- Plenty of GOP circles are chattering about whether Ron DeSantis will run for president.
- He’s polling well with voters nationally and often fights with the Biden administration.
- But DeSantis’ future also hinges on whether former President Donald Trump decides to run in 2024.
Plenty of Republican insiders now consider Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis an inevitable presidential candidate, given the millions of dollars he has raised outside the Sunshine State, his frequent appearances on Fox News, and his high-profile, take-no-prisoners battles with the Biden administration.
If former President Donald Trump doesn’t run again, consider DeSantis an instant “tier 1” level of White House candidates in 2024 alongside Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Vice President Mike Pence, said Jeff Roe, who managed Republican Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 upset victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race.
Roe, who also managed DeSantis’ first gubernatorial run and Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, identified three winning qualities for locking up the GOP nomination: being conservative, being electable, and running with the Trump banner to win voters who “feel like they’re losing their country.”
DeSantis is up for reelection in Florida this year, and Republicans insiders can’t help but note the governor’s high polling numbers and name recognition. Plus, DeSantis could yet challenge Trump in a Republican presidential primary — the Florida governor has made no definitive public comments about a 2024 presidential bid and has not pledged to bow out of one even if Trump decides to have another go at a White House ticket.
“If Trump doesn’t run, DeSantis has to run,” said Sarah Isgur, who was deputy campaign manager for businesswoman Carly Fiorina’s 2016 presidential race. “It would actually raise questions if he didn’t run.”
Both men are set to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, this week.
With the 2024 election still 2 ½ years away and the political futures of both Trump and President Joe Biden uncertain, GOP strategists offered recommendations on how DeSantis could successfully mount a campaign for president — Trump or no Trump.
Have a strong 2022 showing in Florida
Charlie Black, founding member of Prime Policy Group who was a campaign advisor for former Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential race, said that before DeSantis launches a presidential bid, he should focus on winning his re-election in 2022 then finish out his time as governor. This would mean DeSantis, 43, waiting until 2028 at the earliest to pursue the White House.
But if he wants to run [for president] This time, the best thing he can do is have a big win in the governor’s race,” Black said.
Democrats in Florida will choose who runs against DeSantis in a primary in August. Elections tend to be won by tight margins in the Sunshine State, and DeSantis eked out his 2018 gubernatorial victory by just 32,000 votes.
But general election polling favors DeSantis, and Republicans feel confident about DeSantis’ chances in 2022 regardless of whom he is up against. Rep. Charlie Crist and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried are leading Democratic candidates.
Black stressed that DeSantis should focus on policies affecting Florida, so that if he runs for president, he can run on his accomplishments. Sometimes, Black said, part of DeSantis’ job in Florida might involve fighting with the Biden administration — something DeSantis has become famous for — but, Black added, “that shouldn’t be your focus every day.”
Isgur said that DeSantis has done a good job showing voters what life is like in Florida compared with the restrictions the federal government called for — and many blue states imposed — under COVID.
“COVID just gave him this perfect foil,” Isgur said. “At first it was [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo versus DeSantis, but now with the Biden administration it is perfectly set up for DeSantis to be almost a shadow government in Florida when it comes to COVID policy.”
Alex Conant, who was communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, predicted DeSantis would “win an impressive re-election which will only strengthen his political capital.
“He has established a national brand for himself which can be hard when you’re the governor of one state,” Conant said.
Figure out the Trump balance
DeSantis will need to navigate Trump whether the former president runs again or not, Black said.
DeSantis frequently gets questions about Trump during press conferences the governor holds across the state. And Trump is famous for picking public battles even with his allies, much of which leaks its way into news reports citing anonymous sources.
“Take whatever position you’re comfortable with on Trump,” he said. “Praise and thank him for some of his accomplishments, but say politics is part of the future.”
“You don’t have to react to everything he does or take his side on every dispute,” he added.
DeSantis already has managed to successfully straddle the worlds of MAGA and more traditionalist Republicans, said Tim Miller, who managed for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign and has been critical of Trump.
Miller identified that strategy as being distinct from the presidential race Bush ran. DeSantis, he said, has been “running this two-track brand,” one of which is more “performative.”
“He is trying to keep the normie Jeb Republican types liking him with his policy work, while appealing to the Trump voter,” Miller said.
DeSantis has managed to strike the right balance with Trump and doesn’t try to be a Trump apologist, said Terry Sullivan, who managed Rubio’s 2016 campaign.
“He has managed to be a conservative on the issues that matter, but not be bombastic and in your face in the issues that don’t,” Sullivan said, praising the governor for allowing businesses to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic as well as bucking most states to bring schools back for in-person education.
“Unlike Trump, he’s not going to pick a fight just to pick a fight,” Sullivan said.
‘Don’t be Scott Walker’
Former Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, like DeSantis now, enjoyed a significant degree of interest and st ahead of his bid for the presidency during the 2016 election. Walker frequently criticized the Obama administration and was leading the pack in all the GOP presidential polls.
But Sullivan, now a founding partner of the consulting firm Firehouse Strategies, said DeSantis shouldn’t make the same mistakes Walker did. Most notably, he should not assume that he is a Republican frontrunner just because news headlines and deep-pocketed donors deem him so.
That means being careful with spending the money he raises, including refraining from hiring a large staff until further down the line.
At the same time, Sullivan said that he thought if DeSantis wants to run for president then he should “start running.” What does that mean? Short of a formal announcement, his advisors should detail a plan for how he’ll spend the next couple of years preparing a presidential campaign launch.
It’s OK to run for re-election in Florida while also planning for the future, he said.
“If you can’t do two things at the same time and compartmentalize, you shouldn’t be running for the president of the United States,” Sullivan said.
Don’t run if Trump does — maybe
If DeSantis chooses to run for president in 2024, there’s a chance he’ll be running against Trump.
DeSantis will have to weigh whether it’s worth the negative effects of running specifically against Trump, said Isgur, who is now a staff writer for The Dispatch, a conservative newsletter on Substack.
She predicted GOP circles would urge DeSantis to run because “they think he can carry on Trump’s legacy without Trump’s baggage.”
“His consultants will make money, the news media will want the fight, but it would all be for their own reasons — not DeSantis’ reasons,” she said.
“If Trump runs, he has to really consider the fact that he’s going to get a lot of pressure to run anyway and balance that with the fact that he has lots of time,” she said. “He’s in no rush. He would still be a competitive presidential candidate in 2028.”
Miller said he found it hard to picture Trump sitting out the 2024 presidential race and instead allowing another GOP candidate — or a gaggle of them — to attract all the attention.
As it is, Trump is running a presidential campaign-like political operation without having formally declared whether he’ll seek to become the only other president after Grover Cleveland to win a second, non-consecutive term.
“It’s hard for me to close my eyes and imagine Donald Trump being the opening act for a Ron DeSantis campaign,” Miller said, trying to picture the scenario at campaign events or even the GOP convention.
Regardless of whether Trump runs, “anything you can say that can be interpreted as a slight dig on Trump will be covered as an attack by the media and be painted as an attack,” Miller said. Voters who support Trump would view candidates running against him as “anti-Trump,” he said.
“The notion that a Ron DeSantis type is going to be able to have a clean go at this without having to deal with the Trump baggage and the Trump shadow is just wishful thinking,” he said.
But would Miller advise DeSantis to bow out completely if Trump runs?
He’s not so sure, as politicians can frequently “miss their moment.”
“In presidential politics sometimes you have got to strike when the iron is hot,” he said, “even when the environment isn’t perfect.”