DeSantis revs up shadow campaign
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is kicking his 2024 campaign-in-waiting into higher gear as a handful of his would-be Republican rivals gather this week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
Over the weekend, the likely 2024 hopeful held a retreat for Republican donors and elected officials in West Palm Beach, Fla. He’s also kicking off an aggressive public schedule that includes a book tour through Florida, a speech at the Club for Growth’s annual donor retreat and appearances in Alabama, Texas and California in the coming days.
The flurry of activity comes as GOP luminaries and presidential contenders — including former President Trump, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — gather outside of Washington, D.C., this week for CPAC, the high-profile gathering of conservatives and a longtime mecca for Republican White House hopefuls.
DeSantis, who hasn’t formally launched a presidential bid yet, will be notably absent from the conference. But his jam-packed schedule is the latest — and perhaps clearest — sign that he’s entering a new, more aggressive phase of his 2024 preparations.
“What you’re seeing is that DeSantis has found a way to run without officially throwing his hat in the ring,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “The book deal, putting himself in front of donors — and at the same time he’s also back home reminding Floridians of who he is and what he’s done.”
“He’s finding a way to make that balance work,” O’Connell added. “He doesn’t want his hand forced.”
A campaign announcement from DeSantis is still likely months away; the governor said last week that he would make a final decision sometime after the Florida state legislature wraps up its regular session in May.
But there’s little doubt among Republicans that he will jump into the race. His advisers have been reaching out to potential campaign staff hires for at least several weeks. And in another sign that DeSantis is preparing for a campaign, he released a new book — “The Courage to be Free” — on Tuesday, taking a step that several other prospective candidates have already taken.
DeSantis is scheduled to attend two fundraisers in Texas on Saturday before jetting off to California on Sunday to speak at a reception for the Orange County GOP. He will also be the keynote speaker at the Alabama GOP’s annual Winter Dinner on March 9.
And there are signs that DeSantis will soon begin a swing through the early primary and caucus states that will be crucial to deciding the GOP’s 2024 nominee. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that he will make stops in Iowa in the first half of March, followed by trips to Nevada and New Hampshire.
Yet DeSantis and his team have signaled that they will move at their own pace when it comes to an official campaign launch, despite the fact that the primary field already includes three other candidates and is expected to grow larger in the coming weeks and months.
Former Vice President Mike Pence has said that he will make a decision on a 2024 run “by the spring,” while former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who’s scheduled to speak at CPAC, is expected to announce his intentions in a matter of months.
Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has begun to prepare for a possible campaign. He traveled to Iowa last week, where he delivered a pair of speeches outlining his vision for a revamped GOP.
Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, acknowledged that “there’s some nervousness among donors” that DeSantis hasn’t announced his 2024 intentions yet. But he also said that the Florida governor’s hands are tied until the end of the state legislative session, arguing that DeSantis is doing what he can to keep his momentum up.
“Gov. DeSantis can’t officially launch his campaign for the GOP nomination until after the legislative session ends in May, so he’s doing what he can now to keep one foot on the national stage,” Eberhart said.
“There’s some nervousness among donors that DeSantis isn’t out there more, but we still have a long way to go before the nomination is decided,” he added. “I don’t have any doubt that DeSantis will make a big splash in the pond of candidates when he does officially announce. In the meantime, those other candidates can decide how they want to take on Trump.”
For now, DeSantis appears to have at least some room to set his own schedule when it comes to a 2024 campaign. Early polling shows him and Trump running far ahead of every other Republican candidate, either current or prospective. In multiple hypothetical head-to-head match-ups against the former president, DeSantis has emerged as the favorite.
But there are still some key challenges facing DeSantis. Some recent polls have shown Trump coming out ahead of the governor in a GOP primary. One Republican consultant with deep experience in Florida politics said DeSantis “doesn’t have all the mechanics in place” for a campaign; he’s still trying to build out a more robust staff, while his massive political war chest remains tied up in state accounts.
Another GOP strategist questioned DeSantis’s decision to skip CPAC, saying that it’s a missed opportunity to put himself in front of the Republican Party’s conservative activist class.
“It’s a well-known Beltway commodity. Trump is going, Haley is going, so why not show up?” the strategist asked. “He knows where he wants to be, so I guess he doesn’t see it as a big deal. But if Trump’s going to be there, why cede that ground to him?”
Other Republicans, however, argue that DeSantis is a special case, having managed to draw the kind of national attention that most would-be presidential contenders crave without going through the typical motions.
“He’s been able to generate national attention and national news coverage without going to these sort of cattle call events, and he’s risen to the top of the polls without having to do the sort of stuff that other candidates have to do,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who served as a senior aide to Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential run.
“It’ll be a test for sure,” he added. “But it strikes me that he’s running the sort of race he wants to run, not running one driven by the formula of past rollouts.”
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