7 min read

Ron DeSantis missed his window

For several months, DeSantis polled within striking distance of Trump. Then, he waited — and allowed himself to be defined.
Ron DeSantis missed his window
Ron DeSantis has exited the chat. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Good morning! It’s Monday, January 22, 2023. The 2024 elections are 288 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Last week, after the final caucus votes rolled in, Nikki Haley declared that the results in Iowa made the contest for the Republican presidential nod a “two-person race,” between her and Donald Trump.

At the time, the statement — although it may have had a hint of truth to it — was not quite rooted in reality. Not only was Ron DeSantis still in the running (at least on paper), but he had actually finished ahead of Haley in Iowa. The former UN ambassador was mocked accordingly.

Now, after months of her and DeSantis circling each other in the race for second place, Haley is finally the last Trump alternative standing. “It’s now one fella and one lady left,” she said Sunday. Ron DeSantis has exited the chat.

The causes of death for DeSantis’ campaign, which he ended Sunday in a video on Twitter, will be bandied about in media obituaries over the next few days. There are several to consider:

All of that is true, and part of why DeSantis — once Trump’s most formidable adversary — has now gone the way of Scott Walker and Jeb Bush. But, ultimately, he may just have been doomed from the beginning. And I don’t mean his disastrous Twitter Spaces launch. I mean even before that.

Presidential campaigns are all about timing: striking when the iron’s hot, finding that perfect window where you can seize momentum and maximize your appeal to voters.

DeSantis’ window was obvious in retrospect: from November 2022 to March 2023, between the midterm elections and Trump’s first indictment.

DeSantis came out of the midterms on top of the political world, having won a stunning 19-point victory in the once-competitive Florida. His re-election was a rare bright spot on the map for Republicans, who nominated several Trump-endorsed candidates who went up in flames.

If he had launched his campaign then, and gone hard at Trump from the beginning — repeating the phrase, “Trump is a loser, DeSantis is a winner” ad nauseam — who knows what might have happened.

Instead, it was Trump who announced right out of the gate, in November; DeSantis waited six more crucial months to join the race, waiting until May. In the meantime, Trump tagged him as “Ron DeSanctimonious” and slammed him with a barrage of attacks that mostly went unanswered, as DeSantis responded with only the most ginger of critiques. DeSantis allowed himself to be defined.

In between, in March, came Trump’s first indictment. DeSantis now treats it like a matter of political gravity that the indictment redounded to Trump’s benefit: “It distorted the primary...it also just crowded out, I think so much other stuff,” he told an interviewer last month, already in post-moterm mode. “And it’s sucked out a lot of oxygen.”

But that was far from a given: in fact, the standard assumption when a political candidate is indicted would usually be that their opponent stands to gain. But DeSantis never tried to capitalize off of Trump’s criminal charges — or any of the former president’s other weaknesses as a candidate. He defended Trump from the beginning, never giving Republicans much of a reason to vote against their two-time nominee.

From the indictment on, DeSantis’ polling — which came within striking distance of Trump’s after the midterms — was a sinking line going down, down, down.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that DeSantis attacking Trump earlier could have backfired. Trump, after all, has spent years seeding Republican distrust in the criminal justice system. Perhaps no line of attack would have worked from the time Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg filed that first indictment.

But if DeSantis had spent the period between November and March branding Trump as a loser, and then used the indictment as one more reason why the GOP needed to move on, perhaps the primary would have gone differently. Perhaps he would have entered the race as a force to be reckoned with — rather than a Trump laugh-line, cut down to size.

To borrow from Mike Pence, who used to call himself “Rush Limbaugh on decaf,” DeSantis tried to win the Republican primary by acting as Trump on decaf. Like the rest of the GOP field — which has now shed seven Trump rivals, with only one remaining — he gambled that Republican voters would care more about ideological purity than the fighting spirit that fueled his political rise in the first place.

Revealingly, DeSantis delayed his campaign announcement so that he could score a series of policy wins in the Florida legislative session, almost none of which Republican voters ended up caring about. Republicans didn’t want policy. They wanted extra shots of caffeine, which Trump delivered while DeSantis dithered.

By the time DeSantis did announce, Trump was a bona fide political martyr and he was “Ron DeSanctimonious.” The primary had ended before it began.

Nikki Haley, the “one lady left,” seems to think she’s learned the lesson of DeSantis’ downfall.

She spent this weekend debuting a number of new attacks against Trump, targeting him for his age, his lies, and his coziness with dictators.

After Trump confused her with Nancy Pelosi in a speech on Saturday, Haley went in for the kill, questioning his mental acuity.

“If you look recently, there have been multiple things,” she said on CBS News. “I mean, he claimed that Joe Biden was going to get us into World War II. I’m assuming he meant World War III. He said that he ran against President Obama. He never ran against President Obama. He says that I’m the one that kept security from the Capitol on January 6th. I was nowhere near the Capitol on January 6th. ”

“Don’t be surprised if you have someone that’s 80 in office, their mental stability is going to continue to decline,” Haley continued. “That’s just human nature. We know that.”

But the real lesson from the DeSantis implosion isn’t just to go on the attack: it’s to do so early and often, to define your opponent before they can define you.

In all likelihood, Haley has missed her window too.

More notes from the trail.

  • DeSantis took a parting shot at Haley before stepping off the stage, endorsing Trump in his withdrawal video. “We can’t go back to the old Republican guard of yesteryear, the repackaged form of warmed-over corporatism that Nikki Haley represents,” he said.
  • Declining to debate and rarely answering voter questions, Haley’s New Hampshire swing does not appear to be offering the jolt she needs to win tomorrow’s primary. “Where’s the energy?” the Washington Post’s Dan Balz asks in a withering piece.
  • Meanwhile, Trump has used racist rhetoric to fuel his closing attacks against Haley, referring to her as “Nimbra” and “Nimrada.” (Her full name is Nimrata Nikki Haley.)
  • Trump is already auditioning vice presidents, with potential running mates like Tim Scott (who endorsed Trump on Friday), Elise Stefanik, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders popping up as surrogates in recent days.

More news to know.

Consumer sentiment surges while inflation outlook dips, University of Michigan survey shows / CNBC

Allegations against Georgia prosecutors likely damaged case against Trump / WaPo

Is Kim Jong-un Really Planning an Attack This Time? / NYT

House GOP already considering a future without Johnson / Politico

Alleged Qatar spy operation said to have targeted GOP lawmakers opposed to Muslim Brotherhood / Fox News

The day ahead.

At the White House: Both President Biden and Vice President Harris will hold events on abortion, marking the 51st anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. Biden will convene a meeting of his Task Force on Reproductive Healthcare Access at the White House, while Harris will kick off her “Fight for Reproductive Freedoms” tour with a speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

On the campaign trail: The two remaining candidates for the Republican nomination will both campaign in New Hampshire ahead of tomorrow’s primary. Donald Trump will hold a rally tonight in Laconia, while Nikki Haley will hold events throughout the day in Franklin, Concord, Manchester, Windham, and Salem. She will be joined by Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) at several of the stops.

Earlier in the day, in the continuing intersection of his political and legal calendars, Trump will attend the New York City trial that will decide how much in damages he will have to pay E. Jean Carroll for defamation. Trump, who has repeatedly rankled Judge Lewis Kaplan throughout the trial, is expected to testify during today’s proceedings.

At the Capitol: The Senate has one vote scheduled, on advancing the nomination of Christopher Koos to be a member of the Amtrak Board of Directors. The House is out for the week.

Thanks for reading.

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