GOP governors embrace culture wars with White House in mind

GOP governors embrace culture wars with White House in mind
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Several high-profile Republican governors are leaning into the culture wars as they eye presidential bids in 2024.

Florida’s Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisIsrael forms task force to pressure Ben & Jerry's to reverse boycott: report Florida Democratic official suspends concealed carry permits for 22 people tied to Capitol riot Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios MORE, South Dakota’s Kristi NoemKristi Lynn NoemRepublican governors revolt against CDC mask guidance Western US airports face jet fuel shortage Noem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event MORE and Texas’s Greg Abbott have used their platforms to advance hot-button conservative priorities touching on everything from immigration to critical race theory to gun rights as they seek to cement their status as prospective future leaders of their party.

The slew of bill signings, lawsuits and executive orders they have overseen are almost guaranteed to help them in a 2024 Republican primary — especially if former President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York state Senate candidate charged in riot Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report GOP senator clashes with radio caller who wants identity of cop who shot Babbitt MORE declines to run.

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“It’s about showing that you have an actual record on the issues that the base cares about,” one Florida Republican said. “People like DeSantis can show that they’re taking big actions in their states, even though they’re being ignored in D.C.”

In the past 10 days alone, DeSantis has taken a series of actions tailor-made for his conservative base.

Last week, he signed into law a bill requiring public schools to set aside at least one minute of silence for children to pray or meditate. Days later, he issued an executive order pardoning Floridians who were arrested or fined for violating local COVID-19 rules and restrictions.

He also deployed state and local law enforcement officials to Texas and Arizona to help address “America’s border security crisis.”

Noem, meanwhile, has engaged in a high-profile legal battle with the Biden administration over its decision to cancel an Independence Day fireworks celebration at Mount Rushmore. In a letter last month to South Dakota’s Board of Regents, she insisted that her state’s public universities should not teach critical race theory, an area of academia concerned with the intersection of law and race, arguing that it undermines “patriotic education.”

And in Texas, Abbott has signed bills allowing Texans to carry handguns without a permit and restricting the teaching of critical race theory in Texas schools.

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He has also stepped up his focus on immigration and border security, announcing last week that Texas would issue a $250 million “down payment” to build its own wall along the U.S. southern border.

It’s not unusual for governors to use their office to raise their national profiles ahead of potential presidential runs. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris ChristieChris ChristieChris Christie: Unvaccinated people don't want to be 'indoctrinated' by government Former lieutenant governor of New Jersey leaves GOP Half of states now restrict conversion therapy for LGBTQ kids MORE and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich both occupied governor’s mansions while they sought the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

But the willingness of governors like DeSantis, Noem and Abbott to embrace the culture wars also suggests that the emotionally charged, populist politics championed by Trump will continue to dominate the Republican Party and its base of voters well into the future, despite calls from some in the party to distance the GOP from the former president.

“When you look at presidential races, governors have really performed well. They’re executives, they’re administrators, they have a lot of power,” said Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist. “I think you’re seeing them pivoting now to those emotional issues because that’s how people vote. It’s what motivates people.”

Over the past year, DeSantis, in particular, has caught the eye of Republicans, many of whom have praised his laissez-faire approach to coronavirus-related restrictions and lockdowns and now see him as being in a similar vein to Trump.

The Florida governor finished on top in a 2024 straw poll at the Western Conservative Summit over the weekend, narrowly edging out Trump among the conference’s attendees.

It was the second such straw poll in a matter of months to show DeSantis’s standing among the grassroots on the rise. A straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., earlier this year showed DeSantis finishing second to Trump. In a second 2024 straw poll that did not include the former president, DeSantis came in first place. 

Even Trump praised the Florida governor, saying he would consider tapping DeSantis to run as his vice president should he decide to mount a third White House run. 

“A lot of people like that — I’m just saying what I read and what you read, they love that ticket,” the former president told Fox Business in April of a potential Trump-DeSantis ticket. “But certainly, Ron would be considered. He’s a great guy.”

But Noem has also found herself rising as a potential Republican presidential contender. And Abbott has publicly declined to rule out a bid for the White House in 2024, fueling speculation around him as well.

All three governors are facing reelection next year and have insisted that they’re focused on their 2022 races for now.

Still, Republicans are eager to cultivate a new generation of leaders, especially if Trump decides not to run for president again in 2024.

One GOP strategist who has worked on presidential races said that politicians like DeSantis and Noem have the opportunity to build on Trump’s legacy — just without the “drama.”

“There are a lot of Republicans out there who would rather have someone other than Trump in. They just don’t want to say it,” the strategist said. “I think people are ready for somebody different. Being without the drama helps.”

But Republicans are still aware that their 2024 presidential primary is likely to hinge on what Trump himself decides to do, noting that his potential entrance into the next presidential race would almost certainly keep several would-be candidates out of the running.

In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, former White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsWashington Post calls on Democrats to subpoena Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Meadows for testimony on Jan. 6 Trump to Pence on Jan. 6: 'You don't have the courage' Trump said whoever leaked information about stay in White House bunker should be 'executed,' author claims MORE appeared to acknowledge DeSantis as a potential 2024 contender. But he predicted that the Florida governor would step aside should Trump decide to run again.

“You know, I think Ron DeSantis is identified across the country now for the courage that he shows for conservative solutions, and he would be the first to say that if President Trump gets in that he would win the nomination and would clear the field,” Meadows said. “And so I don’t ever see it being a 2016 primary scenario.”