Last night's big winner: Ron DeSantis?

AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

Yeah, I know, I used this same headline last week for another post about Election Day. But that one was tongue-in-cheek, questioning the idea that Trump was truly vulnerable within the party despite the fact that his endorsed candidates keep topping out at 30-35 percent in contested primaries. They may be under 40 percent, I argued, but they’re still winning. Trump’s enemies keep losing. There’s no reason to believe the Great MAGA King would face a real fight in a 2024 primary.


After last night’s earthquake in Georgia, maybe we should revisit that conclusion.

And not just because this is the cover of the latest edition of Newsweek:

Nate Silver noticed yesterday that betting markets had already tightened up even before the votes in Georgia were counted. Hmmmm:

I don’t take seriously any market that has Nikki Haley at more than a one in a thousand chance of becoming the Republican nominee. I do, however, take seriously the signal from Georgia that Republican voters are tired of Trump’s 2020 obsession. With any other politician, that would be an easy problem to fix. His advisors would just pull him aside and tell him, “The 2020 talk is killing you. You have to stop.” As recently as yesterday, Fox Business host Stuart Varney told Trump during an interview that most GOPers want to move forward. Trump didn’t want to hear it.


“Stop the steal” isn’t a strategic gambit for him, although he sometimes dresses it up that way to parry his critics. It’s the salve for a wound to his ego that won’t ever heal. He’ll never let it go.

Which really does make DeSantis a winner from last night, I think. Having now seen how little purchase the “rigged election” stuff had in an election in which Trump invested large amounts of political capital, the governor of Florida has to be wondering how he’d fare in a one-on-one primary with Trump. If DeSantis runs as the candidate of the future and Trump’s 2020 obsession compels him to run as the candidate of the past, that’s a bad messaging contrast for Trump.

WaPo has a timely story this morning about Trump pressing advisors and confidants for gossip about who’s gearing up to challenge him in 2024. A year ago it seemed unlikely that anyone would have the stones to challenge him. Now it’s a less question of “Will anyone?” than “How many?”

But privately, his team increasingly expects Republican challengers — potentially including DeSantis, Pence, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, along with others — to come after him in 2024. Among his advisers biggest concerns though is that DeSantis, who has dominated chatter among Republican operatives and donors, takes Trump on.

“My guess is a lot of people run against him,” said Tony Fabrizio, his longtime pollster, if Trump announces he’s running…

“I think there is a very real and growing sense — albeit in hushed tones, private conversations, and rarely publicly but more publicly now than ever before — of people saying maybe not that he’s a paper tiger, but that his power is greatly diminished,” one person close to him said. “Privately, no one around Trump — and when I say no one, I mean no one, other than the handful of people who wouldn’t have any professional existence without him — wants him to run again.”


A surprisingly crowded primary field would be Trump’s salvation, to the point where I suspect he’d end up encouraging a stalking horse to jump in if he were facing a one-on-one with DeSantis. In a two-man race, there may be enough people who prefer DeSantis to Trump on the merits combined with the “Anyone But Trump” faction to get DeSantis to 51 percent. In a crowded field, the “Anyone But Trump” group would splinter among DeSantis, Pence, Christie, etc. Trump would prefer to run unopposed, of course, but he’ll accept a multi-candidate field as a consolation prize. The one thing he doesn’t want is a head-to-head death match with Florida’s governor. He’d still be the favorite going in but not the sort of favorite he would have been a year ago.

Newsweek’s new cover story about DeSantis is destined to piss him off royally:

“He is Trump without the boorish behavior and name calling, the insults and the bullying—the very reasons Trump lost suburban women in 2018 and lost a significant number of college-educated suburban men in 2020,” says Jim Dornan, a veteran GOP strategist who worked on Trump’s 2015 exploratory campaign committee and this year is advising Republican candidates in Oregon, Maryland and California. “On the Republican Party circuit, whether it’s in D.C .or the suburbs, DeSantis is the first name that comes up when people start talking about 2024.”

“There’s a 50/50 split among people like me, with half thinking DeSantis runs even if Trump does run,” [political scientist Susan] MacManus says. “A lot of his timing is going to be related to how well Trump does with his endorsements this year because they’re getting national visibility. If Trump starts losing a few of those, that probably incentivizes Ron DeSantis’ mind that he’s gonna go for it no matter what.”


I’m a broken record on this point but I think much depends on how well DeSantis does in his gubernatorial race this fall. The more impressive the margin of victory, the more some Republican voters who prefer Trump stylistically may opt for DeSantis on electability grounds. That’s another lesson from Georgia last night, I think, that the desire to defeat Stacey Abrams may have led some righties who fault Kemp for not overturning the 2020 election to stick with him anyway in the belief that he’s their strongest candidate in the fall. Republicans want to win elections more so than they want to settle grudges.

Trump, however, is different. The problem for DeSantis and his fans is that even if everything breaks their way, they still have to solve the problem that Trump is a vindictive narcissist who cares nothing for the party. If you run against him and win, you still lose. “There’s no world in which Trump loses gracefully, we all know that,” said one unnamed Florida House Republican to Newsweek. “If he can’t destroy DeSantis, he’ll burn the Republican Party down. He’ll say the whole thing was rigged, many of his supporters will agree with him, and suddenly the most pressing issue in the 2024 general election for Republicans will be whether Trump really lost rather than what the Democrats have done to the country.” Is DeSantis prepared to challenge Trump knowing that, even if he wins the primary, Trump will work to defeat him in November?


By the way, the Times is claiming today that “Mr. Trump has spoken to aides recently about declaring his candidacy this summer as a way to box out other candidates.” Congressional Republicans will be deeply unhappy to hear that, as it raises the risk of Trump becoming a factor in the midterms and crowding out issues like inflation. But again, he cares about himself, not the party. Announcing early would give him time to build excitement on the campaign trail among Republican voters while DeSantis is forced to bite his lip and concentrate on his reelection bid in Florida. The confrontation is coming — but probably not for another year. Buckle up.

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