There have been rumors for months that Team Trump is watching DeSantis closely, rightly seeing him as the biggest threat (if not very big in the abstract) to a third Trump nomination in 2024. In June the Times reported that some “Trump allies” believe DeSantis will run for president whether Trump does or not. A month later the WSJ confirmed that: “When Ron DeSantis performed well in a straw poll of an obscure gathering of conservatives last month, Mr. Trump asked advisers whether the Florida governor would challenge him if he were to run. (The majority opinion was yes.)” Last month Trump pointedly said in an interview that he’d beat DeSantis if the two ran head to head but that he doubts the governor would dare contest the primary.
When DeSantis is asked about a 2024 run, he tends to dismiss it as “nonsense” and to emphasize that he’s running for reelection as governor, laser-focused on the job he has. But he’s seen the 2024 polls. In a hypothetical race without Trump, he and Mike Pence stand apart from the pack. And DeSantis wouldn’t have much trouble dispatching Pence, I think, given the baggage the latter now has with MAGA voters.
What DeSantis hasn’t said, as far as I’m aware, is that he categorically won’t run in 2024 if Trump does. Other Republican contenders have been willing to say that, but not him. And certain people have noticed, according to Politico:
DONALD TRUMP has been complaining to members and guests at Mar-a-Lago that Florida Gov. RON DESANTIS still hasn’t joined the other 2024 hopefuls in pronouncing that he won’t run for president if Trump runs. One guest suspects that Trump’s gripes are so frequent because he is planting them in hopes that they’ll get back to DeSantis. Trump has told his advisers that DeSantis privately assured him that he won’t run if Trump does, but that’s not enough for the former president — he wants DeSantis to say it in public. Trump has even suggested that DeSantis shouldn’t underestimate his Democratic challenger CHARLIE CRIST, calling him a “killer.” Now, as DeSantis crisscrosses the country to raise money for his 2022 reelection, Trump aides are starting to feel pressure to pick sides. Trump has made it known that he didn’t appreciate that former White House chief of staff MARK MEADOWS traveled to Beverly Hills for a DeSantis fundraiser in June (also in attendance: Trump pal and casino magnate STEVE WYNN and former Treasury Secretary STEVE MNUCHIN) and then went on to Orange County, where he introduced DeSantis to other deep-pocketed donors. In a statement to Playbook, a spokesperson for Trump called this reporting “fake news.”
That’s a supreme example of Trump practicing “the politics of dominance.” Having DeSantis pledge publicly not to run in 2024 wouldn’t mean a thing in the abstract, after all. Candidates routinely find pretexts to change their minds about jumping into a race after promising not to. I remember Barack Obama being asked as a young senator-elect in 2004 whether he’d consider running for president in 2008 and him laughing it off on grounds that he wouldn’t have learned the things he’d need to do the job effectively within four years. Less than three years later, perceiving an opening in the primary against Hillary Clinton, he had a change of heart.
It’d be trivially easy for DeSantis to pledge now not to run against Trump, then win his reelection bid comfortably in Florida, and later cite Trump’s persistent unpopularity as a reason why he simply *had* to reverse course and run for president after all. “This country can’t afford another four years of Democratic government. And we need a nominee with a proven record of winning in an important swing state to ensure that doesn’t happen,” etc etc.
All of that being so, why would Trump care if DeSantis promises publicly now to stay out of the primary if Trump runs? Answer: For no better reason, I think, than that Trump wants everyone to know that he’s still the alpha male in the party. DeSantis has gotten a ton of admiring press from populists this year for his anti-mandate policies in Florida. The case that he would give the GOP a better shot at winning nationally than Trump himself would is plain as day after Glenn Youngkin’s upset in Virginia. Trump’s ego can’t bear the possibility that some Republican may have supplanted him in the hearts of MAGA voters. So he wants DeSantis to genuflect — publicly, where everyone can see it, not just privately.
Which DeSantis will eventually do, I assume. If it costs him nothing to take the pledge and keeps Trump out of his hair while he’s running for reelection next year, why not do it?
Which brings me to the Machiavellian question at the heart of next year’s Florida governor’s race: Does Trump … want DeSantis to win?
If so, why? How does Trump benefit from a DeSantis victory, particularly a comfortable victory?
The stronger DeSantis looks next November, the weaker Trump looks by comparison. Trump beat Biden in Florida by three and a half points last year; it’s not unthinkable that DeSantis will double that margin in a Republican-friendly midterm environment. Democrats there reportedly view him as unbeatable, with the only suspense having to do with how easily he coasts to reelection. A Republican governor with populist cred winning easily in a perennial swing state would be an extremely enticing national prospect for righty voters. The debate in the righty commentariat would shift from “Why should we nominate DeSantis over Trump?” to “Why shouldn’t we nominate DeSantis over Trump?”
So I repeat myself. Does Trump want DeSantis to win? From the perspective of ruthless self-interest, which is always and ever Trump’s perspective, it would be better for his only semi-credible rival for the Republican nominate to tank in Florida next year. Losing his reelection bid would turn DeSantis into damaged goods among Republican voters since no one wants to nominate a proven loser. (Which is why, if you lose, it’s important to insist that you actually won and were cheated.) Trump’s problem is that the national climate may be so red next fall that DeSantis is essentially a shoo-in, which is why I wonder if he won’t find a pretext to manufacture a squabble with the governor before November 2022. He might not be able to deny DeSantis a win but if he can convince some MAGA voters that DeSantis isn’t worth supporting, DeSantis may underperform sufficiently that Trump can accuse him of being a “weak” candidate. And of course getting “his” voters to turn on DeSantis would itself be a show of dominance. When forced to choose between the two, the ones in Florida who stay home in 2022 would be choosing Trump.