It’s so hard to imagine any Republican taking this political risk. But I can sort of talk myself into believing it in DeSantis’s case.
different bets/ different incentive structures. McConnell studiously ignoring Trump while Rick Scott gives him made-up award. McCarthy bet on being Speaker runs partly through a bet on Trump while Trump allies think DeSantis runs even if Trump does etc https://t.co/H4YLkX2xhe
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) June 4, 2021
The reason so many top-tier GOP contenders have already ceded the field to Trump if he chooses to run is because, in theory, there’s no way to actually win the presidency by challenging him. Even in the unlikely event that you beat him in the primary, Trump is so vindictive and his hardcore fans are so cultish that some of them will protest by refusing to turn out in November. Trump himself would naturally allege that the primaries were “rigged” somehow; his psychology can’t tolerate the perception that he was defeated fair and square. He would probably refuse to endorse and certainly would refuse to campaign for the Republican nominee in the general election, forcing the GOP to somehow prevail on Election Day with a meaningful share of the MAGA base sitting at home.
That’s not impossible. It could be that the fear of continued Democratic rule would bring most Trump supporters out to the polls. And if the Dem nominee were solidly left-wing, a mainstream Republican nominee like DeSantis could capture the center, replacing the Trump voters who choose to boycott the general election.
But any Republican who beats Trump is starting in a hole, hobbled by his petulance and his fans’ adulation of him. That same dynamic is why the party never moved against him at the 2016 convention despite so much of the Republican establishment believing he was unfit for office. If they denied him the nomination, a chunk of the GOP base would have quit the party. Hillary Clinton would have won in a waltz over whoever the Republican nominee ended up being. Forced to choose between a new Clinton administration and a Trump administration, the establishment GOP decided to roll the dice on Trump and make the best of it. Even if it didn’t work out, at least their own base wouldn’t bear them a grudge in future elections by staying home.
It’s a hostage situation. Most Republican voters, even the ones who really like Trump, would still turn out for a Republican who beat him in a primary. But there are probably enough “Trump or bust” MAGAs that any candidate who beats him just can’t win a national election without them. Unless Trump gets whatever he wants, his most devoted fans will shoot the party. And that’s how we arrived at our current destination, with reports circulating that Trump thinks he might be “reinstated” to the presidency somehow this year and Republican pols quavering at the prospect of having to contradict him on that. CNN has a new story in that vein today:
Lately, Trump’s obsession with 2020 has also led him to indulge unhinged and false notions about being “reinstated” as commander-in-chief, according to three people familiar with these conversations, one of whom said he has been constantly watching the conspiracy-laden TV channel One America News and intensely following an ongoing Republican-demanded audit of votes in Arizona’s Maricopa County…
“No, I don’t think it’s wise to let him spend the next 17 months talking about how our elections are rigged ahead of a midterm election where turnout is going to determine how well Republicans perform. We all saw what happened in Georgia,” this person said, referring to claims that Trump inadvertently suppressed GOP votes in two January Senate runoff contests by repeatedly telling Georgia voters his 2020 defeat in their state was the result of widespread voter fraud.
“It’s totally possible this rally tour is going to backfire in exactly the same way if he continues to beat the drum on this one issue,” the person added.
He’s going to beat that drum, though. And when he does, every other figure in the party will be expected to back him up or, at a minimum, maintain a respectful silence instead of disagreeing. That’s another pitfall waiting for any would-be 2024 primary challenger: Trump will be on the trail insisting that the election was rigged and his opponent(s) will be asked if they agree. If they say something noncommittal, it’ll be treated as evidence that they won’t “fight” and will let the Democrats “get away with” rigging the next election too. That’s another reason why it’s hard to imagine anyone challenging him. Who would want to under those circumstances?
There are two reasons I can see DeSantis doing it if I squint hard. One is that he’s already proved that he “fights” by battling liberals on policy. Some of those fights are smart and just, like when he beat the unions in court and got Florida’s public schools open last year. Others are dumb pandering, like trying to block cruise lines from requiring proof of vaccination in order to ingratiate himself to anti-vax righties. Either way, DeSantis grasps that culture war is where a Republican pol’s bread is buttered nowadays; look no further than him banning transgender women from competing in women’s sports a few days ago. He was also given a gift by “60 Minutes” when they smeared him over Florida’s vaccination program, handing him an opportunity to lash them repeatedly for bias. It would be hard for Trump to convince GOP voters at this point that DeSantis won’t “fight” in light of his record.
And if primary voters are convinced of that, that DeSantis might “own the libs” with relish — and maybe more effectively than Trump would, if with much less flair and relish — then they might start looking at relative electability. And that would give DeSantis some traction.
The second reason DeSantis might take the plunge is that he may conclude that he has no choice. He’s term-limited as governor, meaning that he’ll be out of office by early 2027 at the latest. It’s not unthinkable that a successful former governor would win his party’s presidential nomination but the 2028 field will be packed with ambitious young Republicans if in fact Trump hogs the nomination in 2024 again. DeSantis would be at risk of appearing to be “old news” relative to some other populist who’s in office at the time (possibly someone whose name we don’t know at the moment). Chris Christie is often held up as an example of a governor who waited too long to run for president and missed his best chance. If he had jumped in against Romney, a weak frontrunner, in 2012 when he was (temporarily) admired by the GOP grassroots as a pugnacious lib-owning union-buster, he might have become nominee. By 2016, he had been overtaken by other populist heartthrobs and his moment had passed. DeSantis would run the same risk if he waits until 2028. As daunting as the prospect of beating Trump in 2024 is, it’s still arguably his best shot at the presidency.
And hey. If Trump really does go all-in publicly on theories that he might be “reinstated” as president, that might nudge some Trump supporters to consider their options. Not that they’ll love him any less, just that they might calculate that they’ll fare better in 2024 with a nominee who doesn’t sound like Captain Queeg.
I’ll leave you with this from last night, a glimpse at another guy who’s eyeing 2024. Unlike DeSantis, I don’t see any chance of Pence challenging Trump. He didn’t “fight” on January 6 by trying to orchestrate a coup, after all.
Pence on Jan. 6: "President Trump and I have spoken many times since we left office. And I don't know if we'll ever see eye to eye on that day. But I will always be proud of what we accomplished…" pic.twitter.com/AibOUha531
— Andrew Solender (@AndrewSolender) June 3, 2021