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Ron DeSantis takes direct aim at Trump’s Achilles’ heel: Electability

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) gestures during a news conference on Jan. 26 in Miami where he spoke of new law enforcement legislation that will be introduced during the upcoming session. (Marta Lavandier/AP)
5 min

At long last, the cold war between former president Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has become a hot one.

From the first months after Trump left the White House, as it became apparent that both he and DeSantis had designs on the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination, this conflict loomed. It didn’t particularly serve either man to engage in a knockdown brawl at that point: DeSantis was seeking reelection in 2022 and wanted to keep Republican voters happy, and Trump didn’t want to give the impression that he’d actually have to fight for the nomination.

But with the first primaries only a year away — and perhaps in part because Trump kept his powder dry — that slowly building tension has broken to the surface. Trump, who has announced his candidacy, is gearing up campaign events and, over at the social media platform he owns, increasingly attacking DeSantis. Those attacks have largely aimed at DeSantis’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, a point of political strength for the governor with the Republican Party and one that isn’t likely to be weakened by Trump’s line of attack.

On Jan. 31, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) responded directly to criticism levied by former president Donald Trump of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: Governor Ron DeSantis | Facebook)

On Tuesday, DeSantis responded much more forcefully and almost certainly much more effectively. Easily parrying Trump’s covid jabs, DeSantis struck back at Trump’s own greatest weakness: questions about whether he could actually win the presidency in 2024.

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DeSantis was speaking to reporters at an event in Florida when he was asked about Trump’s comments about his handling of covid. The governor insisted that he was used to attacks.

“When you’re an elected executive, you have to make all kinds of decisions,” he said. “You’ve got to steer that ship. And the good thing is, is that the people are able to render a judgment on that, whether they reelect you or not. And I’m happy to say, you know, in my case, not only did we win reelection, we won with the highest percentage of the vote that any Republican governor candidate has in the history of the state of Florida.” He went on to add that a “verdict has been rendered by the people of the state of Florida.”

This isn’t subtle stuff. That “in my case” is particularly sharp, obviously contrasting his victory in 2022 with Trump’s loss in 2020. That Trump refuses to concede his loss will only add to the sting.

By itself, the response is effective. Winning election in Florida isn’t entirely apples-to-apples with winning nationally, certainly, but DeSantis, in fact, had no trouble in dispatching his Democratic opponent. If elections are a verdict on leadership, then clearly voters in Florida viewed DeSantis’s leadership more positively than voters nationally viewed Trump’s. Neither election was entirely centered on the pandemic; it’s probably not fair to say that Trump lost or DeSantis won primarily because of that issue. Regardless, it’s a fair point.

Coming at this moment for Trump, it’s a brutal one. Trump announced his candidacy a week after the 2022 midterms, a bit of timing that was mystifying given that the political conversation in that moment centered on the extent to which Trump’s efforts to anoint victors might have cost Republicans the Senate — and the extent to which voters punished the GOP for their ongoing embrace of the former president. It’s clear that Trump’s past effectiveness at getting Republicans through party primaries contributed to the GOP fielding candidates like Herschel Walker in Georgia, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Kari Lake in Arizona, all of whom stumbled in the general election. That Democrats could run, once again, as the non-Trump party didn’t hurt.

Trump attempted to wave this away with a typically gauzy bit of salesman’s patter: It wasn’t his fault that Republicans lost and, in fact, had they followed his recommendations and embraced him more tightly, they’d have won. It doesn’t seem like many Republicans were convinced. Polling conducted over the course of 2022 found Republicans increasingly seeking a non-Trump option for 2024 — particularly DeSantis. They have probably noticed that, in head-to-head contests with President Biden, DeSantis consistently fares better.

At the end of the day, partisans want to win. This is a central part of why Biden is the president now: Several 2020 candidates had more effusive grass-roots support among Democratic primary voters, but Biden was seen as the best chance to get Trump out of office. For DeSantis, heightening the perfectly valid sense among Republicans that Trump would lose yet again in 2024 is a political layup.

And what does Trump say in response? That DeSantis is only governor because of him? Okay, fine, but Trump can’t claim credit for the 2022 reelect. That polls show him leading DeSantis? Fine, but not by as much as he used to. That the only path to victory is a hard embrace of Trumpism? Well, the whole point here is that this theory hasn’t really panned out.

DeSantis can win a fight with Trump among Republican primary voters over covid; he was able to reframe his leadership around the pandemic in keeping with the party’s laissez-faire approach in 2021 and 2022 because he was still in office. Trump’s pandemic positions are frozen in amber — pro-vaccine, pro-closing down social activity in early 2020 though that passed quickly — and primary voters prefer DeSantis’s relentless (if revisionary) the-experts-are-wrong shtick.

But DeSantis instead focused on his even better line of attack: Unlike Trump, I can win. Simple and effective.