Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is facing pressure to rehab his political standing amid new concerns about his strength in a 2024 presidential race.
The governor has taken repeated hits from former President Trump over the past several weeks and has already lost out on several high-profile endorsements, including a handful from GOP lawmakers in his state.
Meanwhile, Republican donors are expressing concern publicly and privately about DeSantis’s electoral viability and are choosing to remain on the sidelines of the nascent 2024 primary for the time being, according to two sources familiar with recent donor discussions.
“Even the people that disdain Trump and want the party to move on are keeping their powder dry,” said one Republican strategist who’s spoken to party donors in recent weeks.
One top Republican donor, billionaire businessman Thomas Peterffy, expressed those concerns publicly, telling the Financial Times in a story published over the weekend he put plans to back a likely DeSantis presidential bid “on hold” amid worries about the governor’s stance on social issues.
“Because of his stance on abortion and book banning … myself, and a bunch of friends, are holding our powder dry,” Peterffy told the newspaper. His remarks were published just two days after DeSantis signed legislation banning abortions in Florida after six weeks of pregnancy, tying himself to an issue that has proved difficult for Republicans to navigate.
DeSantis hasn’t formally launched a presidential campaign yet, and an announcement isn’t expected until May or June.
DeSantis is ‘being outflanked for now’
Recent setbacks and challenges, ranging from a poorly received comment about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to a slew of attacks from Trump and his team, have forced the governor and his allies to reckon with the often-precious realities of national political stardom.
“He’s having the growing pains of that jump from running a state-level campaign to a national campaign,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “It’s like running several races at once. He’s being outflanked right now, and if you don’t find a way to punch back and also sell your record, you’re going to have some trouble.”
After sidestepping Trump’s attacks for weeks, a super PAC backing a 2024 presidential run by DeSantis went up on the air on Sunday with a TV ad hitting Trump for “spending millions attacking the Republican governor of Florida,” while facing legal trouble in New York.
The 30-second spot from the group Never Back Down also accuses the former president of lying about DeSantis wanting to cut funding for Social Security and Medicare — a talking point used aggressively by Trump’s allies in recent weeks.
“Trump should fight Democrats — not lie about Gov. DeSantis,” a narrator says in the spot, which went up as a one-time ad buy on “Fox News Sunday.” “What happened to Donald Trump?”
That ad came after Make America Great Again Inc., the main super PAC backing Trump’s 2024 ambitions, launched ads attacking DeSantis over his past support for cutting entitlements and an anecdote in a March Daily Beast report about the Florida governor eating chocolate pudding with his fingers.
Trump’s lead grows over DeSantis
It’s not just Trump’s attacks that have weighed on DeSantis in recent weeks. Recent polling has shown Trump widening his lead over DeSantis, while the Florida governor has also suffered a series of defections from members of his state’s congressional delegation, who have endorsed Trump in the nascent 2024 Republican primary.
While some of those members, like Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.), were seen as likely to get behind Trump’s 2024 campaign, Rep. Byron Donalds’s (R-Fla.) decision this month to endorse the former president was a tough blow for DeSantis, who has counted Donalds among his allies.
In a sign of growing concern about DeSantis’s political backers, the Florida governor’s supporters have started reaching out to members of the state’s congressional delegation to press them to hold off on endorsing in the presidential primary for now. Those conversations were first reported last week by NBC News.
DeSantis is also set to travel to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to meet with congressional Republicans, including Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), Darin LaHood (R-Ill.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Chip Roy (R-Texas), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), according to a copy of the invite obtained by The Hill.
So far, Massie and Roy are the only congressional Republicans to have endorsed DeSantis’s expected presidential bid.
Trump is expected to roll out more congressional endorsements in the coming weeks, according to two people familiar with the efforts. On Monday, Trump picked up the support of four Tennessee Republican lawmakers: Sens. Bill Hagerty and Marsha Blackburn, as well as Reps. Diana Harshbarger and John Rose.
In another blow to DeSantis, another Florida Republican, Rep. Greg Steube, threw his support behind Trump on Monday night, telling conservative network Newsmax the former president is “the only person that can reverse on Day 1 all these disastrous policies of the Biden administration.”
Cause for concern? Maybe not
Still, some Republicans said there’s little for DeSantis to worry about right now, noting the Iowa caucuses — the first nominating contest for the GOP in 2024 — are still more than nine months away and that DeSantis hasn’t even announced a presidential bid yet.
Saul Anuzis, a Republican strategist and former Michigan GOP chair, praised DeSantis and his team for sticking “to their own timetable” rather than allowing themselves to be dragged into day-to-day political fights, adding that the Florida governor “is doing everything that he should be doing to prepare for a campaign.”
“He’s done extremely well in meeting with the donor community, which is kind of the critical thing at this stage in the game,” Anuzis said. “He’s been doing a lot of trips around the country. It’s very obvious that he’s serious about all this.”
“I don’t think Donald Trump has landed any blows on him yet that are really detrimental,” he added. “It’s Donald Trump being Donald Trump, and it makes Ron DeSantis look like he’s above that.”