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As Trump takes heat, DeSantis rises in GOP ahead of 2024

The Florida governor has emerged empowered from midterms that delivered many GOP defeats and sowed new concern in the GOP about Trump, Republicans said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses supporters during a rally on Nov. 7 Monday in Orlando. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post)
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As Republicans lashed out at Donald Trump for elevating candidates who fell short in key elections this past week, the GOP’s big midterm winner, Ron DeSantis, started consolidating support. Allies seized on the moment to position the Florida governor for 2024. “We have rewritten the political map,” DeSantis declared on the night of his resounding victory.

One operative unaffiliated with DeSantis’s campaign resurrected a super PAC designed to boost a presidential bid, once tabled in the belief that Trump’s march to the GOP nomination would be unstoppable. An outside adviser to DeSantis recounted getting numerous calls from donors with the same message: “Ron needs to run.”

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

DeSantis has emerged empowered from midterms that delivered many GOP defeats and sowed new concern in the party about Trump’s ability to lead them to victory in 2024, Republicans said. The governor’s nearly 20-point reelection victory has placed 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 giving him a closer look as a possible presidential hopeful.

“He’s just built up this incredible energy and winning streak,” said Eric Anton, a GOP donor from New York who said he thinks DeSantis would have been “crushed” by Trump a few months ago. “He’s number two — ” Anton said, before correcting himself. “He’s either number one, two or three in the party. He played it perfectly.”

DeSantis’s campaign declined to comment for this story. At a debate last month against Democratic rival Charlie Crist, the governor sidestepped a question about whether he would commit to serving a full second term. At DeSantis’s victory party Tuesday night, a chant broke out suggesting he look beyond the governor’s office: “Two more years! Two more years!”

“While our country flounders due to 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. He is still relatively untested on the national stage. He hails from a onetime swing state that has moved right and in some ways does not mirror the rest of the country. And he has already attracted the ire of Trump, who has leveled devastating attacks against rivals who have yet to fully recover politically from his broadsides and demeaning nicknames years after he launched them.

While Trump went after DeSantis earlier this fall, sharing an article that suggested it would be risky for the governor to challenge him, the former president attacked DeSantis like never before as the governor’s stock rose in recent days — calling him disloyal and “just average” in a stream of social media posts and statements and using a derisive nickname he debuted just before the election, “Ron DeSanctimonious.” A spokesman for Trump did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.

Trump has strongly hinted he will announce another White House bid in the coming days, though allies have urged him to delay amid fears he could hurt the GOP’s chances in a December runoff for a Senate seat in Georgia. The former president retains huge support among the GOP base, and it’s unclear whether Republican dismay over the election will translate into sustained backlash.

But publicly and privately since Tuesday, many Republicans — including some longtime Trump allies — have suggested the party needs a new leader.

The GOP field for 2024 could be crowded — many current and former Republican leaders have signaled interest in running, touring early primary states and swing-state battlegrounds. With national name recognition, appeal to many Trump voters and a big war chest left over from his reelection campaign, DeSantis is well positioned to take the spotlight, many said.

Polling by YouGov right after the election found that Republicans and GOP-leaning independents preferred DeSantis to Trump as a 2024 candidate, a reversal from their findings about a month ago.

John Thomas, a Republican strategist who is organizing the super PAC to boost DeSantis, said that since the election Tuesday he’s gotten a new surge of donors and volunteers, including from Republicans who several months ago appeared to be on the “Trump train” and now are “sick of it.” Many untested Republican candidates who Trump helped hoist to victory in GOP primaries lost in the general election.

“We’ve got to do something differently,” said Thomas.

A person in touch with DeSantis’s team said an apparatus of consultants who could run a presidential bid is “in place, if DeSantis decides to take the next steps” toward running. DeSantis also has roughly $70 million left over from the massive haul he raised for reelection, according to another person in contact with the governor’s team.

Should DeSantis transfer the money into a super PAC — a kind of committee required to operate independently of any possible presidential campaign — that could nonetheless provoke complaints before the Federal Election Commission. The federal regulator, however, has not taken an aggressive approach to enforcement in recent years. Its members, who are divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, increasingly deadlock on key questions.

DeSantis, 44, was elected governor in 2018 while leaning into his alignment with Trump. But he has built his own political brand in what he calls the “free state of Florida,” rejecting coronavirus restrictions and denouncing “wokeness” in the media, big companies and schools.

Some think DeSantis’s decisive victory has bought him time to ponder his next move. “I have always thought after Nov. 8, if he secured 55 to 60 percent of the vote, that would be a potential launching pad for his presidential ambitions,” said Anthony Verdugo, the executive director of Christian Family Coalition Florida. “And certainly, the stars are aligning, and everything seems to be falling into place.”

Christina Pushaw, a staffer with DeSantis’s campaign, noted on social media that the governor’s reelection margins were wider than the current margin of victory for another potential 2024 contender — Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who has positioned himself as DeSantis’s combative blue-state foil.

DeSantis carried Miami-Dade County by 11 points, becoming the first Republican candidate for governor in 20 years to win a county where Latinos make up 69 percent of the population. In an bigger shock for beleaguered Democrats, DeSantis narrowly carried Palm Beach County, which had been a key pillar of support for Democrats, and he 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’s coattails.

“He is running toward the fights, and not away,” said Christian Ziegler, a GOP strategist who is also vice-chairman of the Florida Republican Party, adding, “across the country, there is that tone that people want to see someone who can get the job done, and fight for them.”

Still, some Democrats said they are not fearful of facing DeSantis in a national campaign. Joshua Karp, a Washington-based Democratic strategist who advised both Crist and Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) in her Senate race, predicted DeSantis would “get eaten alive” in a competitive GOP primary.

“Presidential politics is littered with governors who got lucky in their home state politics, ran a few smart plays, but weren’t prepared when they got hit with other talent from out of state,” said Karp.

When DeSantis might announce a presidential bid, if he goes ahead, is unclear. Some supporters and strategists predicted he would wait until Florida’s legislative session, where GOP supermajorities pave the way for DeSantis to enact his agenda and pursue policies popular with the party base.

As Trump escalated his tirades against DeSantis after the election, the outside adviser to DeSantis said the governor “is not going to take the bait,” was not interested in a public fight and was focused on responding to a hurricane after the election as Trump raged online. Hurricane Nicole made landfall just south of Vero Beach early Thursday morning, flooding parts of the coastline while knocking out power to more than 200,000 homes and businesses.

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

Tuesday changed the calculus — even as Thomas anticipates DeSantis might avoid directly criticizing Trump in a matchup.

“If DeSantis doesn’t have the desire to lay out the contrast between [him] and Trump as this primary evolves, we’re going to be there … we’ll rip the bark off of Trump if we have to,” he said. “And that’s coming from somebody who’s very pro-Trump.”

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

“We’re still in the honeymoon glow of his reelection,” he said of DeSantis, “but I think there’s some really tough decisions to be made.”

Interviews with GOP strategists, activists, elected officials, donors and voters showed considerable hesitancy about backing either Trump or DeSantis in a potential matchup. Don Tapia, a GOP donor and former member of the Trump administration who is invited to Trump’s “big announcement” at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday, said he knew who would get his vote in a contested primary – but declined to give a name.

He did criticize Trump’s public broadsides against DeSantis and said he believes some of Trump’s endorsements hurt the party Tuesday.

“This election we had more solid issues than we have had in the past 20 years,” Tapia said. “And look at the results. Look at the results.”

One national Republican fundraiser long loyal to Trump blamed a “Trump factor” for the GOP’s dismal showing Tuesday and said the election — and Trump’s attacks on DeSantis and another potential 2024 rival, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) — had finally repelled them. This person said they would be “all in” for DeSantis.

Others have aired their concerns with Trump publicly. In Virginia, Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R), a former Trump booster, suggested he had become “a liability to the mission.” Mike Pompeo, a former secretary of state under Trump and potential 2024 contender, tweeted that conservatives are elected “when we deliver” rather than “rail on social media.”

On the west coast of Florida, GOP activist Cindy Spray said she is “just going to wait to see where the cards fall” before she thinks about the presidential race. She says she would be torn between Trump and DeSantis and suspects GOP voters may be ready for a presidential nominee who doesn’t “come across as harsh.”

“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 contributed to this report.