Ron DeSantis, at a series of private dinners in recent weeks, has intensified his pitch to conservative donors that he’s better suited than former President Donald Trump to advance their agenda in the 2024 presidential race.
In several gatherings at the Florida governor’s mansion in Tallahassee, DeSantis, 44, and his wife, Casey, have tried to sell potential supporters on their path to win the 2024 Republican nomination, according to three attendees. DeSantis has cast himself as someone who would accelerate the priorities Trump set as president but without all of the drama he stirred while in office.
DeSantis and his senior campaign staff argue he can potentially win — or, at least, woo — roughly 70% of Republican voters, who either never wanted Trump in the first place, or who voted for him but now want new leadership. They expect roughly 30% of Republican voters to steadfastly support Trump regardless of what he says or does, giving him a potential edge should the primary become crowded.
Of the early primary states, the DeSantis team sees Iowa and New Hampshire as the most promising, more so than Nevada, which they consider likely to go for Trump, or South Carolina, where Senator Tim Scott and former governor Nikki Haley are expected to dominate. In a general election, they have told donors DeSantis is better positioned than Trump to win key swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or Michigan.
These private dinners come amid Republicans’ concerns over DeSantis’s upcoming campaign. Since January, his poll numbers have dropped as Trump’s have surged. Key GOP donors — including Steve Schwarzman, the billionaire co-founder of Blackstone Inc. — have walked away from private meetings with him unimpressed, and the Trump team has bludgeoned him on his congressional and gubernatorial record, all while trying to cast Trump as the inevitable GOP nominee.
This has left the DeSantis team playing catch up — before the governor has even announced his campaign for president.
DeSantis and his aides plan to take on Trump by focusing on the governor’s record on the economy and immigration as well as his handling of COVID-19 restrictions. One attendee at a recent dinner said the governor’s team says it makes no sense for DeSantis to get down in the mud with Trump, viewing that strategy as one that didn’t work for other GOP hopefuls like Florida Senator Marco Rubio or Texas Senator Ted Cruz in 2016.
Inside the room
DeSantis was joined at the donor dinners by his campaign manager, Generra Peck, his top policy adviser, Dustin Carmack, his pollster, Ryan Tyson, his finance director, Lauren Lofstrom, and senior communications aides, all of whom also mingled with donors at a cocktail reception.
Before the dinners, senior staff gave donors a detailed briefing on the governor and his potential 2024 path, soliciting suggestions and fielding questions, said the three attendees. They told donors they view national polls that show DeSantis trailing Trump as silly and that only the polling in early primary states really matters for now.
Over dinner, DeSantis walked through his policy ideas on abortion, Walt Disney Co., Ukraine and China and took questions. Regarding his clash with Disney, the governor argued he was simply trying to level the playing field to ensure other Florida companies receive equal treatment.
On Ukraine, he said he was open to continuing to support the country’s fight against Russia’s invasion but wanted to make sure the U.S. was not wasting its money. On abortion, he pointed to other governors, like Georgia’s Brian Kemp, who had signed restrictions similar to ones he’s endorsed into into law and then won re-election.
Casey DeSantis, who the governor repeatedly referred to as the “first lady,” talked about her own policy work.
A DeSantis spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some donors walked away viewing DeSantis as the best candidate to take on Trump, 76, and President Joe Biden, 80, if not the most charismatic.
One attendee said DeSantis is very cerebral and talks at people instead of with them — though the person also came away impressed by his depth of knowledge on policy. Another attendee said DeSantis has the money and infrastructure to beat Trump, whereas the next tier of GOP candidates are much further behind in national polls.
“They’ve been extraordinary meetings and ones like I have never experienced before,” said Roy Bailey, the former national co-chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign who attended a recent dinner and now plans to support DeSantis.
Implied in DeSantis’s message to donors, too, is that he could serve as president for eight years, whereas Trump is term-limited to just four years.
The governor seemed most animated, one attendee said, when he talked about his three kids, telling people his favorite TV show at the moment is “Bluey,” a cartoon about an Australian family of dogs that features a lovable but hapless dad.
By Nancy Cook, Bloomberg News