Unfortunately for Ron DeSantis, expectations of him could not be higher. For a critical mass of Republicans seeking to move past Donald Trump, the Florida governor is already the anointed savior. While Trump still holds the lead in most polling, DeSantis is almost always second choice and is the favorite for many Republicans who want a new standard bearer because they believe Trump can’t win.
Though he has not yet launched a campaign, and his allies say he would not until the state legislature completes its session in May, DeSantis definitely wants us all to think he will soon be a presidential candidate. He has a new book out, there have been more visits outside of the Sunshine State, more interviews on Fox News, and more use of state power to curb a bunch of things he opposes as “wokeism.”
His book is titled “The Courage To Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.” It isn’t subtle.
This wouldn’t be just any presidential run. The Republican Party has been remade by Trump, and he remains in control of a solid portion of its base. Because Trump could prevail in winner-take-all primaries with only a plurality of the vote like he did in 2016, DeSantis will have to catch fire immediately so other contenders feel pressure to drop out and back him in a two-man race.
Thus far DeSantis has shown impressive discipline, refusing to answer any of Trump’s provocations – from nicknames like “Ron DeSanctimonious” and “Meatball Ron” to an insinuation DeSantis behaved inappropriately while teaching high school girls early in his career.
DeSantis avoids the political fray, refusing to weigh in on most everything that happens in Washington or Mar-a-Lago. DeSantis has proven a competent and effective governor, not only in his response to COVID but in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. But he has put himself on the Republican map by meticulously building a record to thrill and delight the MAGA right with his curriculum culture wars and is running to the right of Trump on vaccines.
Is he canny enough to please the populist right in the Party of Trump, then win over a general election that has rejected Trump, his party, and his candidates in 2018, 2020, and 2022? Unlike Trump, DeSantis has won over many Democrats with increased teacher pay, funding to restore the Everglades, and his stewardship of the state through the COVID pandemic when he largely kept Florida open.
But there are concerns among some Republicans that DeSantis could scare off enough independent voters in the primary to lose the general election. Sen. Chris Murphy recently told the Washington Post that DeSantis is “using government to manipulate and micromanage our lives,” in ways that are “Orwellian” and “creepy,” and suggested that should provide an opportunity for Democrats.
The road to the White House is paved with land mines and will test DeSantis’ political instincts. Apparently a demanding boss, he has had trouble with staff turnover, according to reporting by Politico, and a number of former staffers formed a “support group” in 2021. Campaign experts have questioned whether someone who doesn’t have a cadre of loyal aides, and tends to trust only his wife, can run a successful presidential campaign on the first try.
He will also have to play an insider and outsider game in both the primary and the general that is hard to define in the era of Trump. Did DeSantis know what he was doing when he chose to endorse Harmeet Dhillon in the race to chair the Republican National Committee even though it was clear Ronna McDaniel would win? Perhaps that was meant to help his street cred with MAGA voters, but the truth is that Trump has deeply co-opted the RNC, and supported McDaniel despite objections from Rep. Matt Gaetz & Co.
Was that the move of a political genius or a novice? And does DeSantis know how cringeworthy and over the top this ad was that informed us he was chosen by God?
DeSantis has also refused to do interviews with the mainstream media, something Trump has always done no matter how much he rails against them. DeSantis is not naturally charming, and often appears grumpy in public. Behind closed doors, he isn’t a good schmoozer either. Trump is a showman, craving adoration and loving the stage. Trump is also a brawler whose attacks aren’t limited by decency or dignity. Should DeSantis wilt in the face of Trump’s attacks, and fail to be that “fighter” he sold himself to be, he will have to hope primary voters prefer competence over performance and don’t reject him for the reigning alpha.
A powerful juggernaut also requires a deft balancing act. Too much consolidation around DeSantis could tip the scales back to Trump – if the entire donor class, Fox News Channel, the Club for Growth, and the rest of the GOP establishment back DeSantis, Trump will once again be the outsider. Headlines about Jeb Bush endorsing DeSantis help Trump.
Right now, he’s everyone’s favorite horse – but DeSantis doesn't get to place or show. He has to win. It’s vanquish Trump or go down as a great disappointment.
For a 44-year-old incumbent who just won reelection handily, waiting until 2028 after a second Biden term (or after a second Trump term), would be far easier than taking on this primary battle. But waiting, and passing one’s “moment,” is considered a kiss of death in politics. Presidential contenders are expected to have the guts to jump in when everyone else wants them to, and to ride the momentum or else. But for DeSantis, a primary win could still invite a bitter end, if Trump refuses to endorse him and boycotts the general election. In a close presidential contest, like 2020 or 2016, Trump could convince even a small percentage of GOP voters to sit it out and doom DeSantis.
Ron DeSantis better make sure he has an end game.