Potential Republican presidential candidates and their allies are stepping up attacks on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as he emerges as the early front-runner for the GOP’s 2024 nomination.
In recent days, DeSantis has found himself on the receiving end of criticism from fellow GOP heavy hitters, like South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. He’s also rankled former President Trump, who’s running for the White House once again and sees DeSantis as perhaps his biggest obstacle to securing the GOP nod.
DeSantis hasn’t yet decided on a presidential bid and is still likely months away from making any kind of announcement about his intentions. But the recent criticism underscores the extent to which the Florida governor’s profile has risen and foreshadows a potentially bitter 2024 primary season for the party.
It’s not unusual for prospective candidates to test out attack lines against would-be rivals as they search for a lane in a budding presidential race. But Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, said that it makes clear who they see as their biggest threat.
“They’re searching for something; just testing things out to see if they can get some traction,” Naughton said. “They want to slow down DeSantis a little bit so that they have a chance. The thing is, I don’t think that’s going to be easy to do.”
Sununu took a swipe at DeSantis last week in an interview with Fox News, saying that while he ultimately agreed with the Florida governor’s effort to target “woke” policies — a term that has become an inseparable part of DeSantis’s political brand — DeSantis’s posture against private businesses that disagree with him crosses a line.
“Look, I come from the ‘Live Free or Die’ state, and private businesses can and should act like private businesses without the fear of being punished by people that might disagree with them,” Sununu, who’s fresh off a successful reelection campaign, told Fox News.
“I agree with a lot of those issues that Ron brings to the table — I think he’s right — but to necessarily punish private businesses because they don’t agree with the policy or whatever it might be, those types of culture wars pushing their way into the private sector, that’s definitely not, I don’t think, where we want to be as Americans.”
The context of Sununu’s remarks is difficult to overlook. In the same interview, he acknowledged that he had been approached about launching a 2024 presidential campaign and was having conversations about the matter.
In another attack that drew headlines, a spokesperson for Noem, another 2024 prospect, let loose on DeSantis last week over the Florida governor’s record on abortion.
In a statement to the conservative National Review, the spokesperson, Ian Fury, accused DeSantis of doing little to crack down on abortion in Florida despite the Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights case.
“Where was Gov. DeSantis? Hiding behind a 15-week ban,” Fury said. “Does he believe that 14-week-old babies don’t have a right to live?”
DeSantis signed a bill last year banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, though he has indicated that he is willing to back a stricter prohibition on the procedure.
While the Iowa caucuses — the first nominating contest of the 2024 primary season — are still more than a year away, DeSantis has emerged as an early favorite, even with Trump in the race. Recent polling matching up DeSantis and Trump shows the Florida governor in the lead, suggesting trouble for the former president.
DeSantis’s rising popularity within the GOP — as well as his repeated refusal to disclose his political ambitions — has irked Trump, whose endorsement propelled DeSantis to victory in his 2018 gubernatorial bid. After DeSantis scored a staggering 19-point victory in his reelection campaign in November, Trump went on the attack, accusing DeSantis of playing political games and dolling out a nickname: “Ron DeSanctimonious”
“He says, ‘I’m only focused on the Governor’s race, I’m not looking into the future.’ Well, in terms of loyalty and class, that’s really not the right answer,” Trump said in a lengthy statement.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that DeSantis will maintain his apparent front-runner status. Plenty of onetime favorites in presidential races have fallen short of expectations in the past, making way for other candidates.
In mid-2015, for instance, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush appeared to be the candidate to beat in the race for the 2016 GOP presidential nod. Ultimately, a lackluster campaign combined with bruising attacks from Trump forced him to drop out of the race before Florida ever held its primary.
It’s also not a given that the issues that fueled DeSantis’s rise — his opposition to COVID-19 restrictions and focus on culture war issues — will remain top of mind for voters in the months to come.
“So much of his brand is related to COVID and the culture wars,” said Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida and an ardent DeSantis critic. “I think over time, a lot of that stuff is becoming irrelevant and it’s being replaced by other issues. How much of this stuff is going to be irrelevant or just not going to stick a year from now?”
And while DeSantis may be trouncing Trump in head-to-head polling, several surveys testing a broader field of Republican candidates show him running behind the former president.
An Emerson College poll fielded in November showed Trump winning 55 percent support in a multiway primary that also included prospective candidates like former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). DeSantis finished in second place with 25 percent in that poll.
“I think there is a sense that DeSantis isn’t bulletproof and that there’s still room for other people,” said one Republican strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns. “The polling kind of reflects that, you know, sure, if it’s DeSantis and Trump, DeSantis looks really good. But with a bigger field, there’s no guarantees.”