11 min read

Can DeSantis do it?

Let the games begin.
Can DeSantis do it?
(Gage Skidmore)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, May 24, 2023. The 2024 elections are 531 days away.

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How to think about DeSantis 2024

The 2024 Republican presidential contest is set to kick off in earnest today as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — once Donald Trump’s close ally, now his closest competitor — announces a White House bid.

Here are four angles I’m thinking about as the Trump-DeSantis slugfest begins:

1. Where DeSantis is strong

Let’s start with the basics. DeSantis boasts a sterling résumé: Yale baseball star; Harvard Law degree; six years of active duty with the Navy’s JAG Corps, including service in Iraq; five years in Congress; four more as Florida’s governor.

His family has roots in two historically competitive battleground states (Pennsylvania and Ohio); he serves as chief executive of another. He’s showed he can win tough races: his 19-point re-election rout last November was the largest margin of victory for a Florida gubernatorial candidate in 40 years. He has a large war chest and high name ID.

In addition to his electoral chops, DeSantis has spent the last few months methodically preparing for a presidential bid, stocking up a long list of conservative accomplishments. Just this year, DeSantis has signed bills banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, banning gender-transition care for minors, allowing Floridians to carry concealed weapons without a permit, taking on Disney, and more.

While Trump has mainly been in the news for indictments and investigations, DeSantis has placed himself at the forefront of nearly every right-wing battle du jour, including clashes over drag shows and pronouns, DEI initiatives, election fraud, and immigration. Florida, he has often declared, is “where woke goes to die.”

The main case for DeSantis 2024, then, boils down two words: electability and effectiveness. Free of Trump’s inherent chaos and distractions, he can win where 45 cannot, the argument goes, and fight the policy battles — against Fauci, against China, against “wokeness,” against “RINOs” — Trump failed to. He can “make America Florida.”

2. Where DeSantis is weak

Those, at least, are DeSantis’ strengths on paper. But presidential campaigns aren’t won and lost on paper (or on Twitter): eventually one has to enter real life.

And the Florida’s governor’s real-life debut has been shaky at best. Just take a look at this ugly trendline, courtesy of Morning Consult:

After the midterms, when Trump’s candidates faltered and DeSantis soared, DeSantis was briefly gaining on the former president. Now, he enters the presidential race with support almost in the teens, while Trump approaches 60%.

What happened in the meantime? Some events out of DeSantis’ control, yes (remember that Trump indictment?). But there’s also been several unforced errors: his flip-flop on Ukraine, his false starts attacking Trump and then retreating, the raft of headlines about what real-life DeSantis is like (awkward behind the scenes, unable to schmooze key donors and endorsers, unwilling to engage with the media).

In a video that went viral online recently, DeSantis can be seen struggling to make small talk with denizens of a New Hampshire diner. “What’s your name?” he asks one. “Tim Anthony,” the man replies. “Okay!” DeSantis says simply and moves on.

Can DeSantis really be the more electable one if he can barely speak to voters?

His electability case has further taken a beating in the past few months as some Republican bigwigs have begun to wonder whether America wants to be made Florida at all. His six-week abortion ban, permitless concealed carry bill, and clash with Disney may make good fodder for Republican primary ads, but it’s unlikely they’d play well with a general election audience.

Another of DeSantis’ strengths is his prodigious fundraising (his super PAC said this morning that it plans to raise $200 million during the primaries). But several GOP megadonors, who once loved him, are getting cold feet as doubts about his electability rise. Three billionaire DeSantis-for-governor donors were recently seen dining with Vivek Ramaswamy, the long-shot entrepreneur candidate, shopping around for other options.

His choice of venue for the announcement — a Twitter audio chat with Elon Musk, which will air at 6 p.m. ET — seems, to some critics, to underline DeSantis’ faults. Presidential announcements are one of the few opportunities a candidate has to ensure their message will be broadcast to a wide swath of voters. But a Twitter Spaces conversation requires that voters come to him, clicking on the glowing purple circle around his or Musk’s Twitter profiles.

The manner in which a presidential candidate announces matters little in the long-run, except for the symbolism it signals at the outset. Some Republicans believe DeSantis’ launch is symbolic of a campaign that’s too online, too weird to win. “Announcing on Twitter is perfect for Ron DeSantis,” one Trump adviser snarked. “This way he doesn’t have to interact with people and the media can’t ask him any questions.” (DeSantis will follow his Musk conversation with an interview on Fox News.)

Which brings us to DeSantis’ biggest challenge of them all:

3. How to take on Trump

Like Trump himself, as he enters the presidential race, DeSantis is going all-in on attempting to depict himself as a fighter.

“God made a fighter,” the narrator intoned in his final 2022 campaign ad. “America is worth the fight,” his wife (and closest political adviser) wrote yesterday in a tweet unveiling a pre-launch video. His campaign account, meanwhile, posted an image of an alligator lurking in the water, ready to strike.

But now DeSantis is placing himself in a cage match with the meanest street fighter in modern American politics. And instead of fighting, DeSantis’ strategy appears to be... ignoring him?

Consider this reporting from NBC News:

“DeSantis will be judicious, or as his team puts it, “strategic,” about crossing into Mar-a-Lago territory. The governor will mostly ignore the daily Trump taunts and will take the former president head-on only in specific circumstances — particularly on policy — according to three political advisers to DeSantis.”

But if that strategy — ignore Trump’s personal attacks, only engage on policy — works for DeSantis, it will be a first. When Trump’s many GOP rivals tried to take that route in 2016, it failed every time.

While DeSantis has mostly refused to attack Trump, Trump has shown DeSantis no such courtesy, pouring $13 million into ads attacking DeSantis — already — while labeling him “Ron DeSanctimonious” and baselessly implying he’s a pedophile.

Although his numbers have been slipping of late, DeSantis remains Trump’s strongest Republican alternative. According to a recent CBS poll, 24% of Republican voters say they will only consider supporting Trump in the Republican primary. But the other 76% — although many of them are currently supporting Trump — are willing to consider other candidates, creating an opening for DeSantis.

To wrest them away from Trump, though, he will have to actually try. He will have to offer a broader critique of Trump, in service of explaining to a primary electorate who loves the former president why “Trumpism without Trump” is preferable to the real thing. Washington loves a comeback narrative, and one is still eminently possible for DeSantis, especially if he wins a major early contest like Iowa (where he is expected to focus his resources). But eventually, he will have to answer Trump’s attacks and offer a few of his own.

In politics, you either define your opponent or they define you; at the moment, for DeSantis, it is clear which is happening.

4. The field is getting crowded

Back at the beginning of the year, during the post-midterms period when DeSantis was still on the rise and Trump was still weakened, it seemed like a number of Republican rising stars were planning to sit out the 2024 race, afraid to challenge the two dominant Florida Men.

But those GOP electeds have now spent months waiting for DeSantis to announce, and his vulnerabilities have only become clearer in that time. He no longer has the polling juice to freeze out possible rivals. A sampling of the Republicans now mulling presidential bids:

  • Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is expected to announce soon.
  • Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who will reportedly declare in the “coming days.”
  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who is making plans to run and says there’s a 61% chance he goes for it.
  • Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who had previously said he was out, but is now apparently having second thoughts.
  • North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who has already filmed TV ads for his prospective campaign.
  • Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who says he will announce his intentions “soon.”
  • Former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, whose timeline is “very soon.”
  • And even former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who recently declined to rule out a third run for the White House.

And that’s in addition to Trump, Ramaswamy, the two South Carolinians (Tim Scott and Nikki Haley), and former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, all of whom have already announced their campaigns.

This is bad news for DeSantis. As I’ve written before, the Florida governor’s best shot at Trump is head-on. The more candidates who join the field, the more ways the anti-Trump vote will be slit up, allowing the former president to easily glide to the top, much like he did in 2016.

Trump’s team is already gloating: DeSantis’ “biggest accomplishment in this campaign is generating more candidates,” a top Trump adviser recently wrote.

There’s still plenty of time for Trump’s rivals to consolidate behind one option — maybe it will be DeSantis, maybe not. But knowledge of past campaigns and politicians’ egos tell us that will be hard; the sight of so many candidates jumping in confirms it.

In other news

Former President Trump’s legal team is seeking a meeting with Attorney General Merrick Garland. (Justice Department)

Special Counsel Jack Smith is reportedly nearing the end of his investigation into Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents. According to the Wall Street Journal, Smith has “all but finished obtaining testimony and other evidence,” having conducted interviews with “nearly every employee at Trump’s Florida home.” Fearing that an indictment could be imminent, Trump’s lawyers have a requested a meeting with Attorney General Merrick Garland.

  • Meanwhile: The New York criminal case against Trump will go to trial on March 25, right in the middle of the presidential primary season. Trump — appearing by videoconference — “threw up his hands in frustration” and “glowered at the camera” when the date was announced, per the Associated Press. Judge Juan Merchan told Trump that he will be expected to cancel all other obligations during the trial, which could last several weeks.

After hours of additional talks, are negotiators close to a debt ceiling deal? “No,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told CBS News on Tuesday. The final deal will likely need to be supported by at least a majority of House Republicans — while still receiving considerable Democratic support as well. But some Republicans are wary of a compromise, while Democrats are growing frustrated with McCarthy’s refusal to include any of their priorities in the deal. The speaker intimated on Tuesday that the only concession he’s prepared to make is raising the debt ceiling in the first place.

Billionaire Harlan Crow is refusing to cooperate with a Senate probe into his relationship with Justice Clarence Thomas. The Senate Judiciary Committee “has not identified a valid legislative purpose for its investigation and is not authorized to conduct an ethics investigation of a Supreme Court Justice,” Crow’s attorney wrote the panel. The committee had sought information about Crow’s lavish gifts to Thomas; the GOP megadonor has taken the justice on luxury vacations, paid for his adopted son’s private school tuition, and bought his mother’s home.

  • Related: Speaking at an American Law Institute dinner on Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that there is more the Supreme Court can do to “adhere to the highest standards” of ethical conduct, but declined to offer any specificity. He added that any ethical reforms should come from the justices themselves, not from Congress.

Another Biden judicial nominee withdrew on Tuesday. Jabari Wamble, an assistant U.S. attorney and the son-in-law of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), pulled himself from consideration for a district court seat in Kansas. According to Politico, White House aides believe Wamble was about to be rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association. He is the second Biden judicial pick to withdraw this month.

And finally, the strangest news story of the day: House Republicans auctioned off Kevin McCarthy’s used chapstick as a fundraising ploy on Tuesday. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) ultimately put down $100,000 to win the cherry lip balm — and the speaker’s attendance at a dinner with her top donors.

Today in government

The Uvalde elementary school that experienced a fatal mass shooting last year. (Don Holloway)

White House: President Biden will deliver remarks at 3:30 p.m. ET to mark the anniversary of the Uvalde elementary school shooting, which took place one year ago today. According to the White House, Biden will repeat his call for Congress to pass expanded gun control measures, including universal background checks and banning assault weapons. 19 children and two teachers were killed in the Uvalde attack.

Biden will also receive his daily intelligence briefing, which Vice President Kamala Harris will join.

Congress: The House will vote on a resolution repealing President Biden’s student loan debt relief plan. Biden’s plan — which is currently being held up in the courts — would cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for Pell Grant recipients and up to $10,000 for most other federal student loan borrowers. The Supreme Court is set to issue a ruling on the plan’s legality in the next month.

The Senate is not in session.

Courts: The Supreme Court has nothing on its schedule.

Before I go...

(Team Forces)

Here’s something inspiring: Hari Budha Magar became the first double above-the-knee amputee to scale Mount Everest last week.

Budha Magar told the Guardian that he felt like his life was “completely finished” when he lost both of his legs while serving in Afghanistan as a soldier in the Gurkha regiment of the British army.

“I grew up in Nepal, up to age of 19, and I saw how the disabled people were treated in those remote villages,” he explained. “Many people still think that disability is a sin of previous life and you are the burden of the earth. I believed this myself because that is what I saw. That is how I grew up.”

But now that he has summited the world’s highest peak, Budha Magar plans to dedicate the rest of his life to helping people with disabilities.

“My big goals were simply to change perceptions on disability and to inspire other people to climb their own mountains,” he told the BBC. “No matter how big your dreams, no matter how challenging your disability, with the right mindset, anything is possible.”

Read more about Budha Magar’s historic climb.

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