It’s been quite the year for Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Exactly 12 months ago, on Nov. 8, 2022, DeSantis’ prospects as a politician launched into a different stratosphere when he won a second term in the Florida governor’s mansion by more than 19 percentage points.
The margin was almost unfathomable in Florida, where over the last 20 years elections for governor and president have typically come down to the wire. Even more astonishing was where he had won. Miami-Dade County, the largest county in the state and one that Democrats had long relied on to bank crucial votes, swung in the governor’s favor, as did Palm Beach County, another critical area for Democrats.
For many Republicans, the results were proof enough that DeSantis was more than just a popular incumbent; he was the kind of conservative governor who could recruit millions of voters to the Republican cause in the country’s most unpredictable swing state. In other words, he was White House material — an opinion reflected in polling that showed him within reach of former President Donald Trump.
Fast-forward a year, though, and DeSantis’ political prospects are more precarious than they’ve been at any point since 2018, when he first sought the GOP’s nomination for Florida governor as an underdog.
This time, however, the circumstances are different. He no longer has the endorsement of Trump, who is now his chief rival for the 2024 presidential nod, and he’s facing an up-and-coming challenge from former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, another White House contender who’s gaining steam in the GOP primary.
When DeSantis and other Republican contenders gather in Miami for the third GOP presidential debate Wednesday, Trump won’t even be there, choosing instead to hold a rally across town.
For some Republicans, DeSantis’ political arc is the product of various missteps and missed opportunities. For others, it’s a lesson in the risks of taking on Trump for the support of a Republican Party that remains firmly in his grasp.
“His position in the Republican ecosystem rose and fell with Trump’s favor,” said Rick Wilson, a former GOP strategist and a co-founder of the anti-Trump group The Lincoln Project. “It’s great when you’re on the drug of Trump, but the moment it gets cut off, your life changes badly and quickly.”
Here’s a look at some of the key factors that have influenced DeSantis’ rise and fall, and at whether he can regain his footing.
Though DeSantis’ interest in a White House run was widely known prior to his reelection, he didn’t announce his presidential campaign formally until May, waiting until the end of Florida’s state legislative session. Waiting allowed him to use Florida policy to bolster his resume going into election season — but it also let Trump’s team take advantage of the situation.
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During the period before DeSantis formally announced his bid for presidency, he was targeted by Trump’s team on numerous fronts. Not only did a Trump-aligned super PAC accuse DeSantis of running a shadow campaign and pursue legal action, Trump’s team deployed an onslaught of negative attacks against DeSantis — attacks that for a time went largely unchecked.
While DeSantis waited to launch, Trump also locked up endorsements from a majority of Florida’s members of Congress, a fact he emphasized earlier this year while DeSantis was meeting with lawmakers in Washington.
When DeSantis did finally launch his campaign, the takeoff was turbulent.
The Florida governor decided to make his announcement with Elon Musk on the social media platform X. At the time of the event, around half a million people tuned in to the audio livestream, which overwhelmed the servers and caused the announcement to be glitchy and filled with awkward silences.
One of the biggest factors influencing the Republican presidential primary has been completely out of DeSantis’ control: the criminal indictments leveled against the former president.
Public polls show that Trump’s standing among Republican primary voters shot up — and DeSantis’ down — following the first of four historic indictments brought against Trump. The indictments have weighed heavily on Trump’s finances. But in the months since he became the first former U.S. president to be charged with a crime, Trump’s trajectory has been on the rise.
Burning through money
Despite outraising his Republican rivals in his first six weeks on the trail, DeSantis burned through the money quickly thanks to a bloated campaign staff, a penchant for traveling by private jet and high consulting fees.
The fast spending rate raised alarm bells within the governor’s campaign. Top Republican donors and fundraisers questioned how long his operation could maintain itself and pressured campaign officials to take swift action.
DeSantis laid off roughly a third of his staff — which at its height had reached nearly 100 people — and swapped out his campaign manager Generra Peck with a trusted yet inexperienced aide from his governor’s office, James Uthmeier.
The result was a streamlined operation that relied more heavily on the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down.
The effort to cut costs, however, proved difficult for the campaign. In the third quarter of the year, which spanned from July 1 through Sept. 30, DeSantis’ team spent just about as much as it raised. And while he still has $12.3 million left in the bank, according to his most recent federal filings, only about $5 million of that can be used in the Republican primary.
Can he turn it around?
With just over two months to go before voting begins in the 2024 Republican nominating contest, there’s a growing urgency for DeSantis’ team to turn things around.
The Florida governor and his allies have bet virtually everything on a solid finish in the Iowa caucuses, believing that a strong showing there will help catapult him to subsequent wins in other key states, like New Hampshire and South Carolina. On Monday, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds threw her support behind DeSantis’ campaign, an unusual move for a sitting Iowa governor but one that was aggressively sought by DeSantis.
DeSantis also hit the airwaves in the Hawkeye State last week, kicking off an advertising campaign earlier than previously planned. His campaign attributed that decision to a “strong fundraising pace in the fourth quarter.”
Even so, DeSantis’ political prospects appear uncertain. Polling shows him trailing Trump by double-digit margins in Iowa, and one recent survey from the Des Moines Register found him tied with Haley for second place. In New Hampshire and South Carolina, the second and third states to vote, respectively, recent polls have shown DeSantis running in third place in the primary.
That hasn’t stopped DeSantis’ team from arguing that the primary remains a two-man race between him and Trump. In a Nov. 6 campaign memo, DeSantis’ top campaign officials acknowledged that they had undergone an “incredibly tumultuous summer,” but the campaign has since “rebounded.”
And his allies say that it’s time for the candidates and their supporters to rally behind one clear alternative to the former president.
“This is a race that is going to be decided by these candidates’ willingness to consolidate around a single individual,” said Jason Osborne, New Hampshire state House majority leader, who has endorsed DeSantis. “And if they get together and decide which one of them will be the guy or gal, then they’ll win. And if they don’t then, Trump will win.”
Others are skeptical that DeSantis can turn things around.
“Unfortunately, Donald Trump is leading all of them in just about every state by somewhere between 30 and 50 points,” Wilson, the Lincoln Project co-founder, said. “I don’t see how (DeSantis) makes a breakthrough with the resources he has, with the time he has.”