Somewhere far, far away from a courthouse where Donald Trump will soon be martyring himself, Ron DeSantis is tearing out his hair. The great hope for him, his backers, and the party’s remaining anti-Trumpers was that the base would tire of the former president, his losing streak and legal baggage, and pick a winner in the drama-free DeSantis. Instead, the opposite has happened: the median Republican voter is energized and belligerent over Trump’s latest and gravest indictment—his third in five months—and tuning out whatever high-minded policy debates his challengers hoped would break through. “This is the first Republican primary that is almost content free,” a Republican insider moaned. “We’re not talking about different tax plans. We’re not talking about different health care plans. We’re not talking about different visions on foreign policy.”
Worse, in a primary that requires Trump’s rivals to distinguish themselves, anyone with a hope of winning the ’24 nomination has been forced to sympathize with Trump’s legal predicament, if not take his side. “It’s hard to separate yourself when you agree that your political opponent is being politically persecuted,” a source familiar with the DeSantis strategy acknowledged. In a perfect world, the DeSantis campaign would be executing the “reset” it promised donors after weeks of gut-punch headlines: slumping poll numbers, out-of-control spending, sputtering fundraising, spooked donors, mass layoffs, the Generra Peck versus Jeff Roe blame game, etcetera. Instead he’s spending his time talking about purging the Justice Department—and still getting labeled a squish.
It’s a humbling fall from grace for a candidate who cruised to re-election in Florida last November by a whopping 19 points and then vowed to “Make America Florida.” But several DeSantis allies close to the campaign told me that’s precisely the problem: DeSantis, at his core, is still running a Florida gubernatorial campaign, not the national presidential campaign he needs to win.