WASHINGTON (TND) — Former President Donald Trump’s stranglehold on the GOP may be loosening as he weighs whether to launch a third presidential campaign and some of his challengers gain ground.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is Trump’s chief challenger so far in most polling and enjoys strong favorability ratings from his constituents as he has taken on the White House head-on in fights over COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines, and waded into culture wars on transgender rights, critical race theory and abortion.
For the second year in a row, DeSantis beat Trump in a straw poll at a conservative summit in Colorado and is frequently the top candidate in polls that do not include the former president. In polls that do include Trump, DeSantis has come in second place and started to close ground on Trump in some.
DeSantis has created a huge war chest during his reelection campaign for governor, amassing over $100 million this cycle. He has said he is focused on winning reelection as Florida’s governor in 2022 but has also made his rounds around the U.S. and built a national profile.
“He is playing this very smartly — speaking across the country at events, raising lots of money, and taking on (President Joe) Biden verbally whenever possible — but not revealing his plans. He is running for reelection as sovernor of Florida so he has to get that accomplished first,” said Carol Weissert, professor emerita of political science at Florida State University.
DeSantis’ most recent decision to directly go against the federal government was deciding to not order and distribute vaccines for children under 5, which were approved by the Food and Drug Administration last week.
“Doctors can get it. Hospitals can get it. But there’s not going to be any state programs that are going to be trying to get COVID jabs to infants and toddlers and newborns," he said. "That’s not where we’re gonna be utilizing our resources.”
Florida’s governor has consistently fought virtually all measures the federal government and health officials in various states have suggested to fight the pandemic. Those moves have made him a polarizing political figure but garnered wide support among the Republican base.
The former congressman was elected Florida’s governor in 2018 — an election Trump likes to take credit for turning in DeSantis’ favor through an endorsement.
Since taking office, DeSantis has consolidated power and gotten the state’s legislature to pass a series of his initiatives. He recently got the legislature to pass new redistricting maps drawn by his office.
His style to governing is different than Trump’s shotgun approach, though many of the policy objectives overlap.
“DeSantis is much more policy savvy than Trump and much more strategic. He’s not afraid to do things that no other governor has done before in Florida,” Weissert said. “He is also endorsing down-ticket candidates in a way unlike what other governors have done. He’s thinking ahead to what legislature he wants. He already has more power over the legislature than any other governor in recent memory.”
DeSantis’ popularity hasn’t gone unnoticed by the former president, who has taken some swipes at him during rallies and speeches.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Trump said he didn’t know if DeSantis would run for president.
“I don’t know if Ron is running, and I don’t ask him,” Trump said. “It’s his prerogative. I think I would win.”
DeSantis has brushed off rumors of a feud between he and Trump and said he is focused on winning reelection, though hasn’t outright said he wouldn’t run for president. His campaign has also taken on a national tone.
“You can argue that his campaign for reelection is already on the national agenda,” Weissert said. “I don’t see him changing much from a style that seems to be working well for him — taking on many issues, taking on ‘WOKE,’ Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden and Democrats loudly and in every venue possible.”
He and the Republican-controlled legislature have also taken up one of the top priorities for grassroots Republicans after 2020: election integrity.
Florida has passed a sweeping new election law after Trump and other Republicans claimed fraud in the last presidential election. It’s unclear how that will change future elections but some experts think it could harm voter turnout.
“Turnout is always a key issue in Florida and many think these efforts will have a dampening effect on turnout — particularly in deeply Blue South Florida and the highly diverse areas of Central Florida,” Weissert said.