Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) meteoric rise in Republican politics is putting him on track for a possible clash with former President Trump, who is dangling the prospect of a third White House campaign.
DeSantis’s popularity among the GOP faithful has mushroomed over his handling of the coronavirus, and he’s found himself at the center of several news cycles, including over his signing of a controversial voting restriction bill and the collapse of a south Florida condominium building.
That support and attention, combined with his reelection fight next year, are fueling speculation that DeSantis is gearing up for a 2024 run. But Trump remains wildly popular among Republican voters, and any move seen as trying to oust him from his role as party leader risks a backlash among his followers — and the former president himself.
“As a DeSantis supporter, I worry that he may peak too early,” GOP donor Dan Eberhart, who backed DeSantis in his 2018 gubernatorial bid before Trump’s endorsement made him the primary favorite, said.
“I think that these things are incredibly important in trying to thread the needle to become president,” Eberhart added. “So DeSantis has got to win reelection in 2022 — that's a must — and he's got to continue to court favor with the Sean Hannity crowd, and build his chits in the party, but he's got to do all this without angering Trump specifically or Trump's base and the other bigwigs in the party. And I think it's really hard to stay on top of that beach ball for too long.”
The fact that DeSantis is up for reelection next year gives him an excuse to campaign aggressively without risking an immediate confrontation with Trump. He’s been hitting the fundraising circuit in recent months, most recently attending a series of events in California.
Since the beginning of 2021, DeSantis’s political committee has raked in more than $30 million, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
One GOP donor described DeSantis as “a little more polished” than Trump, saying that while the two men share many of the same positions and beliefs, the Florida governor may have a broader appeal among voters who soured on Trump’s bombastic public persona.
“The party — the base loves Trump. That’s not in doubt here, OK?” the donor said. “But I think there’s interest in DeSantis because he stands for really the same thing. He goes to bat on the same issues.”
Saul Anuzis, a longtime Republican strategist and former Michigan GOP chair, said that it’s unlikely that DeSantis — or any other prominent Republican — will challenge Trump for the nomination if the former president decides to mount another presidential bid in 2024.
But he said that GOP leaders and donors are “actively engaging in scouting out potential nominees” should Trump pass on a comeback campaign.
“It’s early in the process and I think Republicans are looking at who are potentially other options if Donald Trump doesn’t run for reelection,” Anuzis said.
“As long as he remains popular among the Republican base, as long as potential presidential candidates are respectful and cognizant of his position with regard to potentially running, I don’t think he has any reason to go after anybody.”
To be sure, Trump remains exceedingly popular with Republican voters. A survey conducted last month by GOP pollster John McLaughlin found that a majority of GOP primary voters — 55 percent — would vote for the former president in the party’s 2024 nominating contest.
But DeSantis’s standing has risen as well. The same poll found that 9 percent of Republican primary voters would choose him over Trump in a 2024 matchup — up from only 4 percent in a similar survey fielded in March.
Without Trump on the ballot, DeSantis’s support rises to 24 percent, McLaughlin’s latest poll shows.
Still, the fact that DeSantis only performs above single digits in the absence of Trump underscores that he and the former president are competing for the same voters.
“He's drafting up behind President Trump, if President Trump doesn't run,” one GOP pollster said.
“At this stage DeSantis's support would implode, because he's gaining support among Trump voters if President Trump decides not to run,” the source added.
The pollster continued, “if President Trump announces he's not running again, then Ron DeSantis is in a very good position.”
Since Trump left the White House in January, he’s leaned on a series of endorsements, sporadic public appearances and interviews with friendly media outlets to stay in the spotlight. He’s slated to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas, later this month.
He also recently resumed holding campaign-style rallies, appearing at an event in Sarasota, Fla., over the weekend. DeSantis did not attend that rally so that he could stay in Surfside, Fla., where rescue workers are searching for survivors of a deadly condo collapse.
Still, while Trump has been relegated to private-citizen status, DeSantis has emerged as something of a successor to the former president’s policy legacy.
He championed a state law prohibiting certain social media platforms from banning political candidates after Trump was suspended from Twitter and Facebook for his online rhetoric surrounding the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. In April, DeSantis signed an executive order banning government agencies and businesses from requiring so-called vaccine passports.
Those and other initiatives have helped make DeSantis a darling of conservative political circles, while prompting chatter that he may be setting himself up for a potential presidential run.
Republicans also say DeSantis must be wary of not letting his potential presidential ambitions interfere with his reelection bid, warning that voters may be turned off by the idea that he’s using the governor’s mansion as a launching pad.
“He's not as focused on his reelection as you would think he would be given the narrow margin with which he won and given the fact that he's up for reelection. You would think he would be much more precision focused on his reelection, and he doesn't seem to be,” Eberhart, the GOP donor and DeSantis supporter, said.
“If his base in Florida thinks that he's focused on the [election], there is no doubt that could harm his reelection chances in Florida,” he added. “He's got to be very careful.”
Ultimately, many Republicans are skeptical Trump will publicly attack DeSantis — at least for now.
“I think he’s watching DeSantis, but he’s not going to burn that bridge right now,” one Republican strategist said. “Donald Trump likes him. He sees him as a like-minded person, and it’s in his best interest for DeSantis to be reelected.”