Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida officially entered the presidential race last week, but he seems further than ever from the head-to-head showdown his allies believe he needs to snatch the nomination. former President Donald Trump.
Former Vice President Mike Pence is sinking deeper into Iowa, which is crucial for his efforts to unseat Republican frontrunners, even before he announces his candidacy. Former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is stepping up preparations for another campaign, with an expected focus on New Hampshire. And Republican donors and Capitol Hill leaders are showing new interest in Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who launched his campaign last week. Even barely mentioned candidates are suddenly showing interest in 2024.
The burgeoning field, combined with Trump’s seemingly unbreakable core of support, poses a serious threat to DeSantis, jeopardizing his ability to shore up the non-Trump vote, and could reflect the momentum that fueled the party’s takeover. by Trump in 2016.
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It’s a matter of calculation: Every new entrant threatens to steal a small chunk of DeSantis’ potential coalition, whether it’s Pence with the Iowa evangelicals or Scott with the college-educated commuters. And these new candidates are unlikely to eat away at Trump’s votes. The base of the former president – more than 30% Republicans – remains strongly devoted to him.
“President Trump — he should go to the casino, he’s a lucky guy,” Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based veteran Republican strategist, said of the casino’s former owner, Trump.
“It’s a gigantic problem” for DeSantis, added Carney, who has worked on previous presidential campaigns, because “no matter what percentage they get, it’s hard for the second place guy to win because ‘there just isn’t the vote available’.
Trump’s advisers have almost happily greeted each successive entry as part of a divide-and-rule strategy his team has been talking about since 2021. And many candidates seem more comfortable kicking DeSantis than Trump. .
The DeSantis campaign sees the landscape differently.
“We don’t think we’re in 2016 again,” DeSantis senior adviser Ryan Tyson said in an interview.
And in a private briefing for donors this week, Tyson described a Republican electorate divided into three parts: 35% as “only Trump” voters, 20% as “never Trump” and the remaining 45% as DeSantis’ sweet spot.
Tyson told donors, in an audio that was leaked and posted online, that all but the two frontrunners were isolated in the “never Trump” segment. “If your name isn’t Ron DeSantis or Donald Trump, you’re dividing that part of the electorate,” he said.
In the months leading up to his campaign launch, DeSantis and his allies framed the 2024 primaries as a two-man race. But as he has stumbled in recent months, amid questions about his character and political dexterity, his rivals have grown bolder. And some have the cash to stay relevant deep within the main timeline.
Scott entered the race with nearly $22 million in hand, and he raised another $2 million on his first day as a contestant. North Dakota’s wealthy and little-known Governor Doug Burgum now sees an opening in 2024, recently filming commercials to prepare for an impending campaign, according to two people involved in the planning.
Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur, invested $10 million of his own money in his campaign. Like DeSantis, Ramaswamy sells similar anti-reawakening sentiment, but he does so with the charm of a natural communicator.
Trump welcomed non-DeSantis entrants to the race. In January, when Nikki Haley, who was Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, called him to say she was planning to run, Trump did not call out his disloyalty, as some expected. He looked indifferent, telling her to “do what you gotta do,” according to two people briefed on their conversation.
And in the days leading up to Scott’s announcement, Trump was watching Fox News in his Mar-a-Lago office when he said, “I like it. We’re just going to say nice things about Tim,” according to a person familiar with his private comments.
The conventional wisdom at the start of the year was that the field would be relatively small, perhaps as few as five people running. Anti-Trump Republican donors were working to thin the herd to prevent a repeat of the split field that guaranteed Trump’s victory in 2016. Now, after DeSantis’ initial stumbles, there will likely be as many as 10 candidates competing to attract attention and compete for the debate phase.
For DeSantis, the pressure was evident the day he entered the race.
In New Hampshire, Haley poked fun at him on Fox News as simply “copying Trump,” down to his ways. “If he’s just going to be an echo of Trump, people will just vote for Trump,” she said.
In Iowa, Pence sat down with the kind of mainstream media that DeSantis shunned, including The Des Moines Register. Pence also caught up with Bob Vander Plaats, the same evangelical leader DeSantis had recently brought to Tallahassee, Fla., for a private meal.
The split-screen was a reminder that DeSantis was pinched both ideologically and geographically, as the field expanded.
Pence and Scott have made clear their intention to compete with influential evangelical voters in Iowa. In New Hampshire, Christie, who focused his campaign on the state in 2016, and the state’s incumbent governor Chris Sununu, a moderate who left the door open to a race, are threatening to siphon votes from DeSantis. And in South Carolina, he will be sandwiched between two home state candidates, former Gov. Haley and Scott.
Many Republicans who want to defeat Trump are appalled by the outburst on the field — as well as DeSantis’ disappointing performance in recent months. DeSantis has slipped in the polls and now trails Trump in every state and by more than 30 percentage points on average nationally.
“All Republicans need to hit Donald Trump,” said Sununu, who described himself as “50-50” to enter the race. “Any Republican who isn’t hitting Donald Trump hard right now is doing the whole party a disservice, because if just one or two people are willing to shoot Donald Trump, it feels personal. It looks petty. “
So far, Christie has drawn the most attention for his direct attacks on Trump, which he says would be crucial to his candidacy. But he also enjoyed needlepointing DeSantis at times, an acknowledgment of the Florida governor’s position in the race.
The reluctance to sue Trump, for many Republicans, looks eerily like a repeat of 2016. Then Trump’s rivals left him almost alone for months, assuming he would implode or they were destined to beat him. as soon as they could narrow the field. to a one-on-one match, a situation that never happened.
The two Florida-based candidates in this race, Senator Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, a former governor, have spent millions of dollars machine-gunning each other. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has become Trump’s main rival, privately gloated to donors that he was hugging Trump while patiently waiting for the moment to pounce. He never came.
Trump’s current rivals seem infuriated by their collective inability to crack his foundation: Trump supporters have been trained for years to come to his defense whenever he comes under fire.
Trump has another asymmetric advantage: Current and potential rivals have sought to avoid criticizing him too harshly so as not to alienate Republicans who still love Trump and automatically distrust anyone who attacks him. By contrast, other 2024 contenders have shown no hesitation in pursuing DeSantis.
“His team – maybe him – is great at fabricating the courage veneer without actually delivering the real thing,” Ramaswamy said in an interview last month. “And it can work on TV and even on social media,” he added. “But once you push it a bit, it’s like a little bubble in the air: one little touch, and it bursts.”
Ramaswamy, who has been critical of Trump, aimed most of his shots at DeSantis. A close friend of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Ramaswamy dined with Trump and Kushner at the former New Jersey president’s club Bedminster in 2021, according to two people familiar with the event.
And as the ground grows, there’s the matter of the debate stage, where Trump eviscerated his opponents in the 2016 primary.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said earlier this year that she did not expect to need two-stage debate as the party demanded in 2016, with candidate tiers determined by polling.
But there could be as many as a dozen declared candidates by August, and many are already racing to garner the 40,000 donors and 1% polling threshold the party has indicated will be needed to take the stage. This group includes longer contenders such as Larry Elder, the talk radio host who got run over in California’s recall election.
“Everyone says, ‘We have to keep people out,'” Sununu said. “It’s the wrong message, the wrong mentality, and it’s not going to work.”
But he acknowledged that consolidation will eventually be necessary to defeat Trump.
“Discipline,” Sununu added, “is coming out.”
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