How Trump and DeSantis are already dividing the conservative movement



CNN

A deepening rivalry between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis is starting to fuel a debate among conservatives about the unofficial coronation of the Florida governor as the party’s most promising non-Trump prospect in 2024, with some prominent intellectuals and activists urging DeSantis’ superfans to pump the brakes . .

Questions about whether the former president — with his cult-like following and inimitable kind of politics — is the only logical choice or a candidate past his prime have consumed conservative donors, organizers and intellectuals as the GOP- presidential primaries are approaching, and DeSantis’ stock continues to rise.

Florida’s governor has dominated headlines after arranging for an estimated 50 migrants to be flown to Martha’s Vineyard in protest of the Biden administration’s immigration policies, and while the overtly political move drew widespread condemnation, it was equally celebrated by Trump supporters and the GOP base .

“The Trump vs. DeSantis conflict comes up daily in our office,” said Terry Schilling, executive director of the socially conservative American Principles Project. “It’s a very difficult decision.”

For months, conservatives have been quietly debating the merits of Trump vs. DeSantis and asked himself whether Trump, still caught in a web of legal troubles, is too damaged or polarizing to return the White House to Republicans and effectively implement the changes many conservatives seek. Or if DeSantis, with his “anti-woke” crusade and rising popularity, is a superior alternative to the 45th president or a political chameleon — someone who can creep toward the middle in a general election.

“I’ve heard people say that Trump was John the Baptist who paved the way for Jesus,” said a senior official at another prominent conservative organization. “I’ve also heard concerns that DeSantis is a really smart operator who reads the tea leaves and slipped into this position at the right time, so he can’t necessarily be trusted.”

Few other Republicans have drawn as many side-by-side comparisons to Trump as DeSantis, who is running for re-election as governor and has recently distanced himself from other rumored 2024 GOP hopefuls by diving headfirst into the third race of American politics with provocative features. about immigration, big business, coronavirus and education.

Trump has privately griped with aides that he made the Florida governor a star when he endorsed his 2018 gubernatorial bid and regularly issues statements through his leadership PAC trying to show his strength against DeSantis in a hypothetical matchup. An adviser to the former president said Trump “clearly feels threatened.”

Even fundraising emails from the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP campaign arm responsible for flipping the chamber, have begun framing the 2024 primary as a binary choice, asking donors to “vote Trump” or “vote DeSantis ” in recent email solicitations.

“We are fortunate to have so many great conservative leaders fighting for us like President Trump and Governor DeSantis,” one such email read.

And before giving a keynote speech at the National Conservatism Conference this month, where other rising conservative figures like tech mogul Peter Thiel and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley addressed attendees, DeSantis was introduced as “the future president of the United States.”

Concerned that conservatives might be jumping the gun, two influential conservative writers on Tuesday wrote an unusually early endorsement of renominating Trump in 2024 — the first post in what is likely to be a fraught debate within the party if both the former president and Florida governor launches campaigns at the White House.

Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Schmitz of the online magazine Compact, who warned that the conservative movement is preparing to “converge on an alternative to Trump,” argued why the 45th president — ​​for all his faults” — was supposed to be the next candidate for the Republican Party. to president.

“America’s problems are not caused by irresponsible populists, but by a predatory and unhinged establishment. Donald Trump … is the only candidate who recognizes this fact,” they write in a new edition. “He alone has broken with the conservative movement’s unquestioning support for foreign wars and the security state. He alone has challenged the economic pieties of the right. He alone offers Americans a chance to confront and chastise their failed elites.”

The duo’s Trump endorsement, published in conjunction with another writer’s endorsement in the same magazine of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination, argues that Trump is the lone Republican capable of dismantling the conservative movement , as it is currently known and build something better instead.

Some conservatives say the palpable interest in DeSantis as a pro-Trump alternative is due in part to his willingness to be even more Trumpian than the former president himself — his recent migrant flights serving as a prime example.

The move, which is said to have angered the former president, prompted a thinly veiled rebuke from Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who told Fox News immediately after the stunt: “We have to remember that these are people.”

“They’re human, so it’s very troubling to me to see them being used as political pawns one way or another,” Kushner said.

As governor during the Covid-19 pandemic, DeSantis also regularly overruled the Trump administration’s recommendations on Covid-19 restrictions, marketing his state as a safe haven from strict lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates. Florida’s governor has also touted his battles with big entities like Disney and the Tampa Bay Rays as “a lesson for people on the right” who are working to contrast themselves with Republican politicians who have long promoted corporate tax cuts and relief. (Trump has celebrated the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which lowered the corporate tax rate to 21%, as one of the crowning achievements of his presidency.)

Georgia-based conservative commentator Erick Erickson said DeSantis is one of the only Republicans who could reasonably place himself to the right of Trump in a primary on issues such as coronavirus restrictions and confronting corporate America.

“DeSantis has a record right now in the sweet spots for conservatives. They turn on Big Business and he fights it. He also has a knack for saying he can serve for eight years, not four years. That could be a big selling point,” Erickson said.

But the rush to crown the Florida governor as the best alternative to Trump has worried some conservatives, including Ahmari and Schmitz.

In an interview with CNN, they cast DeSantis as a safe choice for voters who don’t believe the conservative movement needs renewal, but “a worse choice than Trump” and “a black box” on foreign policy.

“It’s precisely because we believe that the establishment Republican Party and the mainstream conservative movement have failed America and the working class people that we want someone to continue to rank them,” Ahmari said, arguing that conservatives “still don’t know a lot about [DeSantis] since he’s been a governor, not a national politician.” (DeSantis spent five years representing Florida in the House of Representatives, but has only recently emerged as a rising star on the political right).

A former Trump campaign aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, expressed similar concerns about early support for DeSantis in the conservative ecosystem.

“Is it acceptable to start weighing our options if Trump doesn’t run? Absolutely. Maybe he will, but he’s been indicted and no longer seems electable. That’s another fair question to consider. But I think it’s a mistake to see Ron DeSantis as the heir apparent just because he’s having a moment right now,” the former aide said, speaking hypothetically of the legal issues surrounding Trump, who has not been charged with a crime.

Neither DeSantis nor Trump has formally launched a 2024 campaign, and there could be serious obstacles for either GOP heavyweight to compete at the presidential level depending on how the next few months play out.

Although the former president remains wildly popular with his base and has amassed an unprecedented war chest over his fundraising committees since leaving office, he faces numerous federal and state investigations that have already forced him to spend millions on his legal defense. In addition, Trump and his three oldest children were sued last week by New York Attorney General Letitia James for alleged civil fraud violations at the Trump Organization.

Trump has also frustrated Republican leaders and conservatives who wish he would shift his focus away from renegotiating the 2020 election, which he continues to falsely claim was stolen. Some conservatives say his intense focus on the past could fuel enthusiasm for a third bid at the White House.

“The worst thing that can happen to Trump is that he gets bored,” said the senior official at the conservative organization. “If he just runs again in 2020, he might lose. He won in 2016 because the complaints were about other things — immigration, culture — not him.”

Meanwhile, there are questions about DeSantis potentially peaking early — much the same as other governors have at the start of presidential primaries. The Florida governor is currently running against Republican Democrat Charlie Crist, and while he is widely expected to win in November, it is unclear whether the momentum behind him can now last another two years — especially if he challenges Trump, who is by far the most flammable. candidate in 2016, in a primary election.

“It’s a long time to keep the buzz up between now and the 2024 primaries. Most people in that kind of situation start to fade and someone else starts to get the headlines,” Erickson said.

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