By Gabby Orr, CNN
A deepening rivalry between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis is beginning to spark a debate among conservatives over the unofficial coronation of the Florida governor as the party’s most promising non-Trump option in 2024, with some prominent intellectuals and activists urging DeSantis superfans to pump the brakes.
Questions of whether the former President — with his cult-like following and inimitable breed of politics — is the only logical choice or a candidate past his prime have consumed conservative donors, organizers and intellectuals as the GOP presidential primary approaches and DeSantis’ stock continues to rise.
The Florida governor has dominated headlines after arranging for an estimated 50 migrants to be flown to Martha’s Vineyard in protest of the Biden administration’s immigration policies and though the flagrantly political move drew widespread condemnation, it was equally celebrated among Trump supporters and the GOP base.
“The Trump vs. DeSantis conflict comes up daily in our office,” said Terry Schilling, executive director of the socially conservative American Principles Project. “It’s a very difficult decision.”
For months now, conservatives have been quietly debating the merits of Trump vs. DeSantis, asking themselves if Trump, who remains caught in a web of legal troubles, is too damaged or polarizing to return the White House to Republicans and effectively implement the changes many conservatives seek. Or if DeSantis, with his “anti-woke” crusade and surging popularity, is a superior alternative to the 45th President or a political chameleon — someone who might creep toward the center in a general election.
“I’ve heard people say that Trump was John the Baptist paving the way for Jesus,” said a senior official at another prominent conservative organization. “I’ve also heard concerns that DeSantis is a really smart operator who read the tea leaves and slid into this position at the right time, so he can’t necessarily be trusted.”
Few other Republicans have drawn as many side-by-side comparisons to Trump as DeSantis, who is running for reelection as governor and has lately set himself apart from other rumored 2024 GOP hopefuls by diving headfirst into the third rail of American politics with provocative moves on immigration, big business, coronavirus, and education.
Trump has privately griped to aides that he made the Florida governor a star when he endorsed his gubernatorial bid in 2018, and regularly sends out statements through his leadership PAC seeking to flaunt his strength against DeSantis in a hypothetical matchup. One adviser to the former President said Trump is “clearly feeling threatened.”
Even fundraising emails by the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP campaign arm responsible for flipping the chamber, have begun to frame the 2024 primary as a binary choice, asking donors to “vote Trump” or “vote DeSantis” in recent email solicitations.
“We are lucky to have so many great Conservative leaders fighting for us like President Trump and Governor DeSantis,” one such email read.
And before delivering a keynote speech at the National Conservatism Conference this month, where other rising conservative figures like tech mogul Peter Thiel and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley spoke to attendees, DeSantis was introduced as “the future President of the United States.”
Concerned that conservatives may be jumping the gun, two influential conservative writers penned an unusually early endorsement on Tuesday of re-nominating Trump in 2024 — the first entry in what is likely to become a fraught intra-party debate if both the former President and Florida governor launch White House campaigns.
Warning that the conservative movement is preparing “to rally around an alternative to Trump,” Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Schmitz of the online magazine Compact made their case for why the 45th President — despite “all his failings” — should be the next Republican Party nominee for president.
“America’s problems haven’t been caused by irresponsible populists but by a rapacious and feckless establishment. Donald Trump… is the only candidate who recognizes this fact,” they write in a new op-ed. “He alone has broken with the conservative movement’s unquestioning support for foreign wars and the security state. He alone has challenged the right’s economic pieties. He alone offers Americans a chance to confront and chasten their failed elites.”
The duo’s Trump endorsement, published in conjunction with another writer’s endorsement in the same magazine of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination, makes the case that Trump is the lone Republican capable of dismantling the conservative movement as it is currently known and building something better in its place.
Trying to outTrump Trump
Some conservative say the noticeable interest in DeSantis as a pro-Trump alternative is due, in part, to his willingness to be even Trumpier than the former President himself — his recent migrant flights serving as a prime example.
The move, which is said to have irritated the former President, drew a thinly veiled rebuke by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who told Fox News immediately following the stunt, “We have to remember that these are human beings.”
“They’re people, so seeing them being used as political pawns one way or the other is very troubling to me,” Kushner said.
As governor during the Covid-19 pandemic, DeSantis also regularly flouted the Trump administration’s recommendations on Covid-19 restrictions, marketing his state as a safe haven from strict lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates. The Florida governor has also touted his battles with major entities like Disney and the Tampa Bay Rays as “a lesson for people on the right,” working to contrast himself with Republican politicians who have long promoted corporate tax cuts and breaks. (Trump has celebrated the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which slashed the corporate tax rate to 21%, as one of the crowning achievements of his presidency.)
Georgia-based conservative commentator Erick Erickson said DeSantis is one of the only Republicans who could reasonably position himself to the right of Trump in a primary on issues like coronavirus restrictions and confronting corporate America.
“DeSantis has a record right now on the sweet spots for conservatives. They are turning on Big Business, and he is fighting it. He also has an ability to say he can serve for eight years, not four years. That could be a huge selling point,” Erickson said.
But the rush to crown Florida’s governor as the best alternative to Trump has troubled some conservatives, including Ahmari and Schmitz.
In an interview with CNN, they cast DeSantis as a safe choice for voters who don’t believe the conservative movement needs to be revamped but “a worse choice than Trump” and “a black box” on foreign policy.
“It is precisely because we think the institutional Republican party and mainstream conservative movement has failed the U.S. and working-class people that we want someone to continue to rankle them,” said Ahmari, claiming that conservatives “still don’t know a lot about [DeSantis] since he’s been a governor, not a national politician.” (DeSantis spent five years representing Florida in the House of Representatives but has only recently emerged as a rising star on the political right).
One former Trump campaign aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, expressed similar concern about the early support for DeSantis inside the conservative ecosystem.
“Is it acceptable to start weighing our options if Trump doesn’t run? Totally. Maybe he runs but he’s been indicted and no longer seems electable. That’s another fair question to consider. But I think it’s a mistake to view Ron DeSantis as heir apparent just because he’s having a moment right now,” said the former aide, speaking hypothetically about the legal woes around Trump, who has not been charged with a crime.
2024 is still a political lifetime away
Neither DeSantis nor Trump have formally launched a 2024 campaign and there could be serious obstacles for either GOP heavyweight to compete at the presidential level depending on how the next few months pan out.
Though the former President remains immensely popular with his base and has amassed an unprecedented war chest across his fundraising committees since leaving office, he is facing numerous investigations at the federal and state level that have already forced him to spend millions on his legal defense. Moreover, Trump and his three oldest children were sued last week by New York Attorney General Letitia James for alleged civil fraud violations at the Trump Organization.
Trump has also frustrated Republican leaders and conservatives who wish he would shift his focus away from re-litigating the 2020 election, which he continues to falsely claim was stolen. Some conservatives say his intense focus on the past could create enthusiasm issues for a third White House bid.
“The worst thing that could happen for Trump is he gets bored,” said the senior conservative organization official. “If he just rehashes 2020, then he could lose. He won in 2016 because the grievances were about other things — immigration, culture — not him.”
Meanwhile, there are questions about DeSantis potentially peaking early — much the same as other governors have at the outset of presidential primaries. The Florida governor is currently competing against Republican-turned Democrat Charlie Crist and though he is widely expected to win in November, it is unclear if the momentum behind him now can last another two years — especially if he challenges Trump, by far the most incendiary candidate in 2016, in a primary.
“It’s a long time to keep buzz up between now and the primaries of 2024. Most people in that sort of situation begin to fade and someone else starts getting the headlines,” said Erickson.
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