Gov. Ron DeSantis’s decisive reelection victory last week carried significant GOP coattails throughout the state, ending a debate for now about whether Florida is truly a red state.
But it also changed the narrative about the 2024 presidential race amongst the conservative intelligentsia – with DeSantis being hailed as the savior they have been yearning for and the vehicle to finally dump former President Donald Trump going into the next national election cycle.
“Trump is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser,” a Wall Street Journal lead editorial published the day after the Nov. 8 election.
“The man who stunned the world with his astonishing presidential win in 2016 has become a serial electoral turnoff, losing the White House, the Senate and the House in 2020, and now costing Republicans big-time in the midterms,” huffed Piers Morgan in a New York Post column titled, “It’s Time the GOP dumped Trump the Grump and ran with Ron DeSantis.”
But is Ron really ready to take on The Donald and all that entails?
“He kind of needs to,” says former Pinellas County Republican Congressman David Jolly, now a political independent and a consultant with Shumaker Advisors Florida. “Timing is everything and he’ll never have a hotter hand than he does now. You’ve got not just leading national Republicans, but there’s a heartbeat in the country that’s saying maybe now is the time to move on and DeSantis has to strike — he can’t wait on this.”
While the governor has remained relatively opaque about his future plans, focusing on Tropical Storm/Hurricane Nicole and basking in national glory over his election knockout, Trump has indicated for weeks that he’s ready to declare his candidacy for president in 2024, presumably on Tuesday at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.
“This announcement will perhaps be the most important speech given in the history of the United States of America,” the former president wrote in an email fundraising pitch to supporters last week, where he asked for a $45 contribution to be “automatically entered to win a trip to join me in Mar-a-Lago on November 15.”
And after reports surfaced for months that Trump believed DeSantis has shown insufficient gratitude for his extremely important endorsement for governor in 2018, the former president began lashing out indiscriminately towards the newly minted star last week, according to several media outlets.
“I don’t know if he is running. I think if he runs, he could hurt himself very badly. I really believe he could hurt himself badly,” Trump said, according to Fox News. “I think he would be making a mistake, I think the base would not like it — I don’t think it would be good for the party.”
Also from Fox News, Trump said that if DeSantis does run for president, “I would tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering — I know more about him than anybody — other than, perhaps, his wife.”
And then there was the full-on meltdown on “Governor Ron DeSanctimonious” that came in a written statement late last week, where Trump labeled DeSantis “an average REPUBLICAN Governor with great Public Relations.”
Presidential scholar George C. Edwards III, who penned a book critical of the Trump presidency, told the Phoenix, “You can already see Trump being critical of DeSantis and you can be sure that there will be a great deal more of that.” In addition, “he’s quite bitter about opposition, especially from people who he thinks owe him a lot. And he thinks Ron DeSantis owes him his election as governor.”
What do the polls say?
Prior to the Nov. 8 election, the most recent national public opinion surveys of Republican voters showed that Trump had remained the overwhelming choice for president. That includes a Morning Consult poll released last week that showed Trump at 48% and DeSantis at 26%, based on the “share of voters who would support the following if the 2024 Republican primary were held today.” However, that analysis also showed that Trump has been dipping in 2024 support in recent months.
A YouGov poll of 413 Republicans — a segment of the 1,500 survey — taken in the days immediately after last week’s election showed DeSantis with 41 percent compared to 39 percent for Trump. The question was: Who would you rather see as the Republican nominee for president in 2024. The other categories were “neither” or “not sure.
In addition, a Data for Progress poll of 777 likely Republican primary voters taken in early October showed DeSantis edging Trump, 44%-42%, related to the GOP primary for president in 2024 if the election were held tomorrow.
And a Florida exit poll conducted by Edison Research for CNN and other news networks last week showed 45% of Florida voters said they want DeSantis to run for president in 2024, compared to 33% preferring Trump to run for president again. The data is preliminary.
That said, “(DeSantis) wouldn’t run against Trump and if he did, he would be destroyed,” says former Central Florida House Republican Anthony Sabatini, an attorney who left the Florida Legislature for an unsuccessful run for Congress earlier this year. He believes that the governor won’t reveal his intentions anytime soon because he says that he would lose leverage and national attention by doing so.
The Phoenix spoke with several Florida Republicans last week, many at the DeSantis Nov. 8 election night event. They said they were emotionally torn about having to declare a preference for the president, saying that they would prefer it didn’t come down to the two Alpha Florida men battling against each other for the nomination.
“The worst thing that they could do is run against each other. It would break up the two superstars, right? They need to work it out between them,” says Jake Hoffman, a businessman and executive director of the Tampa Bay Young Republicans who ran for a House seat in Hillsborough County earlier this year but lost in the Republican primary. “I want DeSantis to be our president, but we’re also going to be very happy if he’s here in Florida as our governor the next four years.”
John Melendez is a Tampa-based transportation consultant who was appointed by then-Gov. Rick Scott to serve on the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority but is no longer on the board. He said at DeSantis’ election night party last week that, “I’d like to see some cooperation between the two leaders. Some strategy.” But when asked if he was forced to choose, he said he’d pick DeSantis.
And then there is the age factor. Noting that so many of the country’s political leaders are in their 70s or 80s, Republican political consultant Anthony Pedicini says it’s time for a new generation of leadership to take over. Trump is 76. DeSantis is 44.
“Do we really need this Greatest Generation of people running the government anymore?” he asks, mentioning Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (80), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (82) and just re-elected Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley (89) as examples of leaders he says have stayed on too long in our national governance.
“These guys have been running the government for 50 years, and we’re getting more of the same crap. Let’s give somebody else, like Ron DeSantis a try,” Pedicini adds. (In fact, Pelosi has served in Congress for 35 years; McConnell, 38 years, and Grassley, 42 years.)
DeSantis has been serving for a decade in government; he has had three two-year terms in Congress and is completing his first term as a governor. DeSantis’ credentials include a Yale University undergraduate degree and a Harvard Law School degree, both from Ivy League schools, as well as a Navy career.
Edwards, a distinguished professor of political science in Presidential Studies Emeritus at Texas A&M University, says, “His (Trump) base as he calls it represents a minority of the country. And that’s not enough to get reelected. So yes, they’re enthusiastic about him, but unfortunately from his perspective, many other people are not enthusiastic and indeed are adamantly opposed to him.”
Meanwhile, DeSantis appears to have momentum as a national figure, though he’s been chided by observers for lacking the charisma gene required to win the White House.
Rock star flair
However, Travis Horn, a Tampa-based communications executive, says that the governor’s aggressive stances on culture war issues and on COVID-19 gained him fans who are literally citing him as their motivation to move to Florida.
Horn says that he was shooting video with DeSantis for a campaign ad in Ybor City in Tampa in October when a woman approached him and said, “Is that DeSantis? I moved here from New York because of that guy.” Horn said he then brought her over to meet the governor.
“The way that people were interacting with him very much had a rock star flair to it, and you’re talking about Ybor City, right?” Horn says, referring to the historic entertainment district. “Going through my mental rolodex, you never saw that with Jeb (Bush) or (Charlie) Crist – you didn’t see a lot of that when Rick Scott was governor.”
Horn also notes “a very Camelot feel” to the pictures capturing DeSantis with wife Casey in her golden dress and their three children on stage at the Tampa Convention Center last week. “He’s got a beautiful wife and cute kids and I can just see them running around on the White House lawn and you know, that gets moms and dads jazzed up across America,” he says.
But there’s a long way to go before that scene might ever happen.
Former Congressman Jolly, who briefly opposed DeSantis in 2016 when both were running for the U.S. Senate, says that DeSantis has only gotten a brief taste of what Trump is prepared to bring in a contest for the Republican nomination, and says he won’t be able to control the narrative like he has in Tallahassee over the past four years.
“It would be wrong to assume that an environment where DeSantis directly challenges Donald Trump is a safe environment for Ron DeSantis. It’s not. It comes with a lot of peril,” Jolly said last week.
Jolly also notes that DeSantis has yet to directly challenge Trump.
“Ron DeSantis lives a very well protected disciplined life politically,” he says, saying that press criticism doesn’t register because Republicans dismiss that as “Deep State conspiracy” and Democrats “don’t have the heft.”
“Donald Trump’s the only person who could ding him and ding him hard.”
It’s still extremely early to predict if both men end up battling each other for the nomination, and there could be several others who get into the race. Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have all been floated as potential 2024 candidates, according to media outlets.
Despite all of the chatter, there are some Republicans who are hoping that all of this campaign talk can abate, if just for a little while.
“It’s just too far ahead,” says Mark Phillips, a Pinellas County Republican Committeeman. “I welcome a few bits of air just to relax.”
But with Trump’s possible presidential announcement to come Tuesday night in Mar-a-Lago, that may not be an option before the holiday season commences.
Mitch Perry is a reporter for the Florida Phoenix, which first published this report.