“The DeSantasy Is Over”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Holds News Conference In Miami
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
August 10, 2022

Among the Republican operatives preparing for Donald Trump’s fiercely anticipated, increasingly inevitable 2024 announcement, news of this week’s F.B.I. raid on Mar-a-Lago was more than an unprecedented political outrage—it was also an incredible electoral opportunity. The one thing that reliably unifies the G.O.P., after all, is the perception that their institutions and values are under attack from the left. And what better enemy is there—in the post-Comey, post-Mueller, post-Russiagate environment—than armed agents of Joe Biden’s Justice Department executing a search warrant of the former president’s home over something as inconsequential as, say, a dozen boxes of improperly-stored classified documents? 

It’s still unclear, of course, what the F.B.I. was really looking for in the Mar-a-Lago basement, or how the raid fits into a presumably broader D.O.J. investigation, or why the typically over-cautious Merrick Garland apparently blindsided the White House by taking such an extraordinary action. The legal implications for Trump are similarly unclear. But as a source close to Trumpworld put it to me, inadvertently quoting Rahm Emanuel, you “never let a crisis go to waste.” Absent some kind of justification from the D.O.J., which would represent a Comeyesque breach of protocol, Trump and his allies are perfectly positioned to exploit the informational asymmetry. Not since Trump’s first impeachment have all the political and media organs of the conservative movement aligned around a single, undeniably potent message: They’ll do anything to keep him from running again.

It’s also a message that Republicans believe has momentum. Indeed, the accelerating speculation surrounding Mar-a-Lago, according to multiple insiders I spoke with, is that Trump will likely move up a presidential announcement to capitalize on it. “Nobody is worried” about potential legal fallout, one Trumpworld insider said. “Everyone I talked to is galvanized and most now believe he should announce ASAP.” In an ideal world, this source continued, a pre-midterms Trump announcement could even increase voter turnout for Republicans, countering the explosion of Democratic activism following the repeal of Roe v. Wade. “But only if Republicans take advantage of it. That’s not always a given.”

There’s a hope among Trump’s allies, too, that the anti-Democratic fervor could freeze out the rest of the field, particularly Ron DeSantis. In the aggregate of MAGA battles, trolling woke millennials with corporate pressure campaigns in Florida pales in comparison to veritable political warfare with the Deep State—a culture warrior versus a holy warrior, as it were. “I think this basically makes it impossible for a DeSantis [run] now,” another Trumpworld advisor suggested. Of course, the Florida governor released a Trumpian statement of his own, likening the Biden administration to a banana republic and condemning the D.O.J. for slow-walking its investigation into Biden’s son Hunter. But for the first Trump advisor, it’s game, set, match: “The DeSantasy is over!”

Wishful thinking, perhaps, in a political-media universe where today’s outrages are quickly replaced and forgotten. DeSantis remains a popular Trump understudy, especially if his baggage becomes tiresome. But for the moment, at least, the former president’s legal woes are energizing, not enervating, the moderate center of the party that was beginning to cast around for an alternative. It also forces the rest of the potential ‘24 field—Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, Glenn Youngkin, and so forth—to make a choice: vociferously condemn the raid and support Trump’s run, keeping their powder dry for 2028, or tactfully advance the notion that the party should explore a reset under new leadership. 

“Smart ones will wait,” one MAGA consultant predicted. “But you’ll have certain Republicans who are either independently wealthy (Youngkin) or others like Tim Scott (who have establishment funding) who still might make a push” for the presidency this coming year. He added that Scott’s recent appearance on CBS, wherein he urged the G.O.P. to let the investigation “play out” before making any conclusions, was ill-advised: “Take him off my VP shortlist.”

Cheney’s Next Move

While it seems like a foregone conclusion that she will lose her seat in Congress, Rep. Liz Cheney, the powerhouse Republican-turned-MAGA apostate, appears to be setting herself up as the winningest loser in her upcoming primary against the Trump-endorsed Harriet Hagerman. She’s participated in multiple media profiles and interviews to articulate her positioning over the past few weeks, culminating in a New York Times interview in which Cheney told the paper of record in no uncertain terms that she would happily martyr herself rather than capitulate to Trump: “If the cost of standing up for the Constitution is losing the House seat, then that’s a price I’m willing to pay.” 

Cheney, after all, has already achieved national prominence and a host of cross-partisan allies in her head-spinning evolution from the arch-conservative spawn of Dick Cheney to unlikely MSNBC heartthrob and January 6th commission star. Sure, the Wyoming G.O.P. voted to stop recognizing her as a member of the party last year, as a rebuke for her continued criticism of Trump. But politics is bigger than Wyoming, and Cheney—with a campaign war chest totaling roughly $7 million—is clearly eyeing a political profile beyond Cheyenne. “I couldn’t speculate as to what she’s leaning toward or doing, [but] I think it’s just very spelled out that whatever it is, it will be designed to stop Trump,” a Cheney ally told me. 

The contours of her aspirations, beyond thwarting Trump, are entirely unknown: Could she launch a nonprofit? Join CNN as a talking head? Cheney has already (mostly) ruled out a potential ‘24 alliance with Ron DeSantis (who wouldn’t want her support anyway), foreclosing one potential avenue of anti-anti-Trump combat. The wildest speculation, of course, is that Cheney plans to launch a presidential campaign herself, presumably as a Republican, in order to publicly litigate her grievances with Trump. Whatever the case, according to allies in her circle, expect an unshackled Cheney to go all-in on her crusade. “I think she’s a little like Obi-Wan Kenobi,” remarked one anti-Trump Republican consultant. “Losing her seat in Wyoming gives her the freedom and opportunity to move around the country and rally Americans of all political stripes to democracy’s cause.” 

How to Impeach an Impeacher

Another Republican member of Congress who’d voted to impeach Trump, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, lost her primary to the very MAGA, election-denying, Trump-endorsed Joe Kent. On paper, it was close between the two—Kent won by .5 points, 22.8 to 22.3 percent—but Herrera Beutler’s margin of loss would have been a lot larger had the MAGA field not been split between Kent ad another pro-Trump Republican candidate, Heidi St. John, who won 16 percent of the vote. (There was, apparently, MAGA infighting over her refusal to drop out and back the Trump-endorsed candidate.) Thanks to Washington State’s “jungle primary” system, Kent will go on to face the first-place finisher, Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, in a runoff election in November.

I got a chance to speak to Kent back in October, shortly after he won Trump’s endorsement, about why he thought his particular America First platform (and Trump imprimatur) was superior to Herrera Beutler’s comparatively establishment brand of Washington State conservatism. “I think what the G.O.P. apparatus has done [is] they basically told the American people that the only alternative to the G.O.P. is the left,” he told me at the time. “So they essentially scare people and say if you don’t vote for us, the Democrats are going to come here. And that’s very palpable in a place like Washington [’s third congressional district]. Just to our north we have Seattle. To our south, we have Portland.”

In this context, Herrera Butler’s former victories in this district make sense—as a relatively unchallenged Republican, she regularly won re-election from 2010 through 2020, frequently with 60-plus percent of the vote. But plenty has changed, culturally speaking, from her last electoral victory. From 2017 onwards, Portland has lodged itself in the conservative consciousness as a bastion of left-leaning, antifa-driven anarchy, and Seattle joined this category after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. (This was the summer that activists took over several city blocks in downtown Seattle, temporarily establishing the police-free Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.) In this reactionary environment (right-wing militias, such as the Three Percenters, have an unusually strong presence in rural Washington), an America First-espousing, anti-liberal candidate would have cleaned up easily, and Kent’s margins would have likely been even higher if the MAGA field hadn’t been so split. Herrera Beutler’s impeachment vote likely sealed her fate.