DeSantis begins ramping up SC outreach for 2024, with backing from state lawmakers
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies are starting to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign in South Carolina, moving to build a political operation and court local leaders in a state likely to be fiercely competitive in the 2024 GOP presidential primary.
The efforts — coming before DeSantis even formally launches a White House bid — mark the first test of his political strength in South Carolina, as he attempts to make inroads in a state whose loyalties in next year’s primary could be split between a popular former governor, sitting U.S. senator and a former president.
“DeSantis is making the calls,” said Dave Wilson, a GOP strategist in South Carolina. “And he should be if he wants to build the groundswell of support he’s going to need in South Carolina.”
DeSantis is running second in a bevy of early polls of the 2024 primary, bested only by former President Donald Trump. Nationally, polls show him receiving far more support than the only other major candidate in the race, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and more than potential candidates like one-time Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.
But DeSantis, who was a congressman from Florida before becoming governor in 2019, has few existing ties to South Carolina, a sharp contrast from longtime state pols like Haley and Scott, whose connections to the state extend back decades. Even a relative newcomer like Trump, who won the state’s 2016 GOP primary, has the endorsement of South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
DeSantis appears committed to making up for lost time now. Earlier this month, he spoke on the phone with GOP state Sen. Josh Kimbrell, according to two Republicans familiar with the call. Kimbrell is an up-and-coming conservative lawmaker who represents a Republican-rich district that includes Spartanburg.
In an interview, Kimbrell said he would neither confirm nor deny he spoke on the phone with DeSantis. But two weeks ago, the lawmaker joined a super PAC, Never Back Down, encouraging the governor to run for president.
Kimbrell says he views DeSantis as a stronger general election candidate than Trump, who lost his reelection in 2020.
“My thing is, I care about winning the general election in 2024,” Kimbrell said. “And — I’m sure this is going to get me love — but I’m not confident the former president can win the general.”
“He could win, I’m not saying he couldn’t,” he added. “I’m just more comfortable that DeSantis would.”
Kimbrell, citing polls, said he already saw the primary as a two-person race between DeSantis and Trump.
Kimbrell isn’t the only South Carolina Republican lawmaker this month to publicly urge DeSantis to run: State Sen. Danny Verdin, another Upstate Republican from Laurens, also encouraged him to do so, praising him for his understanding of America’s founding principles.
Verdin issued a statement through Never Back Down, whose founder, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, traveled the state this month trying to rally support for a potential DeSantis presidential bid.
One GOP source familiar with the group’s plans said it has been actively recruiting Republicans in the state, telling potential staffers that it would be playing a key role in any DeSantis presidential campaign.
Super PACs, which cannot legally coordinate with a candidate’s campaign, are often better funded than candidates because they are subject to looser fundraising restrictions. DeSantis raised more than $100 million for his gubernatorial reelection campaign last year, money he would have to transfer to a super PAC for it to be used in a presidential campaign.
Never Back Down last week hired Jeff Roe, a former top adviser for U.S. Sen Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, a source familiar with the group confirmed.