Is the G.O.P. the Party of DeSantis?

Ron DeSantis
Photo: Paul Hennessy/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
May 25, 2022

Every time someone asks me whether Ron DeSantis or Ted Cruz or Mike Pence or whoever has a chance of taking on Donald Trump in 2024, I’ve always offered the same answer: It depends on who best embodies MAGA, in all its chest-thumping, millenarian splendor. Admittedly, that classification can be a bit fuzzy. For the past seven (!) years, ever since Trump had a hat-branding brainwave, channeling the America First ethos has meant emulating Trump’s stage persona: who can write the angriest tweets, who can come up with the meanest nicknames, who has the wildest conspiracy theories, who can best suck up to Trump within the next five minutes and get a nice tweet in exchange. 

But as I’ve watched the Republican primary results roll in, it’s been fascinating to see which factors are actually carrying Trump-endorsed candidates over the finish line—especially during a midterm cycle that’s already stacked in the G.O.P.’s favor. In fact, a substantial number of Trump’s candidates suffered major losses at the ballot box yesterday, particularly in races that pivoted on Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that the 2020 election was stolen. Election security may be a salient issue, but Trump’s obsessive focus on re-litigating the last war doesn’t seem to be winning new converts. 

Last week, I made the case that Trump—marooned in Mar-a-Lago, licking his wounds, greeting sycophants and moonlighting as a tech entrepreneur—has grown out of touch with the movement he spawned. Perhaps as serious, he appears to have lost some of his touch with moderates, too. This aloofness was best evidenced by the recent results in Georgia, the ground zero of his “stolen election” claims. Governor Brian Kemp, a target of Trump’s fury ever since he certified Joe Biden’s 2020 win, crushed his Trump-endorsed challenger, David Perdue, by a brutal 50 points, thanks to an assist from the Republican Governors Association. (A last-minute appearance by Mike Pence may or may not have moved the needle, but it was certainly a salty rebuke of Trump.) Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr also posted an equally massive 50-point lead against the Trump-backed John Gordon. And, in the highest-profile rebuke, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—the Republican who famously refused to cave to Trump’s demands to “find” 11,870 votes in Georgia—received 52.3 percent of the vote, handily beating Trump’s pick, Rep. Jody Hice, by a 19-point margin. (Adding further insult to injury, Hice had given up a perfectly safe Congressional seat to run at Trump’s behest.) 

It’s looking grim for Trump in Alabama, too. Rep. Mo Brooks, whom Trump had un-endorsed in March when he flagged in the polls, doggedly held on, came in second in the primary, and now faces a runoff against Katie Britt, the former Chief of Staff to outgoing Senator Richard Shelby. Both candidates have walked the line between “there was possibly election fraud in the 2020 election” versus “Trump is the rightful president and needs to be reinstalled immediately.” But Brooks’s continued viability is impressive, considering his revelation that Trump had asked him to rescind the results of the Electoral College and reinstall him as president after the January 6th riots, a request that he’d refused. There is, apparently, a fine line between airing concerns about election fraud—a familiar G.O.P. talking point that’s successfully been deployed for decades—and feeding the Constitution through a paper shredder.

What Can Trump’s Money Buy?

In the zero sum game of the MAGA-era Republican party, the most obvious beneficiary of Trump’s stumbles is DeSantis, who for his part, has explicitly quarantined his career from the vagaries of the news cycle, refraining from wading too deeply into any political matter that has nothing to do with the governance of Florida. He is, however, notably excellent at waging nuclear-scale culture wars within the controlled boundaries of the Sunshine State—the latest being his law to punish social media companies for “censoring” conservatives, which was struck down by an appellate court on Tuesday—which then received nationwide attention. In a way, that laser focus has given him an advantage over Trump, who cannot refrain from weighing in on every campaign or election, and as a result, is building an increasingly disappointing win/loss record in full public view. As I’ve noted in the past, the people around DeSantis believe that there’s no sense in openly challenging Trump for anything until he officially gets re-elected as Governor in November, and are spending the next few months A/B testing what specific cuts of red meat should be fed to the base. Unlike Pence, whose high-profile stumping suggests an urgent need to build a Trumpless MAGA-friendly brand, or Cruz, a former 2016 challenger running an endorsement proxy war against Trump this cycle, Team DeSantis can afford to refine his strategy to win a national primary simply by watching MAGA influencer livestreams as he signs legislation against Disney.

But I can’t imagine that he, or Pence or anyone else, didn’t spend last night scanning the election results for clues as to which Trumpian agenda items are resonating. Indeed, a number of meaningful trends emerged that will collectively provide the contours of ‘24. First, for months, Republicans have been fretting about the delicate way to handle Trump’s claims that his election was stolen without going into full-blown, Sidney Powell “kraken theory” territory. So far, the winning message has been a combination of calling for stricter voting laws—perhaps even saying there may have been some irregularities in 2020—but stopping short of any discussion over whether Biden’s presidency is illegitimate. Raffensperger’s win shows that someone who prominently and actively opposed Trump’s attempts to overturn election results can still win elections by a decisive, large amount. 

But more importantly, he did so without going full #Resistance on Republican voters: last year, as the Department of Justice began investigating Georgia’s new and increasingly restrictive voting laws, Raffensperger filed a FOIA request demanding any records of contact between the D.O.J. and Georgia Democrat Stacy Abrams. It’s perfectly within the America First ethos, but stops short of being too wackadoo—not unlike the MAGA needle-threading election police force that DeSantis signed into existence last month. (Notably, Raffensperger also won Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Congressional district, by a whopping 20 points, even though Greene, who won her race as well, is one of the loudest proponents of election fraud theorists in Congress.)

Second, Trump money might not be smart money. I cannot stop cackling over this deeply-reported New York Times story dissecting how Kemp absolutely destroyed Perdue, using the power of his office to outmaneuver him and block off access to allies and donors, and heavily suggests that Perdue took the power of Trump’s endorsement for granted and thus put minimal effort into the race. (Killer detail: Perdue, the former C.E.O. of Dollar General, spent $500,000 of his own money on the governor’s race—less than the $3.8 million he spent on his 2014 Senate race, and a fraction of the $5 million he invested last year on a new lakehouse, fresh off his Senate loss to Democrat Jon Ossoff.) The simple, obvious lesson is that one should put effort into running for office. But it does also raise the question of what Trump’s money can buy, if establishment forces can cut off a MAGA candidate’s access to assistance from powerful interest groups. Trump’s donation of $2.64 million to pro-Perdue groups was the most he’d ever invested in another politician, but Perdue still lost by an embarrassingly large, 52 percent margin. What does that say about how well Trump can manage his own estimated $100 million war chest, if he’s using it to fight states’ G.O.P. establishments?  

Third: Timing matters. The highest-profile Trump endorsement win so far may be Rep. Ted Budd, who received Trump’s endorsement in June 2021, and thus had ten months to capitalize off that endorsement. Budd, who also got a thumbs up from Pence, thrashed the establishment pick, Pat McCrory, in the North Carolina G.O.P. Senate primary on Tuesday, by more than 30 points. In contrast, Trump dramatically endorsed Dr. Mehmet Oz with barely weeks left in his bitter primary race against opponent David “Dave” McCormick; as of today, Oz is barely clutching onto a roughly 1,000-vote lead. (That lead might shrink, or be overturned, thanks to McCormick filing a lawsuit on Tuesday demanding that uncounted, undated mail-in ballots be tallied—ironically, echoing the Democrats’ position on what sort of mail-in ballots should be counted in Pennsylvania.) As Perdue was getting his ass kicked on Tuesday, Trump was bemoaning on Truth Social that Oz would have won if he’d announced his endorsement earlier: “I endorsed him very late, many days AFTER Early Voting began, and it was then that he started to do really well.” 

The Nixon Paradigm

For all the awful things he did, Richard Nixon still had his fans. According to Gallup polling conducted at the time he resigned, in 1974—two years after he destroyed George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election with 60 percent of the popular vote—Nixon had a disapproval rating of roughly 66 percent. But against all reason, some 25 percent of Americans still thought Tricky Dick was A-OK. His approval number did slide down over time, especially after David Frost’s famous televised interviews, but no matter: millions of Americans still went to the grave believing that Nixon did nothing wrong. Or, if he was a crook, at least he was their crook. 

I’ve been thinking about Nixon’s post-presidential afterlife quite a bit these days, as Republicans grapple in real time with the paradox of Trump’s diminished but still formidable political power. The post-Nixon G.O.P., after all, had little difficulty moving on from its former figurehead without alienating or expelling his most pertinacious supporters, even as Nixon strove to keep himself in the public eye with the Frost interviews, a memoir, and various high-profile diplomatic engagements. By then, of course, the party had already moved on: After one term of Jimmy Carter, who oversaw an energy crisis, rampant double-digit inflation, a recession and the expulsion of American influence in Afghanistan, they rallied around Ronald Reagan and won 1980 in a landslide. Sound familiar? Not for nothing has Ed Rollins, Reagan’s 1984 campaign chairman, just launched a PAC called Ready for Ron, aimed at drafting DeSantis for 2024.