Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is facing a conundrum as he weighs a potential bid for the White House: how to deal with former President Trump.
The recently reelected Florida governor and rising conservative star has long maintained a friendly alliance with Trump, who helped DeSantis across the finish line during his long shot 2018 primary campaign.
But Trump’s announcement on Tuesday that he will once again seek the presidency in 2024 threatens to further complicate a relationship that is already showing signs of strain. If DeSantis ultimately moves forward with a White House campaign, it would put him in direct conflict with Trump like never before and challenge him to navigate a primary with the best-known Republican in the country.
DeSantis’s 2024 campaign announcement may be increasingly likely, but it is far from imminent. Two Florida Republicans said that he hasn’t yet made a final decision on a presidential run, and others said that they don’t expect him to launch a campaign until after Florida’s 2023 legislative session at the earliest. That session is expected to run through early May.
Still, there are reasons for Trump to see DeSantis as a threat. A growing number of high-profile Republicans have begun to float DeSantis as a top-tier 2024 nominee, and he’s already begun to make inroads among the party’s biggest donors.
Earlier this month, hedge fund CEO Ken Griffin, a GOP megadonor, told Politico that he’s prepared to back DeSantis should the Florida governor mount a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Another top Republican donor, Stephen Schwarzman, said that he would support someone other than Trump in the primary.
Recent polling from the conservative Club for Growth showed DeSantis leading Trump by double-digit margins in head-to-head matchups in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote in presidential nominating contests.
Another poll from the group out of Florida, where voters know DeSantis best, found the governor with a 26-point advantage over Trump. One Florida Republican operative said Trump’s best hope of dinging DeSantis is between now and the governor’s potential campaign announcement.
“In Florida, everyone kind of knows and has a sense of what Ron DeSantis has done,” one Florida Republican operative said. “The MAGA donors know what Ron DeSantis has done, the activists know what he’s done. But a lot of voters don’t. And Trump recognizes he has a chance to define DeSantis before DeSantis has a chance to get out and tell his story.”
“Do I think DeSanctimonious is going to last? No,” the operative added, referring to the nickname Trump recently gave DeSantis. “But it allows him to frame up for his supporters his opponents and grind them down.”
Trump fired a warning shot at DeSantis last week, even before formally announcing his 2024 campaign, issuing a lengthy statement in which he took credit for the DeSantis’s 2018 victory, disparaged him as nothing more than an “average” governor and accused him of “playing games” by not being forthcoming about his presidential ambitions.
“The Fake News asks him if he’s going to run if President Trump runs, and he says, ‘I’m only focused on the Governor’s race, I’m not looking into the future,’” Trump said. “Well, in terms of loyalty and class, that’s really not the right answer.”
The former president also recently bestowed DeSantis with a new nickname: “Ron DeSanctimonious.”
So far, Trump’s attack has been met by DeSantis and his allies with little more than a shrug. DeSantis himself said the criticism was “just noise,” though he still managed to get in a not-so-subtle dig at the former president, comparing his own landslide victory in the Nov. 8 midterm elections to the many losses of high-profile Trump-backed candidates elsewhere in the country.
“At the end of the day, I would just tell people to go check out the scoreboard from last Tuesday night,” he said at a news conference in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., on Tuesday.
For now, at least, Republicans say that DeSantis’s strategy of simply brushing off the budding rivalry with Trump is working. For one, there are still lingering questions about Trump’s influence over the GOP and whether his bombastic political brand is more of an asset or a liability.
Some said that Trump may only end up hurting himself by picking a fight with someone as popular among the GOP’s conservative base as DeSantis.
“Trump’s extremism has passed its expiration date. With each passing day, he’s becoming more and more irrelevant,” Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist, said. “Gov. DeSantis is rising in approval ratings, so why punch down?”
“DeSantis just needs to ignore the childish name calling and focus on continuing to deliver for the people of Florida. Trump is making a mistake by attacking popular governors like DeSantis.”
Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, said that what makes DeSantis so difficult for Trump to attack is the fact that the two occupy similar political lanes.
“So far, not doing anything has worked. The more Trump attacks DeSantis, the worse he looks,” Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, said. “If he criticizes DeSantis, because DeSantis has a similar issue profile, he can only attack him on personal grounds and loyalty.”
Still, some Republicans said it’s unclear just how long DeSantis can take the high ground when it comes to dealing with Trump, especially if the former president continues to put the Florida governor in his sights.
“I think you can choose not to respond to it, but eventually if you don’t respond to something, it’s only going to build,” one Republican consultant who has worked in Florida politics said. “This is politics. This is not fair, rational or anything else. Eventually he’s going to have to go on the offense.”
For the time being, DeSantis may have the privilege of laying low, at least when it comes to a potential 2024 campaign. He’ll be sworn in for his second term in the governor’s mansion in January before laying out his legislative priorities to the state House and Senate in February.
“I expect he’s going to take some time,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who served as a senior adviser to Sen. Mitt Romney’s (Utah) 2012 presidential campaign. “He’s earned the right to bask in the glow of his own victory and sit on the capital he’s earned.”
“But these things seem to move very quickly, and people will start to want to hear more from him and will look for signals that he wants to get in in 2024.”
But Madden also said that DeSantis — or anyone else looking to jump into the next presidential race — should also look to 2016, when Trump first won the Republican nomination, as a cautionary tale. Back then, Trump’s competitors looked at him more as a burden than a genuine threat. Consequently, Madden said, they found themselves pummeled relentlessly by Trump.
“At some point you have to take your opponent head on,” he said. “The work is not going to be done for you.”