The Memo: DeSantis tries to thread the needle on Trump and 2024

The FBI raid on the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida has complicated the political picture — and not only for former President Trump.

Potential rivals to Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination have had their own responses carefully scrutinized — none more so than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

DeSantis is widely seen as the most formidable challenger to Trump if the 45th president enters the race. That being so, he has to walk a particularly fine line, preserving his own political identity while not stoking gratuitous resentment among the MAGA base.

The Florida governor’s initial response to the Mar-a-Lago raid carried strong implied support for Trump — but with a good deal of wiggle room.

In a tweet, DeSantis cast the Aug. 8 search of the former president’s Florida club as an “escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies” by the Biden administration. DeSantis alleged the raid was motivated by a desire to target “the Regime’s political opponents.”

But if those sentiments were very much in tune with the outrage that was heard in conservative quarters in the wake of the raid, the response also contained no actual mention of Trump.

The omission did not go unnoticed. Some close observers of Florida politics believe it is consistent with DeSantis’s overall approach. They say he takes care not to alienate or aggravate pro-Trump votes, but also does not tether himself too closely to the former president.

DeSantis’s overall strategy for now, according to longtime Florida GOP operative John ‘Mac’ Stipanovich is “to be sufficiently supportive of Trump that he cannot be criticized for failing to support Trump, much less be accused of betraying him — but without hugging him so closely that he gets himself dirty.”

The same approach can be seen on another topic: It is notoriously hard to pin the Florida governor down on where he stands regarding Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was rigged.

A Politico report on Wednesday noted that although the Florida governor shies away from making such claims himself, he is currently in the middle of a mini tour that encompasses support for candidates who have been less cautious.

DeSantis rallied in support of Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake (R) last weekend, and will repeat the favor for Lake’s counterpart in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano (R), on Friday. Both Lake and Mastriano have amplified Trump’s 2020 election fictions.

The mini tour will keep DeSantis’s name in the national spotlight. In all, it includes four states — Arizona, New Mexico, Ohio and Pennsylvania — which have high-profile races in November. Coincidentally or otherwise, three of the four states are also competitive in presidential elections, the only exception being New Mexico.

Meanwhile, DeSantis is also deft at raising issues that win him the favor of the populist base of today’s GOP.

In big picture terms, he is best known — for good or for bad — for his resistance to COVID lockdowns in his state, his vehement opposition to critical race theory and his deep skepticism about the teaching of sexuality and gender identity in schools.

Within the past couple of weeks, he has suspended a state attorney who had signed a pledge not to prosecute cases rooted in Florida’s recent 15-week ban on abortion; described a Biden administration plan to boost IRS staffing as “basically just the middle finger to the American public”; and, on Thursday, asserted that his state’s new Office of Election Crimes and Security had found 20 instances of voter fraud.

At a news conference on the voter fraud issue, DeSantis said the state “has charged and is in the process of arresting 20 individuals across the state.”

Susan MacManus, a political science professor emerita at the University of South Florida and a veteran observer of the state’s politics, described DeSantis as “very savvy” and often on the lookout for topics that might play to his political advantage.

While DeSantis’s embrace of many hot-button issues makes him plenty of enemies, MacManus noted, “they do realize he has an ability to communicate that is more effective than many politicians.”

MacManus added however, that DeSantis has his own reasons for not plunging too quickly into a 2024 field. 

He still has his own gubernatorial election to fight this year. Next week, Democrats will choose whether state agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried or Rep. Charlie Crist will be his opponent. Recent polling shows DeSantis with an advantage in the high single digits against either candidate.

One key metric in the fall will be whether DeSantis can win his race by a bigger margin than Trump carried Florida at the last election. Trump defeated Biden by about three percentage points in the state. If DeSantis does better, it will help make the case that the Florida governor has wider appeal — or fewer off-putting traits — than the former president.

How DeSantis fares will also be watched closely by Trump and his allies. There is barely concealed resentment at the attention devoted to DeSantis among those around the former president.

It hasn’t been forgotten that DeSantis’s victory in his original 2018 gubernatorial primary was fueled by a Trump endorsement. Trump loyalists also question whether the Florida governor really has the appetite for a head-to-head battle against the former president.

As for Trump himself, he told The New Yorker in a June story, “I don’t know if Ron is running, and I don’t ask him. It’s his prerogative. I think I would win.”

DeSantis, of course, doesn’t necessarily need to challenge Trump. He has time on his side since, at 43, he is 33 years younger than the former president.

His conservative fanbase, meanwhile, isn’t going anywhere.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags 2024 presidential race Donald Trump Mar-a-Lago raid Ron DeSantis Ron DeSantis
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