Ron DeSantis begins the GOP presidential primary as the clear-cut second choice of Republican voters, trailing only former President Donald Trump.
But his candidacy, apparently, isn’t intimidating other Republican candidates to stay out of the race.
The Florida governor enters a GOP presidential primary that suddenly looks as if it could feature a large number of competitors, many of whom have signaled in recent days that they are preparing a White House bid of their own.
It’s a reversal of expectations from the start of the year, when many GOP insiders thought the combined strength of Trump and DeSantis might persuade many other Republicans not to run. And it’s complicating DeSantis’ effort to make the primary a one-on-one battle with the former president, the type of matchup many Republicans think is the governor’s best bet to win the race.
Some Republicans say the governor’s recent perceived struggles — including his initial response to questions about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the conservative criticism over his ongoing fight with the Walt Disney corporation — have emboldened other candidates to enter the fray.
Jim Merrill, a longtime GOP strategist in New Hampshire, said the last few months have seen a “recalibration of expectations for the governor.”
“During this period in the first quarter, I think it opened the door for donors and candidates to say, ‘It’s a long campaign season and we’ve seen plenty of other can’t-miss prospects before, who have looked strong out of the gate but didn’t ultimately come together,’” he said. “‘So let’s take a shot at this.’”
Merrill and other Republicans emphasize that DeSantis starts the race in a more enviable position than any candidate besides Trump, popular among GOP voters nationwide and bolstered by tens of millions of dollars in banked fundraising. At least one strategist for a rival 2024 campaign predicted that the governor’s entrance to the race would also precipitate a big boost in the polls, saying he expected a “DeSantis boomlet” in the coming weeks.
And even if presidential aspirants enter the race this spring and summer, they add, there’s no guarantee they’ll last by the time 2024 rolls around.
But the continued interest from so many candidates is a sign, GOP strategists say, of how DeSantis starts the race in a different — and weaker — place than once anticipated, dogged by sinking poll numbers and beset by questions about his preparedness for the most taxing race in politics. He’s still strong, they add, just not as strong as he was after a resounding reelection victory last year.
DeSantis has lost roughly 9 points of support since March in early polls of the GOP presidential primary, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, with Trump showing a commensurate bump in support. DeSantis now receives about 20% support from GOP voters on average, compared to 53% for Trump.
Get insights into Florida politics
Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“Three months ago, Governor DeSantis was seen as the easiest way to move on, perhaps, from the Trump era,” said Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire GOP official. “I think now there’s a fair number of folks who are taking a second look.”
Duprey is close with New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who told Puck News last week that there was a “61 percent” chance he runs for president in 2024 but would wait until the end of the state’s legislative session before making a decision. (Duprey, for his part, says he hopes the governor does enter the race, although he added he didn’t know if the governor ultimately would launch a campaign.)
Sununu wasn’t the only potential presidential aspirant making headlines recently about a bid. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez reiterated over the weekend that he was considering running for president, saying he needed to make a decision “soon.” Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, meanwhile, may also announce he’s running for president imminently, according to a report.
And Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin stirred interest nationwide when he released a campaign-style video last week despite saying earlier this year that he wouldn’t be seeking the presidency — although aides to the governor insist that he’s still focused on the state’s elections happening in November.
Other candidates are seemingly emerging out of nowhere: North Dakota GOP Gov. Doug Burgum has already visited Iowa and has readied TV ads for his potential presidential launch, according to a source close to the governor.
“He would not be considering it if there was not an opening,” the source said.
DeSantis’ announcement, in fact, was the second presidential declaration this week: U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Senate Republican, formally launched his campaign on Monday in his home state. He joined a field that already includes former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Trump.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who served under Trump, is also widely seen as likely to enter the race.
Republicans familiar with the process of starting a presidential campaign caution that not all of the interest from these candidates can be directly attributed to perceptions about DeSantis’ candidacy, arguing that any launch requires months of preparation. And their campaigns could just as much be seen as a sign that they think Trump’s campaign is weak, with the former president not nearly as popular among Republicans as he was while occupying the Oval Office.
But at the very least, many also think that DeSantis’ slide has created more of an opening for someone else to emerge as the leading alternative to the front-running Trump.
“The other candidates are seeing DeSantis’ ceiling, and they’re thinking if they can surpass him, either on their own message or because of DeSantis’ stumbles, then they’re the ones who can go one-on-one with Trump and beat him in a delegate slog,” said David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida.
‘Mountain of fiction’
An abundance of candidates could, the thinking goes, threaten DeSantis’ effort to defeat Trump. Many Republicans think engaging with the former president in a one-on-one matchup is the governor’s best bet, letting him unite all different parts of the GOP electorate who might otherwise be split among the non-Trump alternatives.
A crowded field is largely credited with helping Trump win the 2016 GOP primary, in part because candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Christie spent more time attacking one another than the former New Yorker’s then-insurgent White House candidacy.
Some Republicans, however, are skeptical that a primary teeming with candidates this summer will stay that way through the race, in part because many of them will face intense pressure to exit the primary rather than stay in and unwittingly help Trump.
“Anyone can launch a vanity candidacy for president because it’s an easy way to raise your profile, sell books, and become relevant,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a Miami-based GOP strategist. “It’s a completely separate matter, and much harder, to qualify as a candidate in all 50 states and territories.”
Sopo, a DeSantis supporter, took issue with polls showing DeSantis losing support, saying he thought many of them were not accurately gauging the views of many GOP voters. In any case, he argued that DeSantis’ announcement meant the governor would soon hit the campaign trail in earnest, creating a contrast with Trump that he thought would benefit the younger candidate in DeSantis.
“There’s a lot baked into the current narrative,” Sopo said, “but it’s built on a mountain of fiction.”