Why DeSantis is deterring Trump — for now

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) faces a conundrum as he weighs a possible White House bid: How should he deal with former President Trump?

The recently re-elected Florida governor and rising conservative star has long maintained a friendly alliance with Trump, who helped DeSantis cross the finish line during his long 2018 primary campaign.

But Trump’s announcement on Tuesday that he would run for the presidency again in 2024 threatens to further aggravate the already tense relationship. If DeSantis ultimately moves forward with a White House campaign, it would put him in direct conflict with Trump like never before and challenge him to run a primary with the country’s most prominent Republican.

Announcing DeSantis’ 2024 campaign may be looking increasingly likely, but it’s far from imminent. Two Florida Republicans said he has yet to make a final decision on a presidential nomination, and others said they don’t expect him to start a campaign until after Florida’s 2023 legislative session at the earliest. This meeting is expected to last until early May.

Still, there are reasons for Trump to see DeSantis as a threat. A growing number of high-profile Republicans have begun to publicize DeSantis as the frontrunner for 2024, and he’s already starting to make his way among the party’s biggest donors.

Earlier this month, hedge fund CEO Ken Griffin, a GOP mega-donor, told Politico that he was willing to back DeSantis should Florida’s governor make a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Another senior Republican donor, Stephen Schwarzman, said he would support anyone other than Trump in the primary.

Recent polls by the conservative Club for Growth showed DeSantis leading Trump by double-digit margins in head-to-head matches in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote on presidential candidates.

Another poll by the Florida group, where voters know DeSantis best, found the governor has a 26-point lead over Trump. A Florida Republican aide said Trump’s best hope of hiring DeSantis is until the governor’s possible announcement.

“Everyone in Florida knows and has a sense of what Ron DeSantis did,” said a Florida Republican representative. “The MAGA donors know what Ron DeSantis did, the activists know what he did. But many voters don’t. And Trump realizes he has a chance to define DeSantis before DeSantis has a chance to come out and tell his story.”

“Do I think DeSanctimonious will last? No,” the agent added, referring to the nickname Trump recently gave DeSantis. “But it allows him to frame his opponents for his followers and knock them down.”

Trump fired a warning shot at DeSantis last week, even before he officially announced his 2024 campaign, and issued a lengthy statement recognizing DeSantis’ 2018 victory, denigrating him as nothing more than an “average” governor and denouncing him of the “Playing” accused games by not commenting on his presidential aspirations.

“The fake news asks him if he’s going to run when President Trump runs, and he says, ‘I’m just focused on the governor’s race, I’m not looking to the future,'” Trump said. “Well, in terms of loyalty and class, that’s really not the right answer.”

The former president also recently gave DeSantis a new nickname: “Ron DeSanctimonious.”

So far, Trump’s attack has met with little more than a shrug from DeSantis and his allies. DeSantis himself said the criticism was “just noise,” though he still managed to not quite so subtly attack the former president, comparing his own landslide victory in the Nov. 8 midterm election to the many losses of high-profile figures backed by Trump candidates in other parts of the country.

“At the end of the day, I would just tell people to look at last Tuesday night’s scoreboard,” he said at a news conference in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. on Tuesday.

For now, at least, Republicans say DeSantis’ strategy of simply dismissing the budding rivalry with Trump is working. For one thing, there are still questions about Trump’s influence on the GOP and whether his bombastic political brand is more of an asset or a liability.

Some said Trump could only end up hurting himself if he messed with someone as popular in the GOP’s conservative base as DeSantis.

“Trump’s extremism has passed its sell-by date. It’s becoming more and more irrelevant every day,” said Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist. “Reg. DeSantis is rising in approval ratings, so why knock it down?”

“DeSantis just needs to ignore the childish attribution and focus on continuing to deliver for the people of Florida. Trump is making a mistake by attacking popular governors like DeSantis.”

Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, said what makes it so difficult for Trump to attack DeSantis is that the two occupy similar political avenues.

“So far, doing nothing has worked. The more Trump attacks DeSantis, the worse he looks,” said Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist. “If he criticizes DeSantis because DeSantis has a similar problem profile, he can only attack him for personal reasons and loyalty.”

However, some Republicans said it’s unclear how long DeSantis can maintain the upper hand in dealings with Trump, especially if the former president continues to target the Florida governor.

“I think you can choose not to act on it, but if you don’t act on something, it’s just going to build up,” said a Republican aide who has worked in Florida politics. “It’s politics. That’s not fair, rational or anything else. At some point he has to go on the offensive.”

For now, DeSantis might have the privilege of keeping a low profile, at least when it comes to a possible 2024 campaign. He will be sworn in for his second term at the governor’s mansion in January before presenting his legislative priorities to the House and Senate in February.

“I expect it’s going to take some time,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who served as senior adviser to Senator Mitt Romney’s (Utah) 2012 presidential campaign. “He has earned the right to bask in the glow of his own victory and sit on the capital he has earned.”

“But these things seem to be moving very quickly and people will start hearing more from him and look for signals that he wants to come in in 2024.”

But Madden also said that DeSantis — or anyone else looking to get into the next presidential race — should also look to 2016, when Trump first won the Republican nomination, as cautionary tale. Trump’s competitors at the time saw him more as a liability than a real threat. Consequently, Madden said, they were relentlessly thrashed by Trump.

“At some point you have to attack your opponent head-on,” he said. “The work will not be done for you.”