Former President Donald Trump may be the Republican Party’s de facto leader, but Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is clearly its man of the moment. Increasingly, political watchers are wondering when this will become a problem for the ambitious Mr. DeSantis.
Despite some ups and downs, the governor emerged from the coronavirus crisis with his national profile raised and his stock high among conservatives, who laud him for having kept his state largely open for business.
Winning even more conservative love, he has championed a smorgasbord of policies — some of dubious constitutionality — seemingly designed to make progressives’ heads explode. In recent months, he has signed legislation curtailing voting access, cracking down on protesters and punishing social media firms for deplatforming political candidates. (On Wednesday, a federal judge put the deplatforming law on hold over First Amendment concerns — though Mr. DeSantis will still get points for trying.) He pushed to ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. He issued an executive order, and later signed legislation, barring businesses and government agencies from requiring vaccine passports.
Recent polls show Mr. DeSantis with solid job approval numbers heading into his 2022 re-election race — a position strengthened by his ability to rake in piles of campaign cash from his nationwide network of donors. He is a familiar face on Fox News and Fox Business.
Cue the speculation about Mr. DeSantis’s presidential prospects. The high-profile leader of a crucial swing state, he has emerged as a top-tier Republican contender — a natural heir to the MAGA throne. He insists he is laser focused on winning re-election. But his de rigueur demurrals do nothing to tamp down the chatter. Will he run in 2024? What if Mr. Trump does? Could the governor best the former president?
Political watchers talk about Mr. DeSantis as a less problematic version of the 45th president — “Trump without the gold toilet,” as one wag put it — and his leadership style has been characterized as “competent Trumpism.” The political media is pitching him as Mr. Trump’s “big rival” for 2024 and the “new king of the G.O.P.”
The party’s ground troops are smitten as well. At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference this February, Mr. DeSantis won a presidential straw poll that excluded Mr. Trump. Then last month, at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, he won a straw poll that included the former president.
You see where this is headed, right? Politicians generally bask in attention like snakes in the sun. But this is the sort of notice that could land a rising Republican on Mr. Trump’s bad side. Whether or not Mr. DeSantis would actually run against him is almost beside the point. The former president cannot abide anyone outshining him — certainly not some snot-nosed state official who wouldn’t even have his job if Mr. Trump hadn’t endorsed the then-congressman early in his race for governor.
Mr. DeSantis is said to be taking great care not to do anything that would trigger Mr. Trump, even as he travels the country amassing piles of campaign cash, hobnobbing with Republican bigwigs and drawing ever more media coverage.
Is Mr. DeSantis afraid of Mr. Trump? Probably. Most Republican officials are. The more pertinent question is whether Mr. Trump is at all afraid of Mr. DeSantis. If not, maybe he should be.
Obviously the governor isn’t a natural showman like Mr. Trump. Few are. That said, Mr. DeSantis has proved a solid practitioner of Trumpian theater. His cheeky campaign ad from 2018 in which he urges his young daughter to “build the wall” with cardboard bricks was a classic own-the-libs provocation. More recently, in praising the state law targeting social media companies, Mr. DeSantis accused Big Tech of treating Mr. Trump as a bigger villain than Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But Florida isn’t a red enough state for its governor to completely write off nonconservatives. So when the occasion suits him, Mr. DeSantis employs a slightly lighter touch. Early in his tenure, he made some moderate appointments to his administration and supported policies that didn’t fit the MAGA mold. His first week in office, he rolled out a plan to clean up Florida’s waters and address the effects of climate change.
Even when catering to the right, he doesn’t always go the Full Trump. The governor aggressively touted the state’s new anti-protester law, even as he drew a clear distinction between peaceful protesters and violent rioters. The Atlantic’s David Frum put it this way: “DeSantis practices a form of political judo that works by employing judicious but limited provocation, followed by a deft, just-in-time retreat to the center, converting the opponent’s strength and energy into a resource for DeSantis.”
Mr. Trump cannot fail to have noticed all the fuss. He has on a couple of occasions been asked if he would consider Mr. De Santis as a running mate in 2024. Both times he responded positively. This allows Mr. Trump to acknowledge the governor’s popularity but also assert his own status as top banana. Ron? Great guy! But strictly No. 2 material.
Mr. DeSantis is maintaining friendly relations with parts of Trumpworld. Notably, he has connected with Mark Meadows, a former White House chief of staff. Mr. Meadows accompanied the governor on a recent fund-raising trip out West. In April, the governor introduced Mr. Trump at a dinner at Mar-a-Lago hosted by the Conservative Partnership Institute, of which Mr. Meadows is a senior partner. The dinner kicked off a two-day summit focused on building a massive dark-money machine to aid conservative candidates — a useful project for Mr. DeSantis.
It serves Mr. DeSantis well that the former president apparently still sees him as a Trump creation — more of an indentured servant than a serious rival. “I endorsed Ron, and after I endorsed him he took off like a rocket ship,” the former president boasted to Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo in April, when she asked about Mr. DeSantis as a running mate. “I was at the beginning of Ron,” Mr. Trump told the network’s Stuart Varney last month, in response to a similar question.
Then again, if Mr. Trump decides that his creation is getting too big for his britches, he could turn all the harder.
Looking to stir this pot, the pro-Democratic group Remove Ron has produced an ad with this theme, taunting the former president for being overtaken by a “rookie congressman” who was a “nobody” until Mr. Trump “made him governor of America’s third largest state.” The ad mocks, “Ron must think you’re past your prime or that you’re a loser, Donald,” before warning that if Mr. DeSantis wins re-election in 2022, neither he nor Florida will have any more use for Mr. Trump. “The clock is ticking, Donald. What are you going to do about it?”
Mr. DeSantis is far from the only Republican with a serious interest in this question.
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