In the aftermath of Tuesday’s disappointing election, there is a growing chorus of Republicans calling for the party to ditch former President Donald Trump as their standard-bearer in favor of a new one: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who cruised to reelection by nearly 20 points and brought a red wave with him in the state.
Despite Trump’s efforts to deflect the blame, some prominent voices on the right see him as responsible for endorsing candidates who ultimately lost, costing the party precious congressional seats. DeSantis, on the other hand, helped usher in a political realignment that was a long time coming but became starker on election night: For the first time in modern history, there will be no statewide elected Democrat in Florida.
Now, DeSantis is being discussed as a 2024 presidential contender, just as Trump reportedly makes plans to announce his own 2024 campaign on Tuesday. That has some Republican strategists rejoicing. They describe DeSantis as an ideal candidate: someone who will go to bat for the base, but who also picks his fights and exercises the kind of discipline that they believe Trump lacks.
“I absolutely think that he should run and I absolutely think he should be the GOP nominee,” Patrick Hynes, a GOP strategist in New Hampshire, said of DeSantis. “In every measure, he is the optimal Republican candidate at this time.”
But it’s a long road to 2024, and with Trump already attacking the governor in press releases and on his social network, DeSantis faces a choice. He can go knives out with the former president and risk his political career — or retreat.
Republicans think DeSantis is a competent candidate
Hynes said that Republicans need to emulate DeSantis’s performance in Florida across the country. He pushed for a new, gerrymandered congressional map that ultimately heavily benefited Republicans; the party flipped three House seats this cycle. He expanded the base, winning counties like Miami-Dade that Republicans haven’t carried in decades, while appearing to make more headway with Latino voters. He raised more than $200 million this cycle, breaking the record for gubernatorial races. And importantly, he did it all by governing as a conservative, Hynes said.
DeSantis signed Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prevents teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ issues or people; a bill banning transgender women and girls from participating in school sports; and the Stop Woke Act, which prohibits businesses from requiring certain employee trainings on racial diversity. He eschewed Covid-19 shutdowns and vaccine mandates, at times making public appearances alongside anti-vaxxers. He took on Disney in retaliation for its opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” law. And he sent migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in an effort to score political points against the Biden administration’s border policies.
His experience as an executive also matters, said Greg Brophy, a former Colorado Republican state senator who ran for Colorado governor in 2014. DeSantis has led the states through crises, including Hurricane Ian, for which even President Joe Biden praised his response.
Should DeSantis run in 2024, New Hampshire, once a Republican stronghold and now a hotly contested swing state, would be critical to his path to victory; it’s typically the site of the first primary, just following the Iowa caucuses.
Hynes said New Hampshire voters are looking for someone who has a record of “conservative accomplishment who can nevertheless win over people who aren’t natural Republican voters — somebody who can expand our base, which self-evidently needs to be expanded, and can do it while staying true to conservative and Republican principles.” DeSantis, he said, is their man.
“New Hampshire conservatives are eager to hear from him and meet him,” he said.
Elsewhere, DeSantis is also getting glowing reviews. In Georgia, Republicans are eager for DeSantis to stump for Herschel Walker if he’ll agree to, believing he could help tip the scales toward the Republican in the December 6 runoff. One Republican politician in Florida told Politico that DeSantis is “as close to a Caesar in Florida as we have had at this point.” The front page of Wednesday’s Murdoch-owned New York Post, highlighting the Florida governor, read, “DeFuture.”
“It’s obvious to me that DeSantis represents the future of the Republican Party,” Brophy said.
DeSantis’s strength as a candidate might not matter if he can’t overcome Trump
DeSantis may be everything the Republican Party is looking for and more. But the real question is whether the party can successfully distance itself from Trump and anoint DeSantis in his stead.
There’s obvious discontent with Trump among the party establishment. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, has expressed enthusiasm about Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) launching a 2024 presidential bid, heavily suggesting he’d prefer a non-Trump nominee. Former GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan called the former president a “drag on our ticket.”
Brophy said there’s frustration within the party ranks at how little Trump ended up spending on behalf of GOP candidates in the midterms. It was only in the final month before Election Day that Trump made any significant investment in the candidates he had endorsed, with his super PAC, MAGA Inc., dropping over $16 million on TV ads across six states.
There’s also concern that Trump could make a bad situation worse for Republicans by intervening in the Georgia runoff, especially if DeSantis also makes an appearance. They’re concerned his presence would only energize Democratic voters to turn out in the swing state.
“Honest to God, I don’t want Trump anywhere near Georgia at this point. It’s obvious that he doesn’t help,” Brophy said.
All of that probably won’t matter if the Republican base remains firmly behind Trump, who’s already attacking DeSantis on social media. He pointed out that he got “1.1 million more votes” in Florida in 2020 than DeSantis did this week and claims DeSantis was “politically dead” before Trump endorsed him in his first bid for governor. Given his hold on the base, some warn it might actually be ruinous for DeSantis to attempt a run.
“I remember the last time a Florida Republican, who had the support of the national party and had raised hundreds of millions of dollars, planned on dispatching Donald Trump. And it only took three words to eliminate him from the scene: ‘Low Energy Jeb,’” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic consultant, recalling former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s failed 2016 presidential run.
“In this case, it might only take two words: ‘Ron De-Sanctimonious,’” he added, referring to Trump’s new derogatory nickname for DeSantis.
There is evidence that Republican voters have slightly soured on the former president in the months leading up to the midterms. A Morning Consult poll conducted in the first week of November, before the midterms, found that 48 percent of potential Republican primary voters would back Trump, down 9 percentage points since August, and 26 percent would back DeSantis. Whether those numbers have worsened for Trump since the election will become clearer in the weeks to come.
Disappointment with how the midterms turned out might leave room for DeSantis to pick up some voter support, especially if he hews to his current tactic of not wading into any public fights with Trump and avoids further alienating Trump’s supporters. Brophy said that, with Trump attacking DeSantis, DeSantis staying quiet also might help diffuse attacks from the left against DeSantis as “just another Trump in waiting.”
“I think that DeSantis can win many Trump Republicans over, but there are some who are just implacable,” Hynes said.
Trump is still Republican voters’ odds-on favorite. Hynes cautions the party establishment against trying to change voters’ minds because many party leaders, like McConnell, remain distrusted by the grassroots and it could backfire.
And for all the talk of a GOP presidential candidate DeSantis, Trump may simply not be defeatable. To win a primary, DeSantis would need to convert some of Trump’s voters. Amandi said that it’s not even possible to change voters’ minds.
“The MAGA wing of the Republican Party is a political cult. You can only have one cult leader at a time and anybody who threatens the leader of the cult must pay the ultimate price,” he said. “Right now, if DeSantis directly challenges Trump, he’s risking political oblivion.”