The DeSantis strategy: Ignore an increasingly agitated Trump
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is nearly three months old, but already it’s clear whom he sees as his biggest threat with the Iowa caucuses still a year away: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The perspective comes as Trump continues to act more like an underdog in the race for the Republican nomination. In recent days, the former president has gone after DeSantis, with Trump somehow claiming that Florida “was closed for a long period of time” after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.
“They’re trying to rewrite history,” he added of DeSantis in an interview earlier this week.
It’s an odd front for Trump to open given that he praised DeSantis’s re-opening approach three years ago. Not surprisingly, the 45th president also failed to mention that he advocated lockdowns in the spring of 2020.
Press accounts at the time showed Florida as one of the first high-population states to open back up in May 2020, which drew heavy criticism from the press and Democratic lawmakers at the time.
Trump’s farcical charge about DeSantis has fallen flat, in part because DeSantis and his communications team are refusing to take Trump’s bait when asked for comment by either declining to comment altogether or responding by touting their own record.
So, after Trump’s COVID/lockdown allegations barely created a ripple on social and traditional media, Trump turned up the volume by pointing to his 2018 endorsement of DeSantis, which he apparently believes precludes the governor from ever running against him.
“He was dead, he was leaving the race, he came over and he begged me, begged me, for an endorsement,” Trump told Hugh Hewitt on his radio show on Friday. “He was getting ready to drop out. There were tears coming down from his eyes.”
Yup. You’re supposed to believe DeSantis was going to drop out of his first gubernatorial race and was crying at the time when asking for Trump’s endorsement. Sounds totally reasonable.
And unlike some candidates in 2016, DeSantis has decided, at least for now, not to engage Trump down in the rhetorical mud while refusing to embark on a pointless pursuit of disproving Trump’s false claims.
Instead, the governor answered a question about his handling of COVID and lockdowns this way:
“When you’re an elected executive, you have to make all kinds of decisions. You got to steer that ship. And the good thing is, is that the people are able to render a judgment on that — whether they reelect you or not,” DeSantis said this week. “And I’m happy to say, 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.”
DeSantis is being subtle and smart by avoiding Trump’s name while delivering a clear message: Check the scoreboard. He won in a 19-point landslide in November without Trump campaigning with him. Meanwhile, Trump’s big endorsements in key Senate races in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, all winnable races, lost, costing the party control of upper chamber.
On another occasion, Trump tried out a nickname for DeSantis, which he introduced as DeSantis was holding a press conference after assessing storm damage from Hurricane Nicole.
At that time, Trump referred to DeSantis as “an average governor” and “DeSanctimonious.” He also took aim at another potential challenger, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, by saying he thought his name sounded “Chinese.”
The backlash was swift from many GOP lawmakers and conservative media members alike. The overall message, the one you hear from a growing number of Republicans, is this: Who has the better chance of winning in a general election if the choices are Trump and DeSantis and the opponent is President Biden?
Answer (at least for now): Almost every poll shows Trump losing to Biden in a presidential rematch, while the same polls show DeSantis beating Biden.
The pattern across all surveys is the same. Biden appears to be receiving a decisive anti-Trump bump among those who are otherwise unhappy with him but would prefer him to Trump. State polls also show DeSantis topping Trump in key primary states including Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida.
The polling suggests many Republican voters fear that if Trump is the nominee, he will motivate Democrats to turn out like never before, giving Biden another term even if he hasn’t performed well. The #NeverAgainTrump voter simply doesn’t want the drama and chaos anymore, but rather a return a normalcy and calm (which, incidentally, hasn’t really happened under the Biden administration, either).
“Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” That was Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment. Ron DeSantis and his team are embracing this message: Stay out of the steel cage. Don’t try to out-Trump Trump. It’s always ended poorly for anyone who has attempted it.
And from what we’re seeing lately, the more DeSantis shuns Trump, the more the former president hurls boomerangs that only come back to hit him.
Name-calling and false claims won’t work against a possible opponent whose stock is rising. This ain’t Jeb Bush. And it ain’t 2016 anymore.
Joe Concha is a politics and media columnist.
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