3 ways Trump’s indictment could help DeSantis and 3 ways it could hurt him

One local Republican leader said voters may rally to Trump’s cause.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has not yet announced an anticipated bid for president, but the indictment of former President Donald Trump is not expected to drastically change the timing of such an announcement.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has not yet announced an anticipated bid for president, but the indictment of former President Donald Trump is not expected to drastically change the timing of such an announcement. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published April 1

The bombshell indictment of the 45th president of the United States marked a first in American history.

It also raised questions about the political fortunes of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has his eyes on becoming president No. 47.

The allies-turned-rivals storyline of former President Donald Trump and DeSantis has been the subject of intense public fascination for months. But Trump’s indictment has thrown virtually every aspect of American politics into new territory.

DeSantis has not announced a campaign for president but is expected to do so early this summer. Trump’s indictment is not likely to drastically change the governor’s potential announcement timing or his overall strategy.

Still, it could change the trajectory of the 2024 race in plenty of ways.

The Florida governor, who has seen his political stock skyrocket over the last few years, has experienced a wobble in recent weeks.

He’s been enduring sustained attacks from Trump and doesn’t have a full campaign apparatus able to respond. After receiving bipartisan criticism on his position on the war in Ukraine, he revised his stance to more forcefully condemn the Russian invasion. And earlier this week, the board DeSantis hand-picked to take over the governance of the Walt Disney Co.’s special tax district realized that Disney had quietly stripped it of its power before board members took office — threatening to rewrite the ending to one of DeSantis’ most-touted victories.

Could Trump’s indictment help DeSantis push past these setbacks? Will it rally the support of Republicans around the former president?

Here are three ways the indictment could help the governor’s standing in a 2024 contest, and three ways it could hurt him:

How the indictment of President Trump could help

1. It highlights the baggage Trump would bring to the presidency.

In public appearances, DeSantis has already subtly been making the case that he is a steady, drama-free leader. That implied contrast to Trump could feel more pronounced if the former president gets a mug shot taken next week.

Even prior to the indictment news, Republican voters who are leaning toward supporting DeSantis in a theoretical primary have been citing what they view as DeSantis’ greater electability.

“I appreciate what former President Trump has done, and what he still could do … but the American voters are fickle,” Pete Quinn, a retired military officer, said earlier this month while waiting in line for a DeSantis rally in Pinellas Park.

Trump was “swimming upstream” during his presidency, while it would be “easy” for DeSantis to win in a general election, Quinn added.

2. It could give DeSantis another chance to connect with the MAGA base.

As Trump has redefined the Republican Party, he’s cultivated a segment of the base that’s deeply loyal to him, which makes the 2024 dance that much more delicate for his challengers.

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An attendee at one of DeSantis’ book tour stops Thursday in Georgia unfurled a Trump flag while DeSantis was speaking, according to The Associated Press.

A supporter of former President Donald Trump unfurls a flag as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd at Adventure Outdoors gun store Thursday in Smyrna, Ga.
A supporter of former President Donald Trump unfurls a flag as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd at Adventure Outdoors gun store Thursday in Smyrna, Ga. [ JOHN BAZEMORE | AP ]

When DeSantis first commented on a potential Trump indictment last week, he angered the former president and some of his allies by highlighting the lurid nature of the case, which involves hush money payments paid to a porn actor over an alleged affair. He also said the state was “not going to be involved” in any way with a potential extradition.

Thursday’s more hard-line statement, that he would “not assist” in an extradition of Trump from Florida to New York — where the indictment is under seal — prompted some Trump backers to praise the governor.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz tweeted that DeSantis had made a “terrific change of heart.”

3. It provides an opportunity to show his powers as governor.

For a brief period Thursday, DeSantis’ statement raised the possibility of an unprecedented, drawn-out legal ordeal playing out in the Sunshine State. But in short order, Trump’s lawyers and officials in New York made it clear that the former president would turn himself in, making extradition unnecessary.

Still, his statement was a reminder that, unlike other 2024 contenders, DeSantis is serving in a powerful executive position.

Over and over as governor, DeSantis has expanded the powers of his office, testing legal grounds on everything from suspending local officials to drawing his own redistricting maps.

Legal experts have said DeSantis could likely only delay Trump’s extradition in this case, rather than stop it. Regardless, he continues to show that he’s willing to push the legal envelope.

How Trump’s indictment could hurt DeSantis

1. The indictment redirects all attention to Trump.

Trump and DeSantis have both shown a skill for monopolizing media attention, but the indictment assures that all eyes will be on Trump for the immediate future, even if it’s for criminal charges.

“If you’re Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Chris Christie, when they go to Iowa, they need the press to come. Instead, the press will be in Manhattan,” said Alex Conant, a Republican public relations consultant in Washington. “It kind of freezes the race — which is not all bad for DeSantis — but we should expect Trump gets a bit of a bump.”

Prior to the indictment, DeSantis had been frequently making the rounds on Fox News, sometimes appearing on the cable network more than once a day. His appearances were considered a sign that conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch was cooling on Trump.

Thursday night, Fox News hosts routinely blasted the indictment, with Laura Ingraham calling it “political vengeance.”

2. It galvanizes Republicans to Trump’s side.

The immediate reaction from many Republicans was one of concern about what they said was a politicization of the justice system against a leading candidate for president. That will make Trump the face of messaging that Republicans like DeSantis have been using for years, warning that top institutions have been infiltrated by liberals.

“Our country, our constitutional system of checks and balances, our system of justice are all better than this,” said Adam Ross, the chairperson of the Pinellas GOP. ”This indictment will not have the effect that was intended, but instead, will rally Republicans and others to Donald Trump’s cause. I think we will see people supporting him that would not have otherwise because this prosecution has terrible political ramifications.”

3. Trump will likely see a fundraising boost.

Not long after news of his indictment, Trump’s team sent a fundraising email.

“We are living through the darkest chapter of American history,” it read. “With your support, we will write the next great chapter of American history — and 2024 will forever go down as the year we saved our Republic.”

That message and others like it are expected to generate a fundraising boost for the former president. The Trump campaign said it raised more than $4 million in the 24 hours following news of the indictment.

Just hours before the indictment news, a Trump-aligned PAC rolled out a TV ad. Its focus: bashing DeSantis.