9 min read

If not DeSantis, who?

As DeSantis falters, many Republican operatives are turning their lonely to others in the field.
If not DeSantis, who?
Photo: Jake Tapper / Twitter

Good morning! It’s Monday, July 24, 2023. The 2024 elections are 470 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Last week, in my skeptical take on whether Ron DeSantis had truly “reset” his campaign, I noted one successful example among the many presidential contenders who have attempted to reboot their candidacies midstream.  

That example was John McCain, who — right around this time in the 2008 cycle — unveiled a strategy of “living off the land,” which involved shrinking his campaign down to size, cutting down on overhead, and running less like a juggernaut (nobody wants a coronation!) and more like an underdog.

This weekend brought fresh signs that DeSantis is adopting parts of the McCain ’08 strategy. Just as McCain did, he is seeking more “free media” coverage (not just on CNN, but also on the Megyn Kelly and Russell Brand podcasts) and looking for other organizations to host his events (namely, his allied super PAC “Never Back Down”). Both moves allow him to increase his visibility and get his name out there without spending a dime, the essence of “living off the land,” as McCain called it.

DeSantis’ campaign is also reportedly taking a page from Reagan and Bartlet and attempting to “let Ron be Ron,” just as McCain tried in the latter half of 2007 to let his guard down and show his “puckish humor” and personality on the trail.

Above all, DeSantis’ team says they will seek to mimic McCain’s mid-campaign vibe shift, “promising to reorient the DeSantis candidacy as an ‘insurgent’ run and remake it into a ‘leaner-meaner’ operation,” the New York Times reports. The Florida governor will apparently stop trying to project himself as a frontrunner — although that is partially just an acknowledgment of the cold hard reality, since it has been months since any polls have come out suggesting DeSantis and Trump share co-frontrunner status.

Of course, most of these changes are still more conceptual than concrete. Appearances on a few podcasts notwithstanding, there remains little evidence of how DeSantis will actually execute his pivot, beyond abstract promises to “let Ron be Ron” and become “leaner-meaner,” which, until they are paired with specific changes, don’t mean much.

According to Politico, while introducing the new “insurgent” strategy at a donor event yesterday, embattled DeSantis campaign manager Generra Peck “did not specify what the changes would be, according to a person who was present, though she indicated that everything would be on the table.” Very specific!

In the past few days, DeSantis’ aides have swiftly adopted the language of the McCain reset, but they’ve yet to turn those words into action.

DeSantis has also still yet to take either of the steps I mentioned last week: shaking up his senior staff, as McCain did (although Peck is reportedly “hanging by a thread”), or pivoting his message, which does not seem to be striking a chord with Republican voters.

As an example, at the first event of his vaunted “reset,” an address on military policy in South Carolina last week, one Republican operative noted to NBC News that DeSantis was still offering the same talking points as before. “This is just like his basic stump speech with ‘in the military’ added,” the operative, who is not affiliated with a presidential campaign, pointed out.

The longer DeSantis drags on without real signs of a pivot, or without signs that voter opinions on him are changing for the better, the more seriously top Republicans will start looking elsewhere for a Trump alternative.

And that brings us to another vexing question: who might succeed DeSantis?

Let’s discard some possibilities right off the bat. Chris Christie routinely ranks last in favorability ratings among the GOP field; his super PAC’s recent ad calling Trump a “chicken” seems ready-made to excite Democratic voters, but not so much Republicans. Mike Pence, remarkably, has still not attracted enough donors to qualify for the debate stage. Nikki Haley polls even worse than Pence, consistently languishing at around 3% nationally.  

The candidate most often mentioned as a DeSantis alternative is Tim Scott, the junior senator from South Carolina. The bull case for Scott, laid out here by CNN’s Harry Enten, notes that his favorability rating is sky-high (89%, per Quinnipiac, better than Trump’s 82% or DeSantis’ 81%), he has begun to edge into third place in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his war chest is extensive.

Just last week, Scott’s outside group “Trust In the Mission” PAC (TIM PAC, get it?) announced a $40 million advertising push across the early states, the largest ad buy for any candidate so far in the 2024 race. They can use this money to promote Scott’s compelling personal message, of his family going from “cotton to Congress” in just two generations.

The bear case for Scott is that Republican voters are just not interested in his sunny disposition or inspirational narrative. “Scott’s donors are betting on his optimism, his Christian faith, and the American dream,” Peter Hamby of Puck News recently wrote. “But, of course, they’ve never met real Republican voters.” Hamby continued, bitingly:

Scott’s throwback message is custom built for National Review cruise-goers who wear colorful socks to honor Bush 41 and still believe the Republican Party is defined by the three traditional stools of principled Christian conservatism, a muscular foreign policy, and green eyeshade fiscal conservatism. That message is perfect for rich Republicans and conservative chin-strokers who still think their party can go back to normal, but it has almost zero resonance among Republicans in the Trump era.

Politico’s Brakkton Booker sounded a similar note recently, writing that plenty of Republicans view Scott as a nice guy (remember that 89% favorability rating!) but fewer see presidential timber. “In interviews with a dozen strategists and pollsters, terms like ‘affable’ and ‘optimistic’ came up repeatedly,” Booker wrote. “The description that did not come up often was ’president.’”

Another possibility gaining some buzz is Vivek Ramaswamy, the former hedge fund manager and “anti-woke” crusader who has now moved into third place in the national polling average. Unlike Pence, a former vice president, Ramaswamy has already qualified for the first Republican debate, a notable sign of enthusiasm for the first-time candidate.

He has also impressed conservative activists at several Republican “cattle calls”: at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference I covered last month, I noted that the reception for Ramaswamy was second only to Trump’s. He was similarly well-received at the Family Leader summit in Iowa and at the recent Turning Point USA gathering, where he came second (behind Trump) in a straw poll.

I don’t know if Ramaswamy can go the distance, but he seems best-positioned, at least, for a Pete Buttigieg-style surge (even if it is followed by a Buttigieg-style fade). He has embraced a similar go-everywhere media strategy; they also share fundraising skills and a generational pitch. One of the 37-year-old Ramaswamy’s biggest applause lines at the Faith and Freedom summit, a crowd that skewed much older, was when he noted he is the first Republican millennial to run for president. (Buttigieg was the first Democrat to run in their generation.)

Buttigieg’s breakout moment came at a CNN town hall in March 2019; it is not hard to imagine a similar Ramaswamy bump from a nationally televised town hall or debate performance. I also think Ramaswamy is the candidate who has best embodied the call from National Review’s Jim Geraghty for the Republican field to run bolder, less cookie-cutter candidacies. It has paid off in media attention; his announcement of a Supreme Court shortlist, for example, received more national coverage than DeSantis’ less eye-catching military policy rollout.

To me, though, Ramaswamy’s surge is less a sign that he could win the nomination than a reminder of Trump’s dominance. Ramaswamy, after all, has been the candidate who has endeavored to separate himself from Trump the least; he has gotten to third place largely by parroting Trump’s rhetoric and ideology. The most telling thing about his candidacy might be how high in the polls you can climb in today’s GOP just by emulating Trump completely.

But when the real thing is standing right there, it’s unclear why GOP voters would ultimately go for Ramaswamy.

Vivek’s surge and Ron’s descent point to the truly puzzling equation of how Republican candidates should position themselves ideologically, which none of the contenders have been able to solve. Tie yourself too close to Trump, a la Ramaswamy, and you probably hit a ceiling, since most Trump-friendly voters will likely just be Trump voters. Run too far away, a la Pence or Christie, and you won’t return from three-percent-land.

In a Substack piece this morning, the influential left-of-center writer Matt Yglesias argued that DeSantis’ campaign has been too extreme, that he’s foolishly dived to Trump’s right on everything. A recent article in the Daily Beast chronicled Haley’s troubles positioning herself as well, writing that she is trying at once to be “a culture warrior and the GOP’s most electable option. The balancing act isn’t working.” Meanwhile, per the New York Times, Tim Scott has simply tried not to be pinned down at all, focusing on his personal story and avoiding taking a position on key policies.

It’s possible there’s just no answer. Republican voters don’t seem to want anyone to Trump’s right, or to his left either. Trump appears to have seized a sweet spot within the party, largely by sidestepping an ideological identity with his hard-to-explain mishmash of policy positions and focusing more on his image as a fighter than what exactly he is fighting for.

Indeed, in a recent poll by the Republican data firm Echelon Insights, Trump beat DeSantis among self-described “very conservative” Republicans (82%-17%) and “moderate/liberal” Republicans (54%-32%). Trump’s popularity is high enough in the party that it carries over into all ideological corners of the GOP; outside of ideology, too, his image as the ultimate fighter seems entrenched beyond the point that any DeSantis clash with Disney could displace it.

Perhaps one of the many candidates — DeSantis, or Scott, or Ramaswamy, or someone yet unnamed — will untangle this knot in time for Iowa. But as the summer marches on, and Trump’s lead only expands with each month (and each indictment), time is growing slimmer and slimmer for them to find an answer.

More news to know.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scored a victory this morning. (Hudson Institute)

The Israeli parliament this morning approved Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial plan to limit the Supreme Court’s power to overturn government actions. President Biden had been unusually vocal in urging Israel to reject the proposal, recently summoning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to the Oval Office to make that point.

Phoenix, Arizona is set to become the first major U.S. city to reach an average monthly temperature above 100 degrees. “Not an average high,” the Washington Post notes. “An overall average.

Speaking of Ron DeSantis, the new African-American history standards adopted by his state board of education have attracted critics from Kamala Harris to Chris Christie.

Since his fall at a commencement ceremony last month, White House aides have been making changes to President Biden’s schedule and routines to work around his age.  

Biden picked Adm. Lisa Franchetti to be the next top officer in the Navy. If confirmed (cc: Tommy Tuberville), she will be the first female member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Special Counsel Jack Smith is on track to spend more than $25 million this year.

The day ahead.

Doug Emhoff will make history today. (White House)

At the White House: President Biden has nothing on his public schedule. VP Harris will travel to Chicago to headline the UnidosUS annual conference and a campaign fundraiser.

Around the world: Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will travel to Samoa, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to ever visit the Pacific island country.

At the Capitol: The House and Senate are off until tomorrow.  

Before I go...

People watching the new Game of thrones episode in cinema
(Krists Luhaers / Unsplash)

Here’s some good news: The box office is back.

Last week in this space, I wrote about the Barbenheimer pheonomeon (and how some politicians were trying to take part).

The pair of movies shattered records this weekend: with an estimated $235 million in ticket sales, this weekend is believed to have been the fourth-highest-grossing in movie history.

The biggest money-maker was Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” which is now the highest-grossing movie ever made by a female director.

For my part, I caught “Oppenheimer” last night — and it was the most crowded I’ve seen a movie theater in years. I thought the movie was spellbinding; readers of this newsletter will also appreciate just how much it hinges on a Commerce Secretary confirmation battle. (Finally, legislative manuvering makes it to the big screen!)

“Amateurs seek the sun and get eaten,” Robert Downey Jr.’s Lewis Strauss, the Commerce Secretary nominee, says at one point in the film, relaying a lesson he said he’d learned from years in Washington. “Power stays in the shadows.”

Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe