Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has been firing barrage after barrage in the culture wars — a strategy that many Republicans see as an effort to raise his profile and differentiate himself from former President Trump in advance of a 2024 run for the White House.
Virtually everyone in political circles expects DeSantis to make a presidential run.
Some of the incendiary issues he is embracing — especially around race — could pose challenges in a general election. But DeSantis, fresh off a big reelection win in Florida, seems happy to take that chance for the moment.
On Monday, he defended the decision, announced last week by the state’s Department of Education, to reject a proposed advanced placement course on African American studies.
To critics, the move amounted to Orwellian race-baiting. But DeSantis placed the ban in the context of his general opposition to what he derides as “wokeness,” insisting “education is about the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of ideology or the advancement of a political agenda.”
That followed on the heels of a several moves catering to populist conservatives.
DeSantis has recently sought to make bans on COVID-19-related mandates permanent — and make it harder for medical boards to reprimand dissenting doctors who are accused of spreading misinformation.
He has requested, and last week received, an accounting from Florida’s public universities of the money they spend on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
He has also sought aggregate data from those same colleges about gender dysphoria treatment of students. And, last month, the Florida Supreme Court accepted his request to set up a grand jury to investigate any alleged wrongdoing relating to COVID-19 vaccines.
Every one of those moves has drawn media attention and liberal outrage — and that, of course, is part of the point.
“It really boils down to picking a fight with the right perceived opponents,” said GOP strategist Kevin Madden. “And if you are in the earliest stage of a 2024 primary, that can be picking a fight with the media, or the education establishment, or picking a fight with liberals driven by ‘political correctness.’ ”
Madden continued: “There is some risk involved in that. Some of the issues play differently in a general election and with suburban voters and more moderate voters. But when you are trying to make a name for yourself and at the break-out stage, you are not thinking of that.”
DeSantis is clearly the most serious challenger to Trump for the GOP nomination. Even though the former president leads most surveys, the Florida governor is way out ahead of every other alternative.
In an Economist/YouGov poll earlier this month, for example, Trump received 44 percent support from registered voters in a hypothetical GOP primary with DeSantis on 32 percent. The next best-placed candidate, former Vice President Mike Pence, registered a mere 5 percent.
DeSantis and his advocates are rumored to see a vulnerability for Trump on COVID-19, particularly given the skepticism expressed by many Republican voters about vaccines, masks, mandates and public health advice in general during the pandemic.
Trump has boasted about his administration’s role in speeding the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. But he was booed by an otherwise supportive crowd in late 2021 when he acknowledged having received a booster shot.
DeSantis has acknowledged getting an initial vaccination but does not appear to have ever said whether he got a booster.
Republicans sympathetic to Trump have little patience for what they see as DeSantis’s posturing on the issue. They note that DeSantis was at one time a strong advocate for vaccinations, and that Trump was himself opposed to mandates.
“There has been a lot of whitewashing of DeSantis’s record on COVID, which in a lot of ways is pretty similar to Trump’s record. DeSantis’s entire policy on vaccines was no different than Trump’s at all,” said one GOP operative supportive of Trump.
The pro-Trump operative, granted anonymity to speak candidly, also contended that DeSantis’s strength could wilt under the heat of a full-on presidential campaign.
“Everybody in the country knows what they think about Donald Trump and their views are not going to change. Trump has a very concrete floor of support,” this source said. “Conversely, voters — including those that currently like him — do not have as concrete a view of DeSantis. He’s never proven he can take a punch in the face, and he has a lot more room to fall than Trump does.”
But DeSantis has one big advantage right now that Trump does not: he holds office. That means he can wield actual power and prove to conservative activists that he can put his money where his mouth is.
“He has got to solidify himself with that base Republican vote and these cultural issues matter a lot. They are very emotional and emotion drives a lot of voting, especially in primaries,” said GOP strategist Keith Naughton.
By using the levers of power, Naughton added, DeSantis gets to play one of his best cards — the argument that that he brings competence in contrast to Trump’s chaos.
“Trump is struck with his record from his administration,” Naughton said. DeSantis “is trying to one-up Trump on the competence issue.”
Whether that works remains to be seen. But the first shots of the 2024 primary are already being fired.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.