The biggest question for the future of the Republican Party is not whether Donald Trump runs for president in 2024 — he will. It is whether Ron DeSantis chooses to challenge him, or jumps the shark instead.
Henry Olsen, the esteemed election analyst and Washington Post columnist, has a new column arguing that the overall lesson from the midterm primaries that have played out over the last several months is that the appetite for Trumpian populist candidates exists almost everywhere. The GOP electorate doesn’t just want the policy priorities of populists — they want the style and attitude Trump brought to bear against the media and the Republican establishment. This is what makes DeSantis, from Olsen’s perspective, the only Republican capable of challenging Trump for the 2024 nomination.
Olsen points readers to early August polling data from Echelon Insights. Echelon found that just 65 percent of Republican and lean-Republican voters want Trump to run again, and that Trump would fall below the 50 percent mark in a theoretical contested primary.
“DeSantis’s strength with Trump-first Republicans becomes more obvious after removing Trump from the mix entirely,” Olsen says. “DeSantis receives 41 percent in a 2024 field without Trump, leading his closest competitors by 30 points. He does about as well among Trump-firsters (47 percent) as with party-firsters (41 percent).”
It’s clear at the moment that DeSantis’s appeal is broader than Trump’s, and that he does not suffer from the same depth of controversy with a general electorate that could dog the former president. What’s more, as I’ve argued previously, he’s in the strongest position to compare records on the pandemic response, and to call out Trump’s failures to fire Anthony Fauci, confront the health care bureaucracy, and keep schools and businesses open as DeSantis did in Florida.
On culture war questions, DeSantis is now a figure of national prominence for conservatives across the country. His confrontational style with Disney has earned him plaudits, and his youth and connection to the experience of younger families would stand to benefit him among voters who want to move on from the Boomer generation of leadership. Just watch this strong performance from his wife, Casey, in a recent interview with Mary Margaret Olohan on education, kids, and Covid, and ask yourself how many GOP candidates could present as well. The cancer-surviving Millennial first lady of Florida could be a huge asset to him.
The number one question I am asked by Republican voters is: would DeSantis run against Trump? They assume, probably accurately, that he won’t. DeSantis lately seems to be trending away from the broad electoral appeal he might theoretically have. Sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, backing gubernatorial nominees Doug Mastriano and Kari Lake, and speaking to the National Conservatism conference all appeal to voters with an appetite for red meat. But they also could be interpreted as the moves of a politician more interested in appealing to the right flank of his party than gearing up for a national campaign.
If Trump is nominated, Republicans know they will inevitably have to thread the eye of the needle to get an Electoral College win. The question DeSantis needs to ask himself is whether he wants to be essentially a Trump imitator — even down to many of his adopted mannerisms — or a leader who could supplant Trump and, as Olsen suggests, unify the country with a broader range of support than just Republican voters.
DeSantis is in a difficult position. If he challenges Trump for the nomination, even with strong backing from a broader range of Republicans, he would not be favored to win. Yet if he were to skip 2024 and not challenge Trump, then his light is only likely to dim with time. The successful navigation of the pandemic becomes less of an attribute as it recedes into the rearview mirror. And 2022’s midterms will bring a new group of faces into prominence, many of whom hold ambitions for the White House.
Beating a former president who commands enormous popularity in his party is a unique challenge. But the lesson of Barack Obama’s 2008 challenge to Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie’s mistake in not running in 2012 ought to echo in the minds of DeSantis and his team — if you miss your political moment, it may not come around again. Or, in the words of political philosopher Ric Flair: to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.