Has pre-campaign Ron DeSantis ruined things for Ron DeSantis’ 2024 run?


After months of intense speculation and more than a little optimistic prognosticating from Republican insiders and political commentators both, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) appears poised to finally make official what has seemed obvious to anyone paying attention: He's indeed running for president in 2024.

According to multiple GOP operatives who have spoken with both NBC News and ABC News, the former congressman and first-term governor will launch his presidential campaign mid-May, establishing an exploratory committee as early as May 11, followed shortly thereafter by a public announcement of his intent to challenge former President Donald Trump for his party's nomination. It's a decision motivated, at least in part, by his supporters' worry over the "creeping national narrative that former President Donald Trump is the overwhelming front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination," as NBC's Matt Dixon and Natasha Korecki report. "A good politician knows when their moment is and they seize the opportunity," says one Republican adviser and aspiring DeSantis supporter to the network. "There's no question that the door is swinging against DeSantis."

To the extent that there is a door and that it is, in fact, swinging in a particular direction, credit must be given in no small part to Trump. Not only has the ex-president managed to decisively fend off a growing field of GOP challengers both big(ish) and small(er), but he has to date done so while almost exclusively training his sizable political arsenal not on declared candidates but on DeSantis instead. 

That DeSantis, the once — and supporters hope, future — "Trump-slaying" conservative savior, has seen his political fortunes fading of late is not, however, simply the result of Trump's considerable political bombardments. Rather, his plummeting poll numbers should be seen as a manifestation of a more acute problem of his own making. As an increasing number of colleagues, donors, peers, and potential benefactors have suggested in recent interviews, DeSantis seems unwilling or unable to deploy the soft "retail politics" skills necessary for a successful national campaign. 

'Somebody that doesn't return phone calls'

Merits of large-donor-dependent campaigns notwithstanding, the reality of politics in America is that running for office is expensive. Accordingly, even before a candidate declares their candidacy, they must have, or at least have a pathway to, significant sums of money to finance their run. It was DeSantis' record-breaking fundraising haul in 2022 that helped vault him to the top tier of potential 2024 candidates in the first place. But donors have increasingly begun both privately and publicly airing their reluctance to back his potential presidential run, citing not only his falling poll numbers as a reason to keep their wallets closed — something of a chicken/egg paradox — but also DeSantis' personal conduct. 

"Why would I support somebody to become president of the United States that doesn't return phone calls?" onetime DeSantis donor and now major Trump backer John Catsimatidis tells The Washington Examiner. "Everybody answers my phone calls. I've never had a situation like [this]," adds the New York billionaire and longtime Republican funder. "I would rule out supporting him at this point." 

Major GOP donor and Florida's former richest resident Thomas Peterffy has similarly pumped the breaks on supporting DeSantis after he claimed earlier this year to be "looking forward" to helping the governor's presidential bid. Unlike Catsimatidis, however, Peterffy's reluctance seemingly stems from DeSantis' hard-right embrace of controversial social issues surrounding reproductive health and educational freedoms — the same positions that helped elevate DeSantis' national profile to begin with. "Because of his stance on abortion and book banning, myself and a bunch of friends are holding our powder dry," he tells the Financial Times,

This isn't to say DeSantis' campaign coffers have been fully depleted. As Time reports, the governor's top 2022 donor, Robert Bigelow, has remained all in for the governor, telling the magazine that "I will give him more money and go without food" after having already donated approximately $20 million to a DeSantis-aligned super-PAC. Billionaire donor Ken Griffin, the third largest funder of the 2022 midterm cycle, has also indicated that he'll continue backing DeSantis for the time being, although that support may be in jeopardy now as well.

Crucially, in spite of having dropped tens of millions of dollars on DeSantis' behalf, with more promised on the way, Bigelow also made a point of telling Time that he and the ostensible candidate aren't actually on close speaking terms, with communication happening "mostly through his campaign manager and other senior staff." To that end, he and Catsimatidis seem to share the broad sentiment that DeSantis has not fully mastered the art of personable retail politics that have benefitted both President Biden and Trump before him. And it's not just donors who feel that way either. DeSantis' alleged shortcomings in terms of relationship building and one-on-one politicking have hampered his ability to create a coalition of surrogate lawmakers who might otherwise have served to smooth his way into a presidential run. 

'Never said a single word to me'

While he continues to be decisively popular among voters in his home state of Florida, DeSantis has conspicuously struggled to exact that same level of support from his fellow lawmakers there, allowing Trump to rack up a historic margin of endorsements from Florida elected officials, many of which came while DeSantis himself was out of state, allowing Trump to demonstrate an extra layer of electoral dominance on the governor's home turf. In a particularly ironic move, Rep. Michael Waltz, the Republican lawmaker who succeeded DeSantis as the state's 6th District representative, was among the lawmakers who backed Trump. "The amazing part of it is how easy it was," one Trump adviser tells Politico, regarding engineering something of an endorsement coup against the former president's chief GOP rival.

As Rep. Greg Steube, one of the Florida Republicans who vocally endorsed Trump over DeSantis, explained to Fox News, "There have been many things [about which] I've reached out to him." He adds: "There have been events in my district that I was specifically told I could not be part of the press conference. I was told to go stand in the corner. I was not allowed to be participating in events when he was in my district. You can't win friends and influence people that way, especially in the political realm."

Former Michigan Republican Rep. David Trott served alongside DeSantis for years in the House Foreign Affairs Committee where, Trott says, the now-governor "never said a single word to me." 

"I think he's an asshole," Trott tells Politico's Eugene Daniels. "I don't think he cares about people."

The issue is less one of individual endorsements and gripes than their cumulative effect. "The snub from GOP lawmakers in his home state is particularly striking, and it's playing into the narrative that DeSantis is too aloof and inattentive to the interpersonal niceties of big-league politics," Daniels and fellow Politico analysts Rachael Bade and Ryan Lizza concluded in a recent "Playbook" newsletter. That lawmakers uniquely aware of Trump's general election vulnerabilities would still eschew DeSantis for the former president "doesn't bode well for his appeal to the common GOP voter, who probably isn't as concerned about electability, the core of DeSantis' pitch."

All of this has dovetailed with a series of awkward public appearances and a stretch of bad press over DeSantis' potential overreach in his ongoing feud with Disney and efforts to ban educational material. So it's easy to see why the concerns of both donors and fellow Republican lawmakers have gained so much traction. To that end, it's understandable why those in DeSantis' camp pushing for an immediate campaign launch would be doing so. The sooner they can wrest the narrative of the candidate back under their own control, the sooner they can reboot DeSantis' public image with the public at large — at least, that's the ostensible logic at play here (and one that's starting to be borne out in a new crop of stories placed in some conservative outlets. But as Slate'Ben Mathis-Lilley writes, "You can reboot the damn thing, but what are you gonna put on the screen when it comes back on?"

Perhaps more than anything else, that is the ultimate challenge facing DeSantis at the moment. As a governor and conservative culture warrior, he made his reputation at the front of the GOP's far-right wing. But now, with that record hanging around his neck as he struggles to maintain the networks of support that often help lift candidates from one tier to the next, where can DeSantis go from here? And once he has a direction in mind, can he actually change his trajectory to match? 

Ron DeSantis.

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