National interest in DeSantis surges, sparking new round of presidential buzz

So far, DeSantis has said he’s just focused on his reelection as governor.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attends a media event for the 2022 Florida Python Challenge, an annual hunting event, on June 16 in Miami.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attends a media event for the 2022 Florida Python Challenge, an annual hunting event, on June 16 in Miami. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published July 15, 2022|Updated July 15, 2022

Ron DeSantis insists he’s focused only on trying to win his reelection race for governor this year.

The rest of the country seems ready to speculate about his political future anyway.

National interest in a hypothetical DeSantis presidential candidacy has mushroomed in recent months, drawing attention from pundits, famous industrialists and even a certain former Republican president — all debating if the Florida Republican will launch a bid for the White House as soon as next year.

It’s a boomlet, leading Republicans say, that has helped generate more interest from rank-and-file Republicans in DeSantis than all potential 2024 candidates except for former President Donald Trump. And it’s made many of them sit up and take notice, even as he campaigns to win a second term as governor.

“The name I hear most frequently talking to people is Ron DeSantis,” said Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor who said the former congressman was a constant subject of conversation during a recent cruise he took with a large group of fellow conservatives.

“What they said to me all the time is, they feel like DeSantis has the kind of guts, the same kind of backbone as Trump, but is the newer, younger, fresher version,” Walker added. “That’s what I hear repeatedly.”

Republicans emphasize that the interest in DeSantis isn’t confined to the upper echelons of their party either, percolating as much among the rank-and-file voters and leading pundits. That appears to be born out in polls of GOP voters about a hypothetical 2024 primary, where the governor has emerged as a clear second choice behind Trump.

One survey released this week, from the New York Times/Siena College, found that 49% of people who planned to vote in the 2024 GOP presidential primary said they backed Trump. The potential candidate with the second-highest share of the vote, however, was DeSantis, with 25% support.

The governor’s next-closest competitor, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, registered just 7% support in the survey, despite running once before in a GOP presidential primary in 2016.

DeSantis has also commanded an unusual amount of support from deep-pocketed and small-dollar donors from beyond Florida. Since he was elected governor in November 2018, more than 90,000 donations from donors with out-of-state addresses have poured into his Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee and his reelection campaign account, adding up to more than $50 million — more than one-third of the roughly $140 million he has raised in that period.

“The conversations that you have with Republicans in Florida, the conversations that I have with political folks out of Florida, there is a real desire to see what the governor is going to do,” said Todd Reid, a Florida-based Republican strategist and former longtime aide to Sen. Marco Rubio.

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Surges of interest in candidates, no matter how intense, can be short-lived, and political veterans caution that there’s no guarantee the early signs of support for DeSantis will last until the primary begins.

And any potential bid for the presidency would likely put him up against Trump, the man whose endorsement helped him originally win the governorship in 2018. Despite losing the 2020 presidential election, Trump retains a dedicated fan base within the GOP and is already publicly musing about whether he should announce a new campaign later this year.

The 2024 Republican primary could also feature a field filled with longtime Republican stalwarts: In addition to former President Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida are widely seen as considering bids for the GOP presidential nomination.

Any DeSantis bid would also almost certainly depend on him winning reelection this year. Democrats, in fact, have begun to use the perception of DeSantis’ White House ambition against him in their race.

“He cares more about running for the White House than your house,” said Charlie Crist, a Democratic gubernatorial nominee, in an ad released Thursday.

Crist is seeking the Democratic nomination along with Nikki Fried, the state’s commissioner of agriculture.

But even if no one can predict the future, Republicans say DeSantis’ popularity with conservatives is real, at least for now.

Peter Feaman, a member of the Republican National Committee from Florida, said DeSantis has more appeal with the GOP base than any Republican politician he’s ever seen, including former Govs. Jeb Bush, Crist and Scott.

“I’ve been there with Bush, Crist, Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis,” Feaman said. “I’ve never seen someone more popular with Republicans. It’s amazing.”

Some Republicans are already taking the unusual step of encouraging DeSantis to get into the presidential race. Ready for Ron, a political action committee, formed in May to collect signatures of potential DeSantis supporters that, pending a decision from the Federal Election Commission, it hopes to give the governor if he declares as a candidate. It’s similar to an effort launched before Hillary Clinton announced her own presidential campaign in 2016, known as Ready for Hillary.

“A lot of different factors contribute to his popularity, and it’s just continued to build,” said Lilian Rodriguez-Baz, legal counsel for Ready for Ron. “It didn’t happen overnight.”

Republicans and conservatives, however, aren’t the only ones who have taken notice of DeSantis. The governor has been the subject of a June profile in the New Yorker, a conditionally supportive tweet from billionaire industrialist Elon Musk and an attack ad from, of all people, California Gov. Gavin Newsom. The cross-country Democratic rival aired an ad criticizing DeSantis over the Fourth of July weekend.

Related: DeSantis on Elon Musk 2024 support: ‘I welcome support from African Americans’

He was also criticized by Vice President Kamala Harris, who in Orlando on Thursday took issue with the governor’s support for restricting abortion rights.

DeSantis has brushed off the criticism.

“Everybody wants to talk about me and Florida,” he said last week. “I’m just sitting here, little old me doing my job.”

Walker, the former Wisconsin governor, said he would encourage DeSantis and others to get into a presidential primary, even running against Trump.

“It’ll be good to have a debate about the future of the party and the future of the country,” he said.