GOP elites may be moving away from the former president, but the base hasn't
Tensions between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, widely considered to be the two serious frontrunners for the 2024 Republican presidential candidacy, have been simmering below the surface for months. Though Trump did not name his rival directly in Tuesday night’s announcement speech, the former president is usually more explicit in his criticisms of the Florida governor.
DeSantis, for his part, has yet to respond. The Trump broadside of calling him ‘Ron DeSanctimonious’ was predictable, but it puts the governor in a tricky spot. The majority of his voters in Florida — and a large portion of the voters he’d need to woo in a 2024 Republican primary — are Trump supporters. According to exit polls, Trump voters outnumbered Biden voters by eleven points in the Florida gubernatorial electorate — and 95% of them went for DeSantis.
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DeSantis’s best claim to the nomination is not to present himself as a break with Trump’s legacy, but as the man who is better-suited to continue it than Trump himself. That is not, of course, why the Trump-sceptical conservatives who have flocked to DeSantis prefer him. Republican elites and beltway conservative leaders, many of whom were less enthusiastic about Trump than rank-and-file party voters, see DeSantis as a long-overdue reprieve from the ex-president’s influence over the GOP.
On the heels of last Tuesday’s election, Paul Ryan attacked Trump as “a drag on our ticket”, while adding that he was “very happy to see” that “Ron got re-elected.” Senator Cynthia Lummis (R., Wyo.) told Politico that DeSantis was “the leader of the Republican Party.” Major conservative media outlets like Fox News and the New York Post have turned on Trump and touted DeSantis as the future of the party. GOP mega-donors Stephen Schwarzman and Ken Griffin — billionaires who previously backed Trump — both announced their defections from the former president. Griffin went so far as to explicitly endorse DeSantis.
That has made DeSantis the object of understandable, if not entirely fair, suspicion among a segment of Trump supporters. Writing in the MAGA-friendly American Greatness a month before the election, Paul Ingrassia criticised “the concerted efforts of many Republican establishment types to elevate Florida governor Ron DeSantis over Trump,” arguing that “if DeSantis were truly a kingmaker, he would have launched an attack on the Republican establishment.”
In a piece titled “The Establishment is Still Terrified of Donald Trump” in the same publication, Matt Boose argued that “one advantage that Trump has over protégé Florida governor Ron DeSantis” is that he “has taken the blows. He understands America is in a struggle for liberation against tyrants that goes beyond ordinary politics, a struggle which, for Trump, is personal.”
On Twitter, popular Right-wing blogger Benjamin Braddock wrote: “I would like to see this settled without rancour. But there is clearly a concerted push to use DeSantis to take out Trump. And we don’t know DeSantis’ foreign policy/federal law enforcement positions. Way too premature for anyone to jump on that bandwagon.” Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Schmitz have made a similar defence of the former president in Compact.
But regardless, neither Right-wing writers nor the Republican establishment have the final say in these matters: Republican voters do. If DeSantis allows himself to be defined as the Never Trump — or even the anti-Trump — candidate, he will be permanently discredited in the eyes of many of the voters he needs to win. If he can convince those voters that he is the next step in the MAGA movement, he may just have a chance.
Can DeSantis do Trumpism better than Trump? After last Tuesday, it’s an easier pitch to make. The former president’s selling point to Republican voters, above all else, was that he could win where his counterparts would lose — that if they went with him, they would “win so much” that they would be “sick and tired of winning.” DeSantis, though, has spent the last four years winning.
Trump’s influence, at least in part, helped stymie the long-foretold red wave, delaying the arrival of the Republican “cavalry” to throw sand in the gears of the Biden agenda for at least another two years. Republican voters are looking for someone to lead the movement that Trump began in 2016 — not to abandon it altogether. But they also need someone who can win them the election.