Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made a trip to Washington, DC this week in a bid to rally congressional support. That trip, however, was overshadowed by another development: former President Donald Trump picking up a parade of new endorsements, including those of several lawmakers from DeSantis’s own state.
As of Wednesday, Trump has locked down seven endorsements of 20 Florida House Republicans, compared to one that DeSantis has secured. Reps. John Rutherford, Brian Mast, and Greg Steube all announced this week that they were backing Trump in the presidential race, while Rep. Laurel Lee announced that she would be supporting DeSantis.
In another especially stinging development, Texas Rep. Lance Gooden shared his support for the former president immediately after a meeting with DeSantis, noting, “there is no doubt in my mind that … Trump is the only leader who can save America from the leftist onslaught.”
All told, Trump boasts 45 House Republican endorsements — while the Florida governor — who’s yet to formally announce his campaign — has three.
Of course, it is still early in the primary process and many lawmakers have declined to choose a side until DeSantis makes his run official. Additionally, the effects of endorsements on voters’ decisions tend to be on the margins, according to political scientists. Still, the announcements this week underscore the enduring strength of Trump’s position among Republicans as the primary heats up. DeSantis is widely viewed as Trump’s chief competitor in a GOP primary, but recent endorsements indicate just how receptive some members still are to the former president’s candidacy — despite the pitfalls it could pose.
“Trump is just building a lead at this point. It’s a lead in the polls, it’s a lead in endorsements, it’s threatening to be a lead in donations,” Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida, told Vox.
Trump’s latest endorsements were also announced as questions have emerged about DeSantis’s campaign rollout in the last few weeks. DeSantis, who emerged from the 2022 midterms as a GOP hero capable of leading his party to massive electoral success, has seen his standing diminish lately. As McDonald noted, the governor’s seen declining poll numbers. But he also suffered a major loss in a distracting fight with Disney, and is facing doubts from donors about if he’s really prepared to take on Trump. Fox News, which promoted him heavily for a time, has increasingly turned its attention back to Trump.
Thus far, DeSantis has tried to rebut any narratives that he’s struggling under the spotlight by putting emphasis on the legislation he’s been able to shepherd as governor including extreme bills attacking LGBTQ rights and a six-week abortion ban. He’s expected to officially announce his run in May or June.
These endorsements send a message — but it’s still early
Trump’s loss against President Joe Biden in 2020, the losses that several Trump-aligned candidates experienced in the recent midterms, and ongoing scrutiny of his role in the January 6th insurrection have spurred concerns among some Republicans that he isn’t up to the task of a 2024 White House run.
That uncertainty prompted certain GOP members to see DeSantis as a better choice — at least for a time.
“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, told my colleague Nicole Narea about DeSantis last November. “In every measure, he is the optimal Republican candidate at this time.”
But DeSantis’s rough few weeks have dealt a blow to his expected candidacy. Trump’s problems — including his recent indictment — haven’t deterred a number of Republican lawmakers from continuing to endorse him. That sends a signal about how they perceive Trump’s potential viability, at least in the GOP nominating process.
“Endorsements tend to follow who people believe will be a winner,” says McDonald. “These are people who have a huge stake in the outcome and they are making bets that Trump would be the nominee.”
Political scientists note that the electoral effect of endorsements may be small, but that they offer important cues to voters. In this case, they are providing a key indicator of who these lawmakers see as a chief contender in the GOP primary. According to an analysis from FiveThirtyEight, the candidates with the most endorsements in presidential primaries without an incumbent have mostly wound up getting the nomination. That may be in part thanks to those cues.
Lawmakers’ loyalty to Trump may also have as much to do with their own primaries as it does with defeating Biden. Many Republican voters remain dedicated to Trump, and turning against him could have its own electoral consequences for House members. Trump’s hands-on approach and personal calls to different House members also reportedly played a role in winning lawmakers over, per CNN. DeSantis, meanwhile, appeared to take a less direct approach and had staffers contacting lawmakers.
It’s still early in the presidential campaign and there’s plenty of time for DeSantis to pick up more endorsements and backing, much like Trump himself did in 2016 after failing to garner significant support early on. However, unlike in 2016, when Trump framed himself as an outsider taking on the GOP establishment on behalf of everyday Americans, DeSantis faces a candidate who not only represents the establishment, but who has an iron grip on a wide swath of the Republican electorate.
McDonald notes that this dynamic is one of the main challenges DeSantis has: He’s trying to recruit voters in Trump’s base, but they are already dedicated to the former president. He argues that the governor should more clearly indicate that he’s a “change” candidate who will bring something different to the table and less baggage than Trump.
“If you’re a Republican voter looking at the message from DeSantis, you’re saying, why should I have DeSantis instead of Trump, when I love Trump,” he says. “His strategy has been to try to out MAGA the MAGA king and that’s not going to happen.”