DeSantis is running for president. Can he beat Trump?
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis filed the paperwork necessary for a presidential run Wednesday, making his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 official after months of speculation about whether he can beat former President Donald Trump in the GOP primary. He’s scheduled to make a formal announcement on Twitter Wednesday evening, and share a plan to make his state a national blueprint.
DeSantis is seen as the most viable primary challenger to the twice-impeached and indicted former president, who is currently enjoying a historically large lead in the polls. The governor won reelection by nearly 20 points and helped usher a red wave into the once-swing state of Florida last year, even though Republican candidates underperformed practically everywhere else in the midterms. Since those victories, however, DeSantis has had a tough few months marked by policy stumbles and social blunders. And that’s left some in his party doubting whether he’s ready for the national stage.
As governor, he’s steered Florida sharply to the right, signing an ultra-restrictive six-week abortion ban in Florida that some in the GOP worry will be unpalatable to general election voters. He’s locked in a high-stakes fight with Disney in which he’s suffered loss after loss after loss, neutralizing his ability to claim victory over “woke” corporations. He’s waited perhaps too long to enter the race and left Trump’s attacks largely unanswered in the meantime. He’s already made a few gaffes on subjects from Ukraine to chocolate pudding (allegedly). And there are questions about his likability.
All of that has raised concerns among some top GOP donors that DeSantis just isn’t that good at retail politics. The case for DeSantis was always that his policies aligned with Trump’s, but that, unlike the former president, he had less baggage dragging him down and he was a proven winner. The past few months have put that in doubt.
Hesitancy about DeSantis has been reflected in polling: Trump’s lead widened in the last month to nearly 30 percentage points on average, despite being indicted in New York and found liable for sexually abusing journalist E. Jean Carroll.
DeSantis, steady in second place, still has plenty of time to close that gap, and though he’s had a rough patch, he’s raised $119 million. By comparison, Trump has about $86 million across his three active campaign accounts according to his latest available campaign finance reports, which were filed before the spike in donations following his indictment.
DeSantis is also launching his candidacy on the heels of a legislative session in Florida orchestrated to prove he can govern as a conservative in a state that’s become the de facto capital of red America, giving him a record he hopes will win over the grassroots — even if they’re not firmly in his camp just yet.
“I don’t think that he’s at all at the point where he can’t run a viable campaign,” said Robert Cahaly, senior strategist and pollster at the Trafalgar Group and former Republican political consultant. “If this were a ballgame, we’re literally just in the first quarter. … I do certainly see momentum with a decent segment of the donor class behind DeSantis.”
Trump and his MAGA base have made clear the former president isn’t going down without a fight. And other candidates could tear away some voters who would otherwise get behind DeSantis. But some political operatives think the governor has an opening even though his post-midterms glow-up has faded substantially.
“He’s in a strong position, but he’s just going to have to reset and find a new strategy,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former GOP Congress member from Florida. “He did peak early, but he could peak again.”
DeSantis has proven his right-wing bona fides as governor of Florida
DeSantis has been carefully cultivating a national profile for years by making Florida a locus of conservative policymaking. In this year’s session of the Florida legislature, where Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers, he put forth what he calls his “Freedom Blueprint,” which appears designed to appeal to a national audience.
“The Republicans say they want the states to be individual laboratories. He can say, ‘That’s what I’ve been doing,’” Cahaly said.
DeSantis has made education a key focus. He signed a law requiring school library books to be free of discussion of race, sex, or national origin and (for students up to the third grade) gender identity. He’s barred public colleges from spending funds on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. And he’s eliminated Advanced Placement courses in African American studies for high school students in the state while suggesting that Florida get rid of AP courses altogether.
He’s advanced a coordinated national GOP campaign against the LGBTQ+ community, signing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prevents teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ issues or people, and a ban on gender-affirming care for minors. He’s made it illegal for Floridians to use bathrooms and changing facilities that don’t correspond with their sex assigned at birth, barred transgender women and girls from participating in school sports, and prevented teachers from using pronouns that align with their students’ gender identity.
He’s promoted popular conservative stances on nearly every culture war issue. He’s made himself a champion of “personal liberty” and small government by eschewing Covid-19 shutdowns and vaccine mandates, at times making public appearances alongside anti-vaxxers. He signed a law allowing Floridians to carry a gun in public without a permit.
He took on Disney, the state’s largest taxpayer, in retaliation for its opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” law and, perhaps to his own detriment, refused to back down even in the face of a court battle. His six-week abortion ban is effectively a total ban, given that’s before most people know that they are pregnant and Florida requires two in-person doctor visits with a 24-hour waiting period in between to receive an abortion.
Finally, he signaled his commitment to harsh immigration policy by sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard under what they say were false pretenses in an effort to score political points against the Biden administration’s border policies. He’s continued to crack down on immigrants in Florida by mandating that businesses with at least 25 employees verify the citizenship status of workers and barring many Chinese citizens from buying property in the state.
“From a policy perspective, I don’t see an Achilles’ heel as far as Republican primary voters are concerned,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist in Texas.
But more than just legislating to the right, DeSantis has ensured that Florida will likely stay red for the foreseeable future. In the 2022 redistricting cycle, he pushed for a new, gerrymandered congressional map that ultimately heavily benefited Republicans; the party flipped three House seats in the midterms. He expanded the base, winning counties like Miami-Dade that Republicans haven’t carried in decades, while appearing to make more headway with Latino voters. He raised more than $200 million last cycle, breaking the record for gubernatorial races.
“What he did in Florida was breathtaking,” said Patrick Hynes, a GOP strategist in New Hampshire. Implicit in his pitch to primary voters is the promise that what he’s done for Republicans in Florida, he can do for the GOP nationally.
DeSantis isn’t a massive departure from Trump
DeSantis probably would not be the figure he is today if it weren’t for Trump.
For one, he was just a little-known Congress member who was down in every poll before Trump endorsed him in his 2018 bid for governor, which he ultimately won by less than a percentage point. Trump has ensured that DeSantis doesn’t forget that, reiterating often, as he did in a January interview with the Associated Press, “I got him in. He had no chance. His political life was over.”
The association goes both ways, however. Donald Trump, Jr., the former president’s son, said in 2018 that DeSantis “was with us when it wasn’t cool to be with us.”
Both are products of the same MAGA ideology and share stylistic similarities. That’s reflected even in DeSantis’s legislative agenda: His Freedom Blueprint addresses many of the same priorities as Trump’s 2024 platform. Dubbed the “National Greatness Agenda,” Trump’s plan also includes protections for “parental rights” in schools, bans on transgender athletes in women’s sports, an overhaul of the nation’s election laws, abolishing vaccine mandates, and more.
Trump has jokingly accused DeSantis of copyright infringement down to his mannerisms. Like Trump, DeSantis is willing to take on the left and the media. He’s also echoed the xenophobic tactics that arguably catapulted Trump into office in 2016 with his migrant busing program, which has now been expanded by the Florida legislature. And like Trump, he makes good TV, with many of his press conferences and speeches going viral.
He made national headlines with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prompted widespread protests throughout the state and was even lampooned by the hosts of the Academy Awards. Similarly, his battle with Disney has brought him sustained publicity.
“You get the fight that Trump had, the pugilism,” Steinhauser said.
The question is the degree to which DeSantis can differentiate himself to effectively step out from Trump’s shadow.
“Trump is in many ways the incumbent. And when you want to challenge an incumbent, you have to make a compelling case for change,” Curbelo said. “If DeSantis is just going to make the argument that he’s basically the same as Trump, just a little better, that’s probably not going to work.”
DeSantis has qualities that Trump doesn’t, Steinhauser said: He’s more coherent, more disciplined, and picks calculated battles, which typically revolve around substantive policy.
That’s in contrast to Trump, who is at war with everyone who opposes him — from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who refused to entertain the former president’s election lies in 2020, to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose Washington Post has written negative stories about his administration — and is known to publicly litigate those personal vendettas. The defeat of Trump-endorsed candidates in 2022 showed how Trump’s squabbles and embrace of conspiracy theories have become a drag on the GOP.
Party operatives have “all been derailed by this guy. And they found his antics to be a little bit tiresome,” Hynes said.
Can DeSantis win the Republican presidential nomination?
The trouble for party operatives is that the Republican base still loves Trump. That was as clear as ever following the former president’s appearance earlier this month at a CNN town hall where he repeated his 2020 election lies, degraded his accuser Carroll and host Kaitlan Collins, and said he would pardon “many” of the January 6 rioters. The audience of Republican primary voters cheered.
“The donor class thinks that town hall was a train wreck. And the activists loved most of what he said,” Cahaly said. “The donor class and the grassroots class are going opposite directions fast.”
That begets the question as to whether DeSantis, even with significant donor backing, can dethrone Trump as the figurehead of a party some Republicans believe the former president will control until the day he dies. In a field now full of big names, with more still to potentially come, DeSantis faces the challenge of consolidating support. That’s the same challenge that Trump’s Republican opponents in 2015 couldn’t overcome.
DeSantis has already been a target of attacks from his political opponents. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley invited Disney to move to her home state amid its legal fight with DeSantis. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is weighing whether to jump into the race, pushed back against DeSantis’s downplaying of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Those jabs, however, are nothing compared to the insults Trump has unleashed on DeSantis. The former president attacked the governor’s record on Medicare and Social Security and said he was “caught in the mouse trap” by Disney. He has suggested that DeSantis behaved inappropriately around his private school students when he was working as a teacher. He’s claimed that DeSantis cried while begging him for a gubernatorial endorsement in 2018 and that he would be working at Pizza Hut if he hadn’t gotten it.
Trump’s Republican opponents in 2016 made the mistake of trying to engage in that kind of rhetoric. When they did so, Trump was often able to dismiss them with a mere derogatory nickname like “Low Energy Jeb.” Trump has tried out a few nicknames for DeSantis, but “Ron DeSanctimonious” seems to have stuck.
“The Republican political graveyard is filled with the headstones of people who thought they could go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump,” Hynes said.
So far, DeSantis has only responded on choice occasions. Ahead of Trump’s indictment, the governor suggested he simply couldn’t relate to the notion of “paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.” And he challenged Trump to say definitively whether he would have signed Florida’s six-week abortion ban following the former president’s assessment that it was “too harsh.”
Now that DeSantis has declared his candidacy, his approach will have to be guided by the understanding that, while he needs to play up his conservative credentials in the primary in order to appeal to the base, he can’t go too far and risk alienating a much broader potential coalition that could support him in a general election, Hynes said.
“Republican primaries have a tendency to force people to put their worst foot forward,” he said.
Some strategists think that DeSantis has already doomed himself by adopting the six-week abortion ban in Florida, with Trump’s advisers reportedly betting that it hurts him with female voters. The governor is also planning to run to Trump’s right on guns, immigration, and Covid-19.
But Steinhauser thinks that DeSantis, even with his ultra-conservative record, is capable of executing a pivot in the general election given that he’s already proven he can appeal to more middle-of-the-road suburban voters in Florida. If he wins the nomination, he will likely start talking more about pocketbook issues and go after Democrats’ record on inflation.
But that will require the party to unite behind DeSantis, and the grassroots has far from turned the page on Trump.
“DeSantis voters thus far are the ‘No More Trump’ Republicans — not ‘Never Trump’ Republicans, but the group that wants to get past Trump,” said David Jolly, a former GOP Congress member from Florida. “There are a lot of them. But he has yet to prove that he can pick up a Trump vote.”
Update, May 24, 4:20 pm: This story has been updated to reflect DeSantis’s official filing with the FEC.