Could Trump challenge DeSantis over ‘resign to run’ law?
With reports that Gov. Ron DeSantis might launch his presidential campaign next month, confusion remains on whether a change in Florida’s resign-to-run law will kick in time to prevent a court challenge by former President Trump or someone else.
Some election law experts say there is enough leeway in the current statutes that DeSantis wouldn’t face any problems with an early announcement. However, Trump, his main opponent in a GOP primary, might not see it that way.
“Trump’s been known to be even more petty,” said Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. “So I suppose it’s possible the [Trump] campaign could authorize a lawsuit against DeSantis on this issue.”
Lawmakers sent to DeSantis’ desk last week Senate bill 7050, which included an amendment specifically designed to clear the way for the governor to launch a bid for the GOP nomination in 2024 without having to tender his resignation. It takes effect July 1.
Florida’s current resign to run law mandates that an officeholder must tender his or her resignation when filing to run for another office, effective the day their new position would start if elected. In DeSantis’ case, that would have been Jan. 20, 2025, if he launches a bid for president. So he would have had to leave the Governor’s Mansion that day even if he lost the White House.
The amendment, from state Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, was an attempt to “clarify” the provision by expressly stating that it “does not apply to … persons seeking the office of President or Vice President of the United States.”
Governor’s office spokesman Bryan Griffin did not respond to a request for comment on the resign to run law.
Previous reports indicated DeSantis would launch a presidential exploratory committee as early as May and make an official announcement much later, as U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., has done.
But ABC News reported Friday that DeSantis was “leaning toward skipping the launch of an exploratory committee altogether and is instead expected to launch a full presidential campaign next month.”
Michael T. Morley, a Florida State University College of Law professor, said DeSantis might still be legally in the clear even if he announces before July 1, as the provision of the resign to run law regarding federal candidates isn’t as clear-cut as the one for state and local candidates.
DeSantis could also wait to officially file his paperwork until after July 1.
“The deadline for that would be well after the statute would take effect over the summer,” he said.
The standards for federal campaign finance law and the state law are also different, Morley said.
While federal candidates, including President Joe Biden, have been careful not to even say offhand that they’re running due to federal laws that would then kick in immediately, a simple announcement wouldn’t trigger the state law.
The best example of the loose definition for federal candidates was Rick Scott not resigning as governor in 2019 until the day DeSantis was sworn in as his successor, even though it was five days after Scott’s Senate term was supposed to have begun.
“If there was an overlap of a few days, you could certainly make an argument that under this technicality, the statute was triggered,” Morley said.
At the time, though, nobody sought to make an issue of it. But DeSantis might not have that luxury.
The Trump-supporting political committee Make America Great Again already filed an ethics complaint against DeSantis in March, citing the resign to run law and demanding that he be removed from office, fined, or censured for being “a de facto candidate for President of the United States under federal election laws” due to his book tour and reports of his putting together a campaign staff.
The complaint was dismissed by a Florida ethics board, which found no legal basis for their claims of a “shadow” DeSantis run.
Trump and his campaign have continuously hit DeSantis over the issue, and that a law that already gave federal candidates such a wide berth was specifically changed could indicate the DeSantis camp is sensitive to such allegations.
Make America Great Again PAC did not respond to a request for comment.
McDonald said the Trump campaign could well decide to go after DeSantis if there’s an early announcement. But it might not turn out well for them either.
“The risks are that Trump or his allies file a lawsuit and he loses in Florida court,” he said. “And we know that the state Supreme Court is stacked with DeSantis appointees. … Then that gives DeSantis a win over Trump. And the optics on that would not look good.”
Trump’s best strategy at this point, when he leads DeSantis by huge margins in most polls, “is just to cruise to victory,” McDonald said.
“It’s really incumbent upon DeSantis at this point to turn things around, and launching a presidential campaign is a moment in the spotlight,” he said. “There will be positive media coverage on his rollout, and then it will be a question of how much DeSantis can leverage that rollout to narrow the margin.”
Daniel A. Smith, the political science chair at the University of Florida, said the biggest issue was what DeSantis might do with the rest of his four-year term now that he doesn’t have to resign.
“It’s going to be interesting whether he’s going to be able to truly govern while running for the highest office of the land,” Smith said. “I think the larger question for those [opposed to DeSantis] is whether the worst-case scenario is that he doesn’t win the nomination and comes back with a vengeance.”