Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is the leading rival to President Donald J. Trump’s path to the 2024 Republican nomination. Still, regardless of how his campaign pivots, spins and mutates, his campaign was and never will be more than a political suicide mission aimed at an aircraft carrier.
Our story begins July 3, 2021, when President Donald J. Trump held a rally in Sarasota, Florida, despite pleas from the DeSantis and staff-to-staff conversations all pushing the president to cancel the event out of respect for the June 24, 2021, collapse of the 13-story Champlain Towers South in Surfside—just north of Miami.
Both camps publicly played down the diversion of interests, but Trump purposely did not mention the Florida governor at the rally, which DeSantis skipped.
In the battle between unnamed sources, it soon emerged that the Trump camp was taken off guard, and the DeSantis camp ensured reporters understood that Trump’s rally was a breach of protocol that might force the governor to sever his alliance with the former president.
The relationship between Trump and DeSantis continued to fray for the following year.
In August 2022, a source familiar with the effort told me that Trump reached out to DeSantis through an emissary to offer Trump’s endorsement and his willingness to campaign with the governor. That offer was dismissed.
DeSantis’ 2022 win was not a precursor to a 2024 White House win
As he ran for reelection in 2022, the governor raised more than $180 million for his reelection campaign, while his Democratic challenger Charlie Crist raised roughly $12 million.
That ad buy never came to pass despite Crist’s promise of a $20 million ad buy to support his effort. Outside groups and the Democratic Governors Association stayed on the sidelines and left Crist to his fate.
Mother Nature also dealt Crist a bad had. In the last week of September, Hurricane Ian hit southwest Florida, which had the effect of putting DeSantis on TV all day in his official capacity—but with the result of political gold.
After the campaign resumed, and Republican candidates in other states absorbed the backlash from the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, DeSantis made few trips outside the state to help other Republicans on the bubble. Instead, he ran up his score in the state with a relentless campaign schedule in all 10 of the state’s media markets.
While abortion was a significant issue in other states, Crist tried to raise it in Florida, but the issue was largely settled in the state, where DeSantis signed a ban on abortions after 15 weeks. Fifteen weeks, or the point where the unborn child feels pain, has become the middle ground in the abortion debate.
DeSantis did sign a ban on abortions after six weeks, the point when a heartbeat is detected, but that was not until April 13, 2023, during the legislature’s annual two-month session.
DeSantis was reelected by 19 points over Crist.
DeSantis won 62 of the state’s 67 counties, including many Democratic strongholds, such as Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, and Palm—the first Republican to win there since 1986.
DeSantis beat Crist by 1.5 million votes, but Crist had underperformed the 2018 Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum by one million votes.
One major Republican consultant who was active in 2022 races told RedState he credited DeSantis’ landslide to the governor’s restrictions on ballot harvesting and his 50-officer election integrity task force that effectively blew up the Democratic turnout model, and then threatened heavy prosecutions of offenders.
The consultant said the effect on Democrats was devastating, but there was no way to pull that off anywhere DeSantis was not governor.
This is not to say that DeSantis did not score a historic landslide. He did. But, in the context of his weak opponent, outside groups going AWOL, and the effect hurricanes Ian and later Nicole had on the mediascape, it was not a clean landslide.
At least, there was no easy way to transfer the winning factors in DeSantis’ 2022 reelection campaign to a national presidential campaign.
DeSantis was a self-defeating proposition
The Florida governor entered the race for the 2024 GOP nomination with money, a campaign staff that had just won reelection in a landslide, and momentum.
Nationally, Republicans were very disappointed, losing two governorships and one Senate seat and winning control of the House with a nine-seat pickup. There was talk of a Red Wave in the weeks before the midterms.
When the Red Wave failed to materialize, the blame went to Trump. He, after all, had been the one campaigning for Republicans all over the country. In a way, he made the midterms a referendum about himself.
Alternatively, DeSantis emerged as the true winner of the midterms.
When Trump announced on Nov. 15 he was running for another term as president at his Mar-a-Lago home, it almost seemed out of place. The mood of the party had swung such that everyone was waiting for DeSantis to announce for the White House.
The problem for DeSantis was that Trump has already had one term, so as soon as he is sworn in, he becomes a lame duck, and the race for 2028 begins.
With this in mind, no Republican with presidential ambitions wants to have DeSantis in the White House for eight years when they know Trump is gone after four. Hence, the better DeSantis does against Trump; two dynamics come into play.
Either other Republicans of presidential timber join the race to take their shot against the DeSantis-weakened Trump, or more likely, Republicans with White House ambitions would rally around Trump to block DeSantis.
DeSantis cannot convert enough Trump supporters to win the general
Trump lost the 2020 election because of very close margins in a handful of states. Fifty thousand votes reshuffled in those states would have given him a second term.
Trump’s 74 million votes in 2020 were 11 million more than his 2016 total when he got 63 million votes. In 2008, Sen. John S. McCain III (R.-Ariz.) garnered nearly 60 million votes; in 2012, former Massachusetts governor W. Mitt Romney garnered 61 million votes.
If DeSantis becomes the Republican nominee – putting aside explanations of how President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was credited with 81 million votes in 2020 – does the Florida governor have the political skills to convert diehard Trump voters?
Let’s say that Biden’s turnout machine regresses to the mean and produces 70 million votes, roughly President Barack H. Obama Jr.’s 2008 total; there is little chance DeSantis can hold on to the 25 percent of the Trump voters who are diehards.
Literally, tens of millions of Trump voters would never forgive DeSantis.
To match Biden’s popular vote, which is different from how elections are won, DeSantis could only lose five percent of Trump’s 2020 total to achieve 70 million.
That is not happening in this world, nor the next.
What should have been the DeSantis plan
DeSantis is termed-out January 2027. If he had played things differently, he would have continued his Florida Blueprint and built his national stature as the successful and popular governor of the Sunshine State.
Only the governor knows the real reason why he ran in 2024. Florida’s First Lady Casey DeSantis declared she was cancer-free on March 3, 2022, but maybe that experience led her husband to think the future is never guaranteed.
Upon leaving office, the Harvard Law graduate would accept a lucrative offer from a large law firm, where he would focus on public policy and his family’s prosperity.
If Biden were in the White House, DeSantis would be free to travel to the country as one of the leading critics of the administration.
If Trump was in the White House, DeSantis could have leveraged his alliance with the president into the pole position for the 2028 nomination.
That cannot happen now.
Everyone knows that Biden would not have had a chance if DeSantis had put his ambition aside and campaigned for Trump.
Because DeSantis chose to run in 2024, he has to pray that Trump wins back the White House because while Trump was hung with the blame for 2022 – DeSantis is on the hook for 2024 if Trump loses.
[I hope you enjoy my Tales of the McCabe columns. This is where I try to connect the dots between the people, stories, and events in my reporter’s notebook outside my regular journalist posture. Let me know what you think in the comments or X me: @neilwmccabe2.]