The political theorizing of November 2022 had Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis clearing the GOP presidential primary field of non-Donald Trump opposition, setting up a one-on-one slugfest against a former president whose iron grip on the GOP could break following legal problems and electoral losses.
The political reality of May 2023 has DeSantis preparing to enter a primary field that is expanding rather than contracting, with Trump back on top in polling and candidates as eager to poach DeSantis’ conservative media hype and big money donors as they are to steal Trump’s grassroots support.
DeSantis’ official campaign launch is expected in the coming days. Never mind being the only candidate challenging Trump, he won’t be the only candidate to announce a run this week after Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) announced a bid on Monday.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley are also already in the race. Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) could all also launch bids soon.
And potential new candidates are crawling out of the GOP’s political woodwork: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a wealthy former Microsoft executive, has hired political consultants. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose previous presidential endeavors are best summed up by the word “oops,” is also considering a bid.
Hopes of isolating Trump one-on-one were a pipe dream, a Republican strategist said, noting the low cost and high potential rewards — a cabinet slot or Fox News hosting gig — available to even wildly unsuccessful presidential candidates. DeSantis’ missteps in recent weeks, however, have created openings for other candidates to argue they, rather than DeSantis, are best-positioned to slay the Trump dragon.
“Everybody who is in the race, is in the race not because of DeSantis, but because of Trump,” said John Feehery, a Republican lobbyist and former Capitol Hill aide, who is unaligned in the primary.
Those candidates either want to block Trump, or are auditioning for a spot on his ticket or in his cabinet, Feehery said.
But DeSantis’ “weakness has probably given not only hope but also money to other candidates,” added Feehery, who said he prefers an alternative to Trump. “He’s been kind of shell-shocked by how quickly Trump has gone after him.”
With more than eight months to go until the first 2024 nominating contest, DeSantis is still the Republican most likely to stand between Trump and another presidential nomination. And indeed that is what DeSantis’ team is betting on.
“The Republican primary is already a two-man race, and Governor DeSantis isn’t even a candidate,” Erin Perrine, communications director for the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, told HuffPost in a statement. “As we saw at his recent visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, there is growing momentum behind the Governor because he is the only Republican who doesn’t just talk the talk, he follows through on the hard fights like taking on woke corporations.”
“The choice couldn’t be clearer for primary voters — while Donald Trump may talk a big game, DeSantis actually fights and wins,” Perrine added.
But each of those lower-tier candidates can chip away at the support DeSantis needs to win in the zero-sum scramble for party delegates.
The stakes of candidate competition are especially high on the Republican side, because while Democrats are required to allot convention delegates on a proportional basis, the GOP relies more heavily on winner-take-all — or winner-take-more — primary contests.
In 2016, for example, the winner-take-all system in Florida helped Trump secure a huge batch of delegates without even winning an outright majority. The outcome prompted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s departure from the race.
Ahead of his reelection campaign in 2020, Trump encouraged more states to adopt winner-take-all systems, leading to a map where 60% of contests were either winner-take-all from the outset, or become winner-take-all if a candidate surpasses a certain threshold. In theory then, the more Republicans that run in 2024, the harder it becomes for DeSantis to topple Trump.
A field of mostly longshot candidates polling in the single or low double digits may also help Trump eke out delegate wins without amassing a significant plurality of votes — or having to broaden his base.
The growing field of contenders, Republicans who oppose Trump worry, could lead to a repeat of 2016, when GOP candidates — fearful of Trump’s base-delighting insults and convinced of his imminent self-implosion — fought amongst themselves as Trump racked up an eventually insurmountable delegate lead.
“I was in a 2016 campaign, the ‘attack the guy who’s a front-runner other than Donald Trump’ – we’ve tried that,” Sarah Isgur, a former aide to 2016 presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “It results in Donald Trump being the nominee.”
Indeed, scattered polling from the time period when DeSantis was polling best showed him defeating or in close races with Trump when the two were matched up one-on-one. Adding other candidates to the mix, however, typically led to a stronger position for Trump.
Many of the other contenders seem as or more eager to attack DeSantis than to do battle with Trump. Haley trolled DeSantis over his clashes with Disney earlier this month. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, yet another potential candidate, has both criticized DeSantis’ culture war tactics and insisted he is more fiscally conservative than the Floridian. Christie has said DeSantis’ war with Disney shows the latter man is “not a conservative”
And DeSantis of course remains Trump’s No. 1 target. Trump has dubbed the Florida governor “Ron DeSanctimonious,” and Make America Great Again PAC, a pro-Trump super PAC, has already started running a TV advertisement that employs DeSantis’ reported use of his fingers to eat chocolate pudding as a metaphor for his votes as a U.S. House member to cut Social Security and Medicare.
“Ron DeSantis loves sticking his fingers where they don’t belong – and we’re not just talking about pudding,” the spot says as an actor dips two fingers into the dessert.
A second MAGA PAC ad that parodies the kids’ song “Old McDonald Had A Farm,” labels the governor “Ron DeSalestax” for raising sales taxes.
The attacks on DeSantis have taken a toll on his support among Republican primary voters. He has the backing of about 21% of those voters, down from about 30% in March, according to FiveThirtyEight’s latest public polling average.
The governor’s slide in the polls began after his pre-campaign book tour, where he didn’t always seem at ease doing the heavy retail politicking necessary to win a presidential nomination.
He has also struggled to justify his accelerating war with Disney and the slew of new Florida laws being challenged in court on First Amendment grounds. Last month, DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban into law, a move that may either help him against Trump with uber-conservative evangelical voters or hurt him with more moderate Republicans and in the general election.
Haley trolled DeSantis earlier this month over his escalating clashes with Disney.
“If Disney would like to move their hundreds of thousands of jobs to South Carolina and bring the billions of dollars with them, I’ll let them know, I’ll be happy to meet them in South Carolina and introduce them to the governor and the legislature that would welcome it,” she said.
To some conservative strategists wary of again nominating Trump, the prospect of GOP candidates training their fire on DeSantis, rather than Trump, brings back unhappy memories of the 2016 GOP primary.
To emerge from a crowded primary, DeSantis may also have to make his message less about Trump and more about why he’s a better choice than, say, Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate who’s running a campaign far less centered on culture wars, or Ramaswamy, a relative unknown who has shaken up the race with his stances on the voting age and a merit-based system for immigration.
At the same time, lesser-known candidates can make the case that DeSantis’ wave of popularity, set into motion during the coronavirus pandemic, has already crested.
Even some conservatives who believe that DeSantis would be better than Trump and a more effective tribune for right-wing populism acknowledge that a national campaign is uncharted terrain for him.
“DeSantis has to break out of the Florida bubble and address what he would do for the country as a national leader. That’s been a missing part of this conversation thus far,” said Ryan Girdusky, a conservative consultant associated with the more nationalist wing of the Republican Party. “You can’t plant palm trees in Michigan or Wisconsin. You need to actually tell me what you’re going to do for Michigan or Wisconsin.”
Girdusky encouraged DeSantis and other candidates to attack Trump from the right by faulting him for, among other things, failing to complete the border wall or stem the tide of unauthorized immigration.
“Donald Trump is like Philip Morris cigarettes in the 1960s and 70s,” said Girdusky, who founded The 1776 Project, a right-wing super PAC active in local school board elections. “It’s a great brand that will give you cancer, but people still like the brand. So you need to destroy the brand.”
Even in a crowded field, DeSantis can still easily trample his opponents in fundraising and will enter the race with a relatively blank slate to a national audience, said Republican strategist Jason Cabel Roe.
“What most people know about DeSantis is COVID and Disney. There’s a lot more to Ron DeSantis,” said Roe, a former senior adviser to Rubio. The other candidates are “not combative, they’re not pugnacious, and they’re not going to bring the same feistiness to the campaign that Ron DeSantis does.”