In the wake of their party’s historically poor midterm election performance, rank-and-file Republicans have more or less acknowledged that the GOP must move on from Donald Trump in order to remain electorally viable.
There is a quiet but clear preference among party leaders and conservative-leaning media for Trump to fade into the background, and for Florida’s popular governor, Ron DeSantis, to helm the party in 2024.
There is no question about it: Donald Trump is political quicksand for the Republican Party. His decision to dine at his Mar-a-Lago home with Nick Fuentes, a notorious antisemite and white supremacist, underscores both the political risks to the Republican Party — as well as the real risks to the country — if they continue embracing him.
On the other hand, DeSantis has been aptly described as “Trump with brains and without the drama.” The Florida governor largely imitates Trump’s policies and positions: he stokes culture wars, decries the “woke” left and exploits divisive social issues for political gain.
As governor, DeSantis has treated migrants as political pawns by sending them on planes to Martha’s Vineyard without warning, penalized Disney for diverging from his political views, politicized LGBTQ rights and has an A+ rating from the NRA.
While DeSantis largely channels Trump, he does so without the corruption on multiple fronts — including but not limited to mishandling classified documents, the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, tax issues with the Trump Organization — as well as the obviously ill-advised decisions Trump has made about what he has said and who he has met with.
Though I disagree with DeSantis more often than not, he is clearly a more politically savvy and policy-oriented version of Trump. In turn, he is likely Republicans’ best shot at winning the White House, the Senate and maintaining control of the House in 2024.
DeSantis is a fighter like Trump, but he goes to bat over policies and issues, rather than personal vendettas. He rarely loses his temper, veers off message or resorts to ad hominem attacks and petty insults. On the other hand, Trump’s proclivity for public spectacles and personal attacks overshadowed most of his policy achievements.
While DeSantis appeals to the right by being their culture warrior, his statesmanlike demeanor and generally successful economic and crime policies — which have turned Florida into an increasingly popular destination for those fleeing high-tax and high-crime cities in the Northeast and on the West Coast — have allowed him to make inroads with voters in the middle in a way that Trump was never able to.
An important note: DeSantis carefully chooses which elements of the right’s cultural agenda to elevate. Recognizing that an all-out abortion ban would be political suicide in a purple state, DeSantis signed into law a 15-week abortion ban, which has national support and is one of the least restrictive bans implemented by a red state.
Put another way, DeSantis, unlike Trump, knows how to win elections, and has the track record to prove it.
He won reelection by nearly 20 points this year, the widest margin of victory in a Florida gubernatorial race in decades, and also generated a statewide red wave. Just as significantly, he won with the support of independents, Latinos, women and suburban voters, which are the precise groups Republicans need to court in order to be successful in national elections.
Though some post-midterm election polling suggests that Republican and Republican-leaning voters now prefer that DeSantis is the party’s nominee in 2024, other polls still show Trump with a clear advantage.
It is notable that DeSantis is favored among more moderate Republican voters, while Trump leads with “strong” Republicans — a dynamic that could ultimately result in Trump winning the nomination, as primary voters generally tend to be more partisan.
Admittedly, the Republican Party will almost certainly not be able to make a clean break from Donald Trump — or make a decisive pivot to Ron DeSantis — before the next election.
The largest roadblock to a new era for the GOP is Trump himself, who would prefer to bring down the entire party rather than see someone else eclipse him as the party leader.
Trump has already declared that he intends to seek the presidency again in 2024, and is simultaneously facing a possible indictment for his removal of classified documents from the White House.
We know that Trump would use an indictment to rile up his base, and it is difficult to envision a scenario in which the Republican Party is able to conduct a standard primary election centered on policy, rather than on Trump, should he face charges.
Further, many other Republicans could also throw their hat in the ring, including Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, and the GOP primary field could end up looking a lot like the Democratic field initially did in 2020, when more than two dozen candidates were in the running.
A crowded Republican primary would almost guarantee that Trump wins the nomination, as more moderate voters will likely spread out their votes between the non-Trump candidates, while the Trump wing of the party will back their leader.
If that scenario comes to fruition, it would be wise for Republicans to coalesce around the most viable general election candidate, likely DeSantis, just as Democrats backed Joe Biden ahead of Super Tuesday in 2020.
But unlike Bernie Sanders in 2020, Donald Trump will not concede gracefully, and won’t go down without bringing the entire Republican Party down with him.
Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.