- A lackluster showing in 2022 makes the 2024 presidential race harder for Donald Trump and the GOP.
- DeSantis supporters chanted, “Two more years! Two more years!” at his victory party – signaling they want him to seek the presidency.
- Some analysts said the Republican establishment must confront Trump if it is to regain the majority.
WASHINGTON – After Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis cruised to a blockbuster reelection win this week, some supporters cheered for him to start planning another campaign: a 2024 Republican presidential bid against Donald Trump.
“Two more years! Two more years!” they chanted at a victory rally where DeSantis became the brightest star on a dim election night for Republicans. The GOP’s lackluster performance in an array of congressional races dented Trump’s aura of inevitability and created a bigger opening for a potential challenger to the former president, who is hinting he may announce a fresh presidential bid Tuesday.
Days after the midterms, Trump is playing defense and attacking Republicans who blame him for GOP losses and want the party to move past the volatile ex-president.
DeSantis’ emergence adds an element of uncertainty to an already unprecedented election cycle: a former president trying to become the first to regain the White House since Grover Cleveland in 1892 – all while facing a series of criminal investigations and possible indictments.
Trump, who watched the election returns from his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida, appears intent on diminishing DeSantis, calling him “average REPUBLICAN Governor with great Public Relations” in a post on Truth Social.
DeSantis has remained mum on 2024 plans, as the Tallahassee-based governor and aides say he wants to focus on Florida issues.
“Florida is the center of gravity for Republican politics,” said David Urban, a Pennsylvania-based Republican strategist and former campaign adviser to Trump. “But the headquarters is no longer in Mar-a-Lago; it’s shifted to Tallahassee.”
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In the wake of the midterm debacle, Republican political consultants are trying to game out a potential Trump-DeSantis battle royale.
It may depend on how many other Republicans jump into the fray. Former Vice President Mike Pence is among several Republicans who may give it a go. Trump benefited from a crowded field in 2016, capturing the populist wing of the GOP while other candidates split the anti-Trump vote.
If Trump is hoping his announcement and his attacks will force DeSantis to commit one way or another, he is likely to be disappointed, analysts said. They don’t expect DeSantis to make his announcement until the late spring or summer of next year because he already has a day job.
With the Florida legislature scheduled to meet March 7 through May 5, pollster Frank Luntz and others said DeSantis would be wise to continue building a solid record as governor before making a presidential announcement – a formal announcement, that is.
Behind the scenes, DeSantis will probably be sounding out people to play roles in campaign and fundraising organization, consultants said. In some ways that process has already begun: DeSantis traveled extensively during the midterm elections, speaking for GOP candidates in battleground states such as Arizona, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
“He should be on the phone right now, reaching out,” Luntz said.
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DeSantis isn’t going to stop making national appearances. He is one of several potential presidential candidates who is scheduled to address the Republican Jewish Coalition at its annual leadership meeting next weekend in Las Vegas.
DeSantis can run for president on a gubernatorial record that ranges from tax relief to legislative rollbacks to countering allegedly “woke” Democrats and corporations, such as Disney after it objected to the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill regarding elementary schools.
“We will never ever surrender to the woke mob,” DeSantis said in his victory speech. “Florida is where woke goes to die!”
DeSantis’ combativeness – he once sent a plane to Texas to transport Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard – made him a Republican star before Tuesday’s election. His reelection win by more than 19 percentage points – in Florida, a pivotal state in any presidential election – made him the Republican of the moment and a serious presidential aspirant, analysts said.
Above all, Republican consultant Alex Conant said DeSantis “needs to run his own campaign,” and not let Trump or anybody else “dictate his strategy.”
That includes ignoring Trump’s constant jibes, said Conant, who worked for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2016.
“No one’s ever gotten into the mud with Trump and come out better for it,” Conant said.
Of course, that may be easier said than done.
Trump taunted Bush, Rubio and Cruz in 2016. Now, he’s targeting DeSantis.
If the past is any guide, Trump will continue targeting DeSantis for as long as it takes, taunting him the same way he mocked Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and other Republican opponents in 2016.
This time, however, Trump is attacking from a defense posture.
Many in the party are angry at him for dominating the spotlight in the final weeks of the midterms in campaign rallies that fired up Democrats and reminded some swing voters about what they dislike about the GOP.
Trump’s role as kingmaker during the GOP primaries is also coming back to haunt him. Many of the candidates he favored, such as Pennsylvania Senate contender Mehmet Oz, ended up losing. Don Bolduc, a Senate candidate in New Hampshire who embraced Trump’s conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, also went down to defeat.
“You look all over the country, there’s a very high correlation between MAGA candidates and big losses, or at least dramatically under-performing,” Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., told CNN. Toomey is retiring from the Senate seat that Oz lost to Democrat John Fetterman.
Former Trump White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told Fox News that Trump should at least delay his 2024 announcement until after a Senate runoff election in Georgia on Dec. 6. “I think he needs to put it on pause, absolutely,” McEnany said.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, predicted to Fox: “There’s going to be a lot of distancing: Of money, of voters, of folks saying clearly they have decided it’s time for us to move on.”
It is unlikely Trump will heed these complaints.
His counter attacks have included racism. In one Truth Social post, Trump taunted another possible Republican presidential aspirant, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin: “Young Kin (now that’s an interesting take. Sounds Chinese, doesn’t it?).”
Trump has been in trouble before, especially after the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, and subsequent impeachment. Yet he continued to dominate the Republican Party right up to the 2022 reversals.
With votes still being counted nationwide, the GOP appears favored to win the House, but even if it does, it will be by the most slender of margins – far from the “red wave” party leaders hoped for. The Senate is still up for grabs.
As a result, even Trump-friendly media organizations are urging the GOP to move past the ex-president.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page described Trump as the GOP’s “biggest loser” of the election, and said “Trumpy Republican candidates failed at the ballot box in states that were clearly winnable.”
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Trump failed to win the popular vote in 2016, and has been unable to develop GOP majorities in 2018, 2020 and now 2022, skeptics pointed out. Said the Journal: “Since his unlikely victory in 2016 against the widely disliked Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump has a perfect record of electoral defeat.”
The New York Post, which like the Journal is owned by conservative stalwart Rupert Murdoch, made its point via its patented screaming headlines. “TRUMPTY DUMPTY,” said one.
Another New York Post headline praised DeSantis as “DeFUTURE.”
Even so, challenging Trump would not be easy.
Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican political consultant who conducted numerous focus groups of GOP voters during the 2022 cycle, said “there’s a real appetite among GOP voters for a Ron DeSantis run.”
But she added it will be hard for DeSantis or any other Republican to “take the GOP back from Trump,” given his hold on large segments of the party and his willingness to viciously attack anyone who gets in his way.
“He doesn’t own the party,” she said. “He owns the base, and the base is quite large.”
Pence, other potential rivals and legal complications for Trump
The fate of a Trump-DeSantis race could also be decided in part by other Republicans who run.
They include Trump’s former vice president. Pence is about to embark on a media tour for his book, which is to be published Tuesday, the same day Trump is planning to make his announcement about 2024.
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Any number of other long-shot Republicans could also jump into the fray.
Possibilities include several Republican senators, including Ted Cruz of Texas, a runner-up to Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential race; Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate; and Rick Scott of Florida, who ran the GOP’s Senate campaign committee.
Former Republican officials are also taking a look at 2016, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo appeared to take a shot at Trump by tweeting that “conservatives are elected when we deliver. Not when we just rail on social media.”
A Trump presidential bid is also subject to unpredictable events: A series of criminal investigations.
Trump faces possible indictments over efforts in Georgia to overturn his election loss in 2020, any involvement he may have had in the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, and claims that he stole classified information upon exiting the White House.
For now, Trump is showing every sign he takes seriously the prospect of a DeSantis challenge.
Even before Election Day, Trump threatened DeSantis, telling reporters: “If he did run, I will tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering. I know more about him than anybody other than perhaps his wife, who is really running his campaign.”
But they were once friendly.
Trump endorsed DeSantis during his first campaign for Florida governor in 2018 and still takes credit for his victory. In fact, DeSantis won despite Trump. He eked out a close victory in a midterm election during the Trump presidency in which the president’s unpopularity dragged down most Republican candidates.
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There are signs Trump’s grip on the party may be loosening.
In a recent NBC News poll, Republicans said they considered themselves bigger supporters of the party than of Trump by a margin of 62%-30%, the biggest gap yet on that question.
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Exit polls from the midterm election generated bad numbers for Trump; 60% of respondents had an unfavorable view of him, raising questions about how he might fare against President Joe Biden or any other Democrat.
As Trump plans to announce – and DeSantis prepares for the early part of his second term – Republican strategists will be busy studying polls and interpreting the candidates’ comments, right on up to the Iowa caucuses in early 2024.
Democrats will also be watching, hopeful that a Trump-DeSantis blowout will further fracture a divided opponent.
Those include Biden, whose standing is enhanced by the midterm election results and who is clearly enjoying the emerging Trump-DeSantis show.
“It’d be fun watching them take on each other,” he said this week.
Story Credit: usatoday.com