DeSantis largely ignores Trump barbs amid attacks

Trump and DeSantis
AP/Butch Dill
In this Nov. 3, 2018 file photo President Donald Trump stands behind gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis at a rally in Pensacola, Fla. (AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is keeping quiet on Donald Trump, betting that the controversial former president may just be his own worst enemy when it comes to his 2024 prospects. 

The longtime alliance between Trump and DeSantis has largely crumbled amid signs that the Florida governor is moving toward a 2024 presidential bid.

Just last weekend, Trump took direct aim at DeSantis during a campaign swing through New Hampshire and South Carolina, accusing his one-time acolyte of “disloyalty” and political opportunism. 

But DeSantis has avoided so much as acknowledging Trump’s attacks – a strategy that many Republicans say is intended to cast DeSantis as a more even-keeled alternative to the bombastic former president. 

“Nobody has done more to hurt Donald Trump than himself and I think Gov. DeSantis is absolutely taking the right tact here by completely ignoring Trump and letting him throw boomerangs,” said Stephen Lawson, a Georgia-based strategist who served as communications director for DeSantis’ successful 2018 gubernatorial run.

While Trump has taken credit for DeSantis’s political success – his endorsement in 2018 was widely credited with helping DeSantis across the finish line in an otherwise tough primary – Lawson said that the Florida governor now has “a strong story to tell on his own without having to engage Donald Trump.”

“Given the time and the opportunity, Donald Trump will self-implode and I think we’re seeing glimpses of that,” he said. “When there’s a strong, conservative, positive vision waiting in the wings, I think it’s a very attractive alternative for Republicans.”

One longtime Florida Republican donor, who will support DeSantis should he launch a presidential campaign, said the governor shouldn’t feel pressured into getting into a food fight with Trump.

“Everything, right now, is going his way,” the donor said. “Why would he stoop to that level? He doesn’t need to do it, especially coming off that very strong victory in November. He looks like the adult in the room if he acts like it’s beneath him.”

A source close to DeSantis said the governor “doesn’t see a real benefit in getting into this public spat with Trump.”

“The best thing he can do is ignore these attacks and keep being DeSantis,” the source said. “Voters want two things: authenticity and they want candidates of action. One thing he does is he does not let any new grass grow under his feet.” 

Indeed, for someone who hasn’t publicly said whether he’s considering a presidential run or not, DeSantis is in one of the strongest positions a prospective candidate could ask for. 

He won reelection last year by the largest margin of any Republican candidate for governor in modern Florida history, and several early polls show him easily routing Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head primary matchup. 

He’s also beginning his second term in the governor’s mansion with a vise-like grip on power. Republicans now hold supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature, and for the first time since Reconstruction, not a single Democrat holds a statewide office, giving DeSantis a clear path to pursue his governing agenda in Florida.

DeSantis’s advisers are said to be actively preparing for a presidential campaign and have been reaching out to potential hires in anticipation of an announcement, though a final decision hasn’t been made. 

Trump, meanwhile, has found himself in a somewhat weakened position after reigning supreme over the GOP for more than half a decade. 

The GOP’s lackluster overall performance in the 2022 midterm elections – including high-profile losses by some of Trump’s endorsed candidates – has prompted a growing number of Republicans to question his political instincts and influence. At the same time, his latest campaign for president has been criticized by some as lacking in both energy and a coherent strategy.

“The Trump magic of 2016 just seems gone,” said one Florida Republican, who has interacted with DeSantis in recent years. “That loss to [President] Biden in 2020 really put a chokehold on Trump’s caustic effectiveness.”

DeSantis, the Republican said, “lets his own achievements and competence do the talking rather than taking any direct potshots” at Trump, “likely up until the point there is a DeSantis candidacy announcement.” 

“The latest salvos from Trump still probably will not merit a direct response,” the Republican said. “It would almost be punching down at this point.”

DeSantis hasn’t shown a willingness to engage with Trump too directly. After Trump accused him over the weekend of “trying to rewrite history” regarding his early response to the Covid-19 pandemic, DeSantis delivered a veiled retort on Tuesday, saying that his staggering margin of victory in his 2022 reelection bid spoke for itself.

“In my case, not only did we win reelection, we won with the highest percentage of the vote that any Republican governor candidate has in the history of the state of Florida,” he said. “We won by the largest raw vote margin – over 1.5 million votes – than any governor candidate has ever had in Florida history.”

“So what I would just say is that verdict has been rendered by the State of Florida,” he added. At no point in his remarks did he mention Trump by name.

Still, some Republicans cautioned that DeSantis won’t be able to ignore Trump indefinitely. Eventually, they said, he’ll have to go on the offensive or risk allowing the former president to define him. 

Dallas Woodhouse, a longtime GOP operative, said that DeSantis has had the luxury so far of focusing on his work as Florida governor. If he ultimately decides to run for president, however, he’ll be subject to the same ups and downs of any candidate. 

“DeSantis will fall to earth some,” Woodhouse said. “He has the luxury of most Republicans only knowing good things about him right now. Eventually he’ll develop some negatives like any other candidate.”

But, Woodhouse added, “Americans have generally selected folks who have a recent successful record of governing. And DeSantis has that right now.”

One veteran Republican campaign operative said that DeSantis’s winning track record – especially his upset victory in several traditional Democratic strongholds like Miami-Dade County last year – might just be his best counter to any of Trump’s attacks.

“It feels like as a party after three losing cycles, we’re finally ready to make the argument that, hey, it’s time to win,” the person said. “I think he’s starting to make that argument.”

Tags 2024 presidential race Donald Trump Florida Ron DeSantis Ron DeSantis

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