Ex-President Donald Trump’s bid to keep Ron DeSantis out of the 2024 White House race reveals as much about his own mindset and the challenges his campaign faces as it does about Florida’s fast-rising Republican governor.
Trump lashed out at DeSantis, who has yet to announce a run, during his first two-state campaign swing of his new White House bid – to early voting New Hampshire and South Carolina on Saturday. The trip came with the defeated 2020 GOP candidate facing rising questions about whether he can recapture his control of the Republican Party and followed bad reviews about the low energy start to his third presidential bid. After his often disastrous interventions in swing-states during last year’s midterm elections, some key party leaders are skeptical he can win a general election.
As he stepped back on the campaign trail, Trump left no doubt that DeSantis is looming large in his mind and betrayed irritation with criticism of his campaign so far.
There was also something jarring about a former president who tried to steal the last election – and incited an insurrection to try to cling to power – campaigning and being embraced by supporters as if nothing happened.
There is also a clear sense that Trump believes he is owed the Republican nomination and feels that certain sections of his party are not sufficiently grateful for his turbulent one-term presidency.
Trump suggested that DeSantis was in his debt for having helped him capture the GOP nomination for governor in 2018 and for his job in the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee. He implied that DeSantis should pass on a White House bid as a result.
“So then when I hear he might run, I consider that very disloyal. But it’s not about loyalty – but to me it is, it’s always about loyalty – but for a lot of people it’s not about loyalty,” Trump told reporters, including CNN’s Kristen Holmes, aboard his jet this weekend.
It is true that the then-president’s endorsement in his first gubernatorial race helped elevate DeSantis, who in many ways adopted Trump’s culture war politics and “Make America Great Again”-style grievances toward political elites. Yet at the same time, DeSantis has developed a powerful brand all his own, and has implemented multiple Trump-style policies targeting what he calls the “far left-woke agenda” in schools and businesses that the former president never approached on a national level during his term. He also just raced to a nearly 20-point victory in his reelection race, far outpacing Trump’s performance in Florida in 2020. So while Trump helped boost DeSantis, the Florida governor has now become a formidable GOP figure in his own right.
Trump’s musings about loyalty also recall his attack on evangelical leaders earlier this month, whom he said showed “disloyalty” by refusing to support his 2024 bid so far despite his delivery of a generational conservative Supreme Court majority. The comments were a reminder of Trump’s transactional view of politics – and also that a man who dumped aides, staff and Cabinet members at a fearsome clip in office often tends to view loyalty as a purely one-way allegiance.
DeSantis gets a possible taste of the future
DeSantis is expected to spend the next few months further cementing his status as a rising GOP star by pushing his hard-core conservative agenda through the Republican-run state legislature, a strategy likely to delay any announcement. But Trump’s attacks are a sign that if he does jump into the race, DeSantis can expect the same kind of ruthless filleting of his record and character that Trump brought to bear on rivals, like another (former) Florida governor, Jeb Bush, during the 2016 race.
For instance, the ex-president honed in on one of the strongest areas of the DeSantis record for many conservative voters – his frequent fight against federal Covid-19 restrictions and recommendations. But Trump accused the DeSantis team of trying to “rewrite history” over his pandemic record. “There are Republican governors that did not close their states,” Trump told reporters. “Florida was closed for a long period of time.”
DeSantis did shut bars and nightclubs and urged people to follow federal government guidance on limiting gatherings on beaches in March 2020. But by September, he had cleared them to open again, defying the advice of federal government health officials. The former president is clearly seeking to get to the right of the Florida governor on this issue, despite DeSantis spending much of the last two years feuding with the Biden administration over the pandemic. But while challenging federal health advice could be a powerful litmus test for a GOP primary, the idea that Trump’s disastrous handling of the pandemic could be a vote winner in the general election is quite a leap.
Still, Trump testing out his hits on DeSantis highlights some of the key questions facing the Florida governor.
While DeSantis is a formidable potential candidate on paper, he would have to develop the capacity to defend himself from Trump’s fearsome debate stage broadsides, as well as a rhetorical nimbleness that he hasn’t yet shown. He’d also have to fend off Trump without alienating the parts of the GOP base that retain almost mythical devotion to the former president.
Various polls have suggested that Trump’s hold on the Republican Party may be weakening and that DeSantis is picking up support. A University of New Hampshire poll of the first-in-the-nation primary state released last week showed the Florida governor leading Trump 42% to 30% among likely GOP voters in the state. A CNN/SSRS poll in December found that about 6 in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents wanted their party to nominate someone other than Trump in 2024.
New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday that right now DeSantis would probably win the Granite State’s GOP primary. Sununu, who told Bash he’s considering his own White House bid in 2024, also took a swipe at Trump’s demeanor and the size of his event, which was an address to party activists rather than one of his seething rallies in a state where he won the 2016 GOP primary.
“He comes to New Hampshire, and, frankly, he gives a very mundane speech. The response we have received is, he read his teleprompter, he stuck to the talking points, he went away,” Sununu told Bash. “So he’s not really bringing that fire, that energy, I think, that a lot of folks saw it in ’16. I think, in many ways, it was a little disappointing to some folks. … So I think a lot of folks understand that he’s going to be a candidate, but he’s also going to have to earn it. And that’s New Hampshire.”
Judging by his remarks about DeSantis and evangelical leaders, Trump is not yet ready to acknowledge that reality. Though his decision to visit an ice cream parlor late in the day in South Carolina was an unusual foray into retail politics and first-person contact with voters.
Trump re-ups his anti-establishment quest
Trump appeared Saturday to understand that his two years of fury over the 2020 election, which he still falsely says was stolen from him, may have turned off voters in 2022, when many of the election-denying candidates he promoted in swing states lost – potentially costing the GOP the Senate.
“This campaign will be about the future. This campaign will be about issues. Joe Biden has put America on the fast track to ruin and destruction and we will ensure that he does not receive four more years,” Trump said at a small event Saturday in the South Carolina State House.
But he hasn’t abandoned all of his standard rhetoric. On Sunday evening, he called into a rally for one on his favorite election-denying midterm candidates – failed Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, who is still falsely insisting she won in November. And earlier on Saturday, in New Hampshire, the former president – who is facing criminal investigations by the Justice Department and a district attorney in Georgia over his attempt to overturn the 2020 election – could not resist taking aim at institutions that are revealing the true course of events in 2020.
Trump signaled that he would use his campaign and potential second presidency to try to thwart Justice Department efforts to enforce accountability over his election-stealing activity.
“We’re going to stop the appalling weaponization of our justice system. There’s never been a justice system like this. It’s all investigation, investigation,” Trump said. And he branded his resistance to such probes as more proof of the very quality that many Republicans embraced in 2016 and that helped propel him to the White House.
“There’s only one president who has ever challenged the entire establishment in Washington, and with your vote next year, we will do it again and I will do it again,” he said Saturday.
Trump’s attacks on DeSantis, however, suggest that he’s more than a little worried that the Florida governor possess that quality as well.