Republicans who would like to see the party move beyond former President Donald Trump have a problem: Many of them don’t like the Republican best situated to beat him.
If Trump doesn’t end up running, pluralities of Republicans and GOP-leaning voters tell pollsters that DeSantis is their first preference. And in a few places, such as their shared home state of Florida, there are polls showing DeSantis leading even if Trump does run.
DeSantis can run to the right of Trump on COVID-19, arguing that in crucial months of 2020, the former president was Dr. Anthony Fauci’s pawn. He is also 33 years younger than Trump and constitutionally eligible to run for two terms instead of one.
But a lot of prominent Republicans who don’t like Trump are not fond of DeSantis either.
“I think that Ron DeSantis has lined himself up almost entirely with Donald Trump, and I think that’s very dangerous,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) told the New York Times. If DeSantis was nominated, she “would find it very difficult” to support him.
“A number of Republicans would be far, far better for the country and the GOP,” Never Trump commentator David French wrote in a Twitter thread on the “DeSantis discourse.” “So hopping on the DeSantis train simply to block Trump is *way* premature.”
The Bulwark published results of a focus group of Florida voters who switched from Trump to President Joe Biden in 2020. Many participants did not like DeSantis or Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) either. (Unlike Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, or Arizona, Florida did not flip in 2020, and Trump-to-Biden voters were not decisive.)
Among GOP Trump detractors, the case against DeSantis is that he has not distanced himself enough from the former president, that he shares much of Trump’s combative personal style and confrontational posture toward Democrats and the press, and that he is too populist in messaging and substance, like Trump.
These are also all reasons DeSantis has a chance against Trump — because he can actually appeal to the plurality or small majority of Republicans who still support the 45th president and would like to see him become the 47th.
Many Never Trump Republicans do not merely want the party to have a different leader than Trump. They want Trump to be repudiated by the GOP and replaced by someone who rejects “Trumpism.” But as the Cheney primary and most other contests involving the 10 House Republicans who voted for Trump’s second impeachment illustrated, there aren’t many Never Trump Republicans.
The only candidate who might conceivably fit the bill is former Vice President Mike Pence. Pence defied Trump on Jan. 6 and certified Biden’s election. Pence has since defended this move and has called for moving past 2020.
“I don’t know that the president and I differ on issues,” Pence has said. “But we may differ on focus. I truly believe that elections are about the future.”
Despite this, Pence likely has a higher ceiling with Republican primary voters nationally than Cheney, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and other GOP aspirants linked to the remaining anti-Trump Republicans.
But the recent electoral track record of those Republicans suggests that a full-frontal assault on Trump is highly ineffective. That could change if Trump-endorsed Republicans cost the party dearly in the midterm elections. It hasn’t, however, changed through Democratic wins in the 2018 midterm elections, Trump’s own loss in 2020, the 2021 Senate runoffs in Georgia, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, two impeachments, or the Mar-a-Lago raid.
The loyal and diplomatic Pence would prefer not to wage a Cheney-style campaign against his former boss, whatever bad blood lingers from Jan. 6. The current Trump-Pence dynamic makes it unavoidable without looking worse than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush did in 2016. Neither looks like a viable path toward the Republican presidential nomination.
That leaves DeSantis. It may be the case that the best way to move on from Trump is for a newer Republican figure to supplant him, as Trump did to George W. Bush. Once that process is complete, it would then become easier to criticize Trump from a position of strength, or simply forget about him.
DeSantis has his own dilemma. He is young enough that he could run in a future election and avoid a race in which Trump runs up his negatives with the base. The Florida governor also needs to get himself reelected in November. But with the exception of Biden taking a pass on the 2016 Democratic primaries, recent experience has not been kind to candidates who wait their turn.
Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini opined that DeSantis “objectively gives” anti-Trump conservatives “their best chance to achieve their stated goal of loosening Trump’s grip on the GOP.” Some are still looking for a second opinion.