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ORLANDO, Fla. — If Ron DeSantis wants to “Make America Florida” in 2024, he’s going to have to challenge Donald Trump, his followers and a Republican Party that’s still beholden to the former president.
Republican insiders, party activists and GOP establishment figures heaped praise on the Florida governor in interviews this week at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando and across the country. They love his combativeness with the Biden administration, resistance to Covid-19 mandates and fights against culture war issues like critical race theory.
But they concede that if DeSantis jumps into the 2024 presidential contest — as some close to the governor believe he will do — he will be crushed by Trump, should the former president run again.
“I like Ron DeSantis, I like most of what he has done. But if President Trump is the nominee, the grassroots of the party will be with him,” said Solomon Yue, a Republican National Committee member from Oregon. “That’s especially the case because many in the base feel that the last election was stolen from him, and that will be a driving factor.”
That dynamic was palpable in Orlando this week as throngs of national conservative activists gathered at CPAC. The road leading into the venue for this year’s event included a Trump supporter shouting through a bullhorn that people who disagree with Trump should “move to Cuba” as he hawked a wide assortment of Trump gear.
But sprinkled throughout the crowd were some people wearing DeSantis gear, including the “Make America Florida” hats that are growing in popularity.
“I love Ron DeSantis, he has been so great, he has been so strong on conservative policies,” said Kimanh Du, an attendee from Georgia with an American flag bandana around her neck as she walked the packed event. “He has been so great.”
She said one day she would love to see DeSantis run for president, but “not yet,” because she wants Trump to have a second term in the White House.
That was the gist of many CPAC attendees: DeSantis has built up his credibility with the party faithful but has not yet eclipsed Trump’s star power.
“I think if there was no Trump, there would be DeSantis and everyone else,” said Ned Ryun, founder and CEO of Virginia-based American Majority, which trains conservative candidates and activists. “[DeSantis] has a lot of support in the grassroots across the country. American Majority deals with the grassroots a lot, and I can tell you he is hugely popular.”
Those closest to DeSantis say he is laser focused on his 2022 reelection, which he is expected to win since he has huge leads over his Democratic rivals and has vastly outraised them in fundraising. But if a time comes when he considers challenging Trump, they say, DeSantis won’t back down.
“I think he does it,” a veteran Florida GOP consultant who was granted anonymity to speak freely said of the prospect DeSantis runs against Trump. “I think he is aware that timing is everything, and if we are assuming he maintains this stardom within the party and performs as well as I think he will in his reelection, he would be in a really good position.”
“[He’s] just not the type to roll over. It’s just not his nature,” the consultant said.
The Florida governor’s swift ascent through the national Republican ecosystem can be seen at Republican rallies across the country, where DeSantis-themed merchandise, including “Make America Florida” gear, has sprung up as the GOP’s grassroots base increasingly holds up DeSantis as the aspirational ideal of what a conservative governor should be. He has more than $80 million in his political war chest from donors in all 50 states.
But if DeSantis follows through on a bid for president in 2024, he is likely to run up against a national Republican Party that likes him — but loves Trump.
“I am pretty confident that by the time fall rolls around he will have north of $125 million in the bank, which, if his Democratic opponents keep up their lackluster fundraising, DeSantis would need to spend very little of on his way to reelection,” said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who has done polling for Trump and others who have looked at DeSantis’ 2024 viability. “It could leave him with $100 million-plus in the bank that he likely could convert to a super PAC.”
Trump backers who are increasingly supportive of DeSantis as a national-level politician say the best solution to potential clash is for the 43-year-old Ivy League-trained attorney to wait his turn.
“By 2028 DeSantis will only be, like, 49, and will have been a two-term governor of one of the largest states in the country and a key battleground state,” said Ryun, the head of American Majority. “What could DeSantis possibly gain from a bloody, bruising primary fight with a wildly popular former president with a huge fundraising advantage.”
There is, however, a subset within the Republican Party that sees a path forward for a candidate like DeSantis, who doesn’t come with some of the baggage associated with the former president.
“There are some folks in the party who are going to support Trump no matter what, even if DeSantis gets in,” said Andrew Hitt, who was Wisconsin’s GOP chair during the 2020 election. “There are some others who are taking a more practical approach of asking whether [Trump] can win again.”
Hitt said the 2020 election in his state underscored some of Trump’s vulnerabilities. In 2016, 140,000 Republicans voted for Trump, but did not vote for former Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on the same ballot. In 2020, 70,000 Republicans voted for their incumbent GOP member of Congress but did not vote for Trump.
“That was in a state where Trump lost by 20,000 votes,” Hitt said. “Can DeSantis keep the rural voters Trump brought into the party in such a big way, and recapture the suburban voters Trump lost?”
Most early 2024 polls have DeSantis as the Republican front-runner if Trump does not run, and in some instances neck-and-neck with the former president. A University of North Florida poll released Thursday, the first day of CPAC, had DeSantis beating Trump 44-41 with registered Republicans in Florida, though the results were within the margin of error.
Polls that have DeSantis tied with, or beating, Trump could be a problem for the governor. While boosting his name identification nationally and expanding his fundraising base, such polls could motivate Trump to more forcefully attack DeSantis.
“I think these poll numbers like the ones we saw [from the University of North Florida] can really piss off Trump,” said a veteran Republican consultant. “I do think this is the sort of thing that could lead to more chest beating because it is no doubt something that is emboldening for Ron.”
Trump has already taken subtle shots at DeSantis, including criticizing unnamed politicians who refused to say publicly whether they got a Covid-19 booster shot — a comment that came shortly after DeSantis brushed off questions about his booster status.
Trump, however, got jeers at an Dallas rally for telling the crowd he received a booster shot and DeSantis’ staunch opposition to Covid-mandates has helped further elevate his status among the party faithful.
“[Trump] knows he would crush him,” said a Republican consultant familiar with Trump’s thinking, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “He doesn't even think he will run against him. He just does not understand why Ron is so disloyal considering he made Ron and then largely got out of his way and let him do his thing.”
“Trump has basically supported Ron at every turn, but it’s a one way street,” said the consultant, who declined to speak on the record for fear of angering the former president. “He knows that. He just doesn’t like it.”
Yet at CPAC, DeSantis gave a 20 minute speech that showed off his ability to not only advocate policies Republicans support but frame them in a way that won him a standing ovation.
“When I became governor, Florida had the most liberal state Supreme Court in the country,” he told the crowd. “I've replaced three liberal justices with conservative justice. We now have the most conservative Supreme Court in the country.”
Jason Thompson, an attorney and RNC national committee member from Georgia, said DeSantis’ style could also appeal to a slice of Republicans who like Trump on policy, but think he’s too much of a firebrand.
“DeSantis is not as bombastic, and they like that about him,” Thompson said. “He is very much like Trump in his policies, but is very different in his demeanor. I think there is a growing group who likes that.”
Thompson said “Trump is the frontrunner if he runs,” but noted DeSantis’ popularity in Florida, which remains a key state in Republican primaries.
“If somehow, hypothetically, Trump and DeSantis ran and DeSantis did really, really well in Florida, it could make things interesting,” he said.
But one common theme the political consultants and party officials expressed also spoke to the Florida governor’s political future: DeSantis could be what’s next, not what’s now.
“He is smart enough to know that, outside of Trump, he is the most popular Republican politician in America,” said Tyler Bowyer, who runs the Arizona branch of conservative student group Turning Point USA. “Only a few things could mess that up: upsetting Trump world, which I do not think he will do, and the other is buying into special interest groups like the Chamber, which are anti-Trump.”
“So far he is navigating that small, small space very well,” added Bowyer, who is also Arizona’s RNC national committee member. “I can’t foresee him challenging Trump. It would damage him beyond repair nationally.”