Last night's big winner: Ron DeSantis?

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

There’s a glimmer of truth to this Newsweek piece, but only a glimmer.

I’ve seen stories in three different outlets today claiming that one of the key takeaways from last night is “Trumpism without Trump.” As centrist Republicans go extinct in party primaries and conservative candidates retrench to present themselves as “America First” nationalists, the only thing left on the election menu for GOP voters is Trumpism. Even candidates who fail to land Trump’s endorsement aim are presenting themselves as Trumpy in spirit — and some of them are competitive with Trump’s own handpicked candidates. Kathy Barnette and Josh Mandel were in contention in their races to the bitter end. Doug Mastriano seemed to have locked up the gubernatorial nomination in Pennsylvania even before Trump’s last-minute endorsement.

For all the hype about Trump playing kingmaker in primaries, his guys aren’t running up the score:

Cawthorn, Herbster, and McGeachin lost and Oz may yet lose. What’s important in a Republican primary nowadays is less whether Trump has endorsed you, notes Ron Brownstein, than whether you’ve endorsed him. The latter is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for winning the GOP nomination.

All of which has Newsweek thinking. If Republicans are sold on Trumpism but maybe not as sold on Trump himself, isn’t there an obvious beneficiary? Someone who’s been waging culture war effectively on behalf of righty populists for the past year while avoiding Trump’s many, many personal excesses?

Although Barnette’s performance could be troubling for Trump, it may bode well for another prominent Republican, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is emerging as a leading contender for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2024…

“DeSantis is not refuting Trump, Trumpism or the America First policies. DeSantis is positioning himself as the next step, the iteration,” GOP strategist Alex Patton told Newsweek. “The competition playing out right now isn’t about ideas or policies. It is about political power and who will wield it.”…

Townsend suspects the governor is likely welcoming Barnette’s showing in Pennsylvania as proof that Trump’s power is beginning to wane.

Patton agrees, saying, “When everyone is bloody and tired of the fighting, DeSantis is positioned to swoop in and ‘save the day.'”

“Some have come to see the president they elected to lead an insurgency as an establishment figure inside his own movement,” the Times said today about last night’s primaries in a line that must have sent a chill down Trump’s spine. That could be DeSantis’s “Trumpism without Trump” pitch in 2024 — Trump has gone establishment by backing figures like Oz so it’s time for some real populism at the top.

But do Republican voters really want Trumpism without Trump? What’s the evidence?

For all the hype about Barnette and Mandel doing well despite lacking Trump’s endorsement, there haven’t been any cases of populists successfully out-Trumping Trump by getting to the right of his candidate and beating him in a primary. The looming MAGA disaster in Georgia with Brian Kemp and David Perdue can’t be explained that way either. Kemp isn’t winning because he’s more populist than Perdue is; he isn’t, per Perdue making “stop the steal” a key plank of his campaign. Kemp’s winning because he has a strong record as governor to run on and Perdue is an underwhelming campaigner and fundraiser. Perdue is also obviously an establishment Republican masquerading as a MAGA guy for electoral advantage. His looming failure offers a corollary to the requirement that all Republican candidates endorse Trump: Even if you endorse him *and* he endorses you, voters may yet turn away if they sniff that your populism is phony.

Ask Mehmet Oz about that, in fact.

Unless and until someone in the Barnette mold shocks a Trump-endorsed populist candidate, I’m not sure how sturdy the “Trumpism without Trump” thesis is. And if it isn’t sturdy, I don’t know why anyone would believe DeSantis could beat Trump head-to-head in a primary. (At least if that primary were held today.) If anything, Barnette’s failure last night in Pennsylvania undercuts DeSantis’s hopes. Trump backed the most un-MAGA celebrity he could find against an authentic populist like Barnette and … Trump’s guy still won, or at least finished decisively ahead of her. If his endorsement can create enough of patina of Trumpism to make a winner out of a figure as ridiculous as Mehmet Oz, what hope does DeSantis realistically have of beating him? Forced to choose between actual Trumpism in the figure of Barnette and a RINO with the “Trump” label plastered on him, Republicans in PA preferred the label.

And if they prefer that, odds are they’ll prefer the “great MAGA king” to anyone else, no matter how many Trumpish policy wins that “anyone else” may have notched.

I continue to think that electability and probably only electability might change the game for DeSantis in 2024. Trump himself acknowledges that electability is essential in a candidate: His argument against Barnette in Pennsylvania this past week was all about how she supposedly couldn’t win the general election. If DeSantis manages a landslide in Florida this fall, even “stop the steal” true believers will wonder if he isn’t a safer bet in a national election than Trump is. “Trumpism without Trump” might be reframed by Team DeSantis as “Trumpism, except electable.”

But DeSantis needs an ideological coalition of Republican voters to pull off a win. And, per Brownstein, the primary electorate isn’t much of a coalition anymore: “As voters who are uneasy with Trumpism—largely college-educated suburbanites in metropolitan areas—have drifted away from the party, the core left behind is more receptive to Trump-style arguments. And the more that GOP primaries produce Trump-style candidates, the less likely center-right voters will be to vote in such elections at all.” Instead of presenting himself as a broadly acceptable alternative who can satisfy all sides of the party, DeSantis will essentially have to out-Trump Trump among the type of voters who are most predisposed to support Trump already. Tall order.