Virginia

Trump takes heat as support for DeSantis rises

As Republicans lashed out at Donald Trump for raising candidates who fell short in the past week’s major election, the GOP’s big midterm winner Ron DeSantis began to solidify support. Allies seized the moment to position the Florida governor for 2024. “We rewrote the political map,” DeSantis declared on the night of his resounding victory.

A staffer has revived a Super PAC meant to spur a DeSantis presidential bid that was once submitted in the belief that Trump’s march to the GOP nomination would be unstoppable. An outside consultant for DeSantis reported receiving numerous calls from donors with the same message: “Ron needs to run.”

Now, in an election year that has left former President Trump and other senior Republicans politically wounded, DeSantis’ landslide victory will likely accelerate the governor’s decision-making about 2024, according to the outside adviser, who, like others, interviewed for this story on condition of anonymity to share private conversations.

DeSantis has emerged stronger from the midterm elections that saw many GOP losses and sowed renewed concern within the party about Trump’s ability to lead them to victory in 2024, Republicans said. The governor’s near 20-point win at re-election has put him in a stronger position than ever to seek the presidency and potentially challenge Trump’s dominance in the party, according to some GOP strategists, donors and officials. Many are suddenly looking at him more closely as a possible presidential contender.

DeSantis’ campaign declined to comment on this story. In a debate last month against Democratic rival Charlie Crist, the governor dodged a question about whether he would commit to a full second term. At DeSantis’ victory celebration Tuesday night, a chant erupted that suggested he look out over the governor’s office: “Two years to go! Two more years!”

“As our country reels from failed leadership in Washington, Florida is on the right track,” DeSantis said in his speech.

Should he decide to run for president, DeSantis could face numerous challenges. At the national level, it is still relatively untested. He hails from what was once a swing state that moved to the right and in some ways doesn’t mirror the rest of the country. And it has already drawn the wrath of Trump, who has unleashed devastating attacks on rivals who, years after its inception, have yet to fully recover politically from its broadsides and demeaning nicknames.

While Trump went after DeSantis earlier this fall and shared an article suggesting it would be risky for the governor to challenge him, the former president attacked DeSantis like never before as the governor’s stock soared in recent days — and called him disloyal and “just average”. In a series of social media posts and under a derisive nickname, he debuted “Ron DeSanctimonious” just before the election. A spokesman for Trump on Saturday did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump has strongly indicated he will announce another White House bid in the coming days, though allies have urged him to postpone it amid fears that he will jeopardize the GOP’s chances for a Georgia Senate seat in a December runoff could affect. The former president continues to enjoy strong support among the GOP grassroots, and it’s unclear if Republican dismay at the election will fuel an ongoing backlash.

But publicly and privately since Tuesday, many Republicans — including some long-time Trump allies — have hinted that the party needs a new leader.

John Thomas, a Republican strategist organizing the Super PAC to bolster DeSantis, said since Tuesday’s election he’s had a fresh wave of donors and volunteers, including Republicans who appeared to be in the “Trump -Zug” were and now are “sorry”. Many unexamined Republican candidates whom Trump helped win the GOP primary lost in the general election.

“We have to do something differently,” said Thomas.

A person in contact with the DeSantis team said an apparatus of advisors who could conduct a presidential bid is “in place if DeSantis decides to take the next steps toward a candidacy.” DeSantis also has about $70 million left over from the more than $170 million he raised for re-election, according to another person in contact with the governor’s team.

DeSantis, 44, was elected governor in 2018 while leaning on his line with Trump. But he has built his own political brand in what he calls the “Florida Free State,” rejecting coronavirus restrictions and denouncing “vigilance” in the media, big businesses and schools.

Christina Pushaw, a campaign spokeswoman for DeSantis, noted on social media that the governor’s re-election margins were greater than the current winning margin of another potential 2024 candidate — Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom of California, who billed himself as DeSantis’ pugnacious blue State has positioned frustrate.

DeSantis led Miami-Dade County by 11 points, becoming the first Republican gubernatorial candidate in 20 years to win a district where Latinos make up 69 percent of the population. In a major shock to the beleaguered Democrats, DeSantis narrowly carried Palm Beach County, which had been a key Democrat mainstay, and flipped the counties that include both Jacksonville and Tampa.

In January, Florida Republicans will control every statewide office for the first time in more than 100 years — which some attribute in part to DeSantis’ laps.

“He’s running towards the fights, not running away,” said Christian Ziegler, a GOP strategist who is also vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party, adding, “There’s this tone across the country that people want to see someone , he can do the work and fight for it.”

Still, some Democrats said they weren’t afraid to face DeSantis in a national campaign. Joshua Karp, a Washington-based Democratic strategist who advised both Crist and Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) on their Senate race, predicted that DeSantis would be “eaten alive” in a competitive GOP primary.

“Presidential politics is littered with governors who got lucky in their home state politics, put on some smart plays but were unprepared when they were met by other talent from abroad,” Karp said.

It’s unclear when DeSantis might announce a presidential bid. Some supporters and strategists predicted he would wait until the Florida legislature, where GOP supermajorities pave the way for DeSantis to implement his agenda and pursue policies popular with the party’s grass roots.

As Trump escalated his post-election tirades against DeSantis, DeSantis’ outside adviser said the governor “won’t take the bait” was not interested in a public fight and was focused on responding to a post-election hurricane during Trump raged online. Hurricane Nicole made landfall south of Vero Beach early Thursday morning, inundating parts of the coast while cutting power to more than 200,000 homes and businesses.

Thomas said his plans for the pro-DeSantis super PAC project were put on hold this summer after the GOP rallied around Trump amid an FBI investigation into his handling of classified documents. Trump always seemed more likely to run, Thomas said, and going head-to-head with him seemed riskier.

Tuesday changed the calculus — even though Thomas reckons DeSantis could avoid directly criticizing Trump in a matchup.

“If DeSantis has no desire to state the contrast between [him] and Trump, as this elementary school develops, we will be there. . . we’ll rip the bark off Trump if we have to,” he said. “And that comes from someone who is very pro-Trump.”

Craig Robinson, a prominent conservative blogger in the all-important Iowa, said he would still put his money on Trump for the GOP nominee in 2024. “He’s Donald Trump,” Robinson said. “He’s larger than life. You saw what Trump did to 16 candidates last time. It is not easy. He’s a bulldog.”

“We’re still in the honeymoon glory of his re-election,” he said of DeSantis, “but I think there are some really tough decisions to be made.”

Interviews with GOP strategists, activists, elected officials, donors, and voters showed significant reluctance to support Trump or DeSantis in a potential matchup. Don Tapia, a GOP donor and former member of the Trump administration invited to attend Trump’s “big announcement” in Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday, declined to say who he would be voting for in a contentious primary.

He said he was frustrated by Trump’s public broadsides against DeSantis and believed Trump’s endorsements hurt the party Tuesday.

“In this election we had more problems than in the last 20 years,” said Tapia. “And look at the results. Look at the results.”

A national Republican fundraiser long loyal to Trump blamed a “Trump factor” for the GOP’s dismal performance on Tuesday, saying the election — and Trump’s attacks on DeSantis and another potential 2024 rival, Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin (R) – would have eventually repelled them. This person said they would be “all in” for DeSantis.

Others have publicly voiced their concerns about Trump. In Virginia, Lt. gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R), a former Trump booster, claimed he had become “a liability to the mission”. Mike Pompeo, a former Secretary of State under Trump and a potential 2024 contender, tweeted that Conservatives will be elected “if we deliver” rather than “ranting on social media.”

On Florida’s west coast, GOP activist Cindy Spray said she will “just wait and see where the cards fall” before thinking about the presidential race. She says she’d be torn between Trump and DeSantis and suspects GOP voters may be ready for a presidential nominee who doesn’t “come across as tough.”

“It’s not about what you say, it’s how you say it,” Spray said. “I think people want to hear a positive message and stop the negativity.”

Isaac Stanley-Becker of the Washington Post contributed to this report.

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