see him mount a third presidential bid. An NBC poll last month for, instance, showed that there are now more Republicans who consider themselves GOP voters than Trump voters – in a steady decline in the former President’s standing.
At the head of the pack
DeSantis is at the head of a group of Republican governors who have used their prominence in the pandemic to oppose federal health guidelines like masks in schools, vaccine mandates and societal shutdowns and to pour skepticism on epidemiological science. Others, like Govs. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Greg Abbott of Texas, also handled the pandemic well in the eyes of conservative media – even if their policies raised the risk of infection, hospitalization and death in red states where people are more likely to die of Covid-19 than in places that voted for Biden in 2020.
DeSantis has maneuvered himself into a solid political position. If he judges that Trump is too strong to oppose in the 2024 primary, he has the luxury of a gubernatorial term that will run through 2026, assuming he wins what is looking like a manageable reelection in November. That would allow him a plausible excuse to skip a race if Trump is in the field, and to play the long game ahead of a possible White House run in 2028 or later.
If Trump’s growing extremism results in increasing skepticism about his prospects in a general election or if he destroys his own brand or is unable to run for another reason, DeSantis will be in pole position for the Republican primary. It is no coincidence that the former President has begun to turn on a governor he once considered a protégé. Last month, Trump said that political leaders who refused to say whether they had received a Covid-19 booster were “gutless,” in a clear shot at the Florida governor who has dodged the question.
New clashes with Biden
DeSantis forced himself into the national political conversation again in recent days with his latest assault on Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases specialist who has become an avatar for conservative fury over government pandemic guidelines.
The governor is selling flip flops on his campaign website that bear the slogan “Fauci Can Pound Sand” on the soles. The eye-catching stunt is his latest shot at an internationally respected expert who has battled Covid-19 in the Trump and Biden administrations and fought epidemics worldwide since taking the helm of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases during the Reagan administration. Previously, DeSantis condemned “Faucism” and accused the veteran official of covering up for China on the origins of the pandemic.
Fauci’s treatment reflects the evolution of the Republican Party itself. It was only 14 years ago that he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President George W. Bush for saving millions of lives in the developed and developing world, especially in Bush’s HIV/AIDS relief program. But now he’s a symbol of the establishment elites that the GOP base abhors and an easy target for up-and-coming political hopefuls. He needs a security detail and has said his family faces intimidation.
DeSantis, meanwhile, is building the kind of resume that glows in Republican primary debates. In his time as governor, he’s battled teachers unions over mask mandates, elevated officials who question federal public health guidelines based on science and banned transgender girls and women from playing on girls and women’s sports teams in public school. He’s introduced legislation that critics say could infringe the right to protest and announced proposals to stop critical race theory being taught in schools. Each one of these issues connects directly with the base, and is one reason why he’s drawing presidential speculation.
The Florida governor is also making a name for himself on an issue guaranteed to fire up GOP voters – immigration.
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez on Wednesday reported that DeSantis was threatening to keep long-standing shelters in his state from caring for migrant children, in a move that triggered a showdown with the Biden White House.
The children, who arrived at the US-Mexico border alone, are in government custody and remain in shelters until they can be reunited with a vetted sponsor, like a parent or relative, in the United States. But in a letter sent to the Health and Human Services Department last week, and obtained by CNN, Florida’s general counsel alleged the federal government was participating in a “human trafficking scheme.”
DeSantis also grabbed a national spotlight earlier this week, when he lashed out at critics who complained he was slow to condemn a small group of protesters who waved Nazi flags and chanted anti-Semitic slogans near Orlando last weekend. He accused his foes of trying to “smear me as if I had something to do with it,” said Florida law enforcement always stood with the Jewish community and spun the episode into a line sure to explode on conservative social media.
“I’m not going to have people try to smear me that belong to a political party that has elevated anti-Semites to the halls of Congress, like (US Rep.) Ilhan Omar, that have played footsie with the (boycott Israel) movement,” he said. Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, apologized in 2019 after she had been accused of using anti-Semitic tropes in public statements she had made criticizing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying organization.
His swift pivot – from defense to an attack that nailed a culture war angle and referenced one of the conservative movement’s favorite targets – was purely Trumpian. And it’s once reason why DeSantis is getting so much notice as thoughts turn to the next GOP presidential race.