By Ali Alexander – Originally published in The American Spectator.
The public may be under the fictitious impression that a feud, instigated by former President Donald J. Trump, spontaneously broke out between him and Gov. Ron DeSantis last week. However, political operatives connected to either of the Florida-based campaigns will tell you that that just isn’t the case.
For over a year, stealth campaigns for the presidency have been underway by at least four men; Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and DeSantis.
These pre-campaigns start with consulting spouses to get buy-in, or in some cases it’s the spouse egging on the candidate. Then the courting of megadonors begins.
All presidential candidates need an independent expenditure arm to hire familiar personnel and direct millions of dollars in spending on their behalf. Consultants and operatives are told not to take permanent jobs because their services will be needed early in the presidential primary cycle.
All of that spilled into the public domain when Trump’s Save America political action committee scheduled a rally in Miami to support Sen. Marco Rubio — and only Rubio. The absence of the governor seemed to all but confirm the palace intrigue of a feud between the two. Hours later, after a DeSantis operative leaked to Politico that they hadn’t been invited or given advance notice, their team scheduled a rally to take place on that same date, on the other end of the state.
More than a week later, in Pennsylvania and just a day before the South Florida rally, Trump, whilst reading polling results of various potential contenders, amalgamated the governor’s last name to “DeSanctimonious.”
Media threw itself into a frenzy, as the president likely intended. Republican-aligned commentators who remain on Twitter, more moderate or less loyal to Trumpism, began to denounce Trump, some even endorsing DeSantis’ stealth campaign that was said not to exist. Many declared Trump too unsavvy to win a future primary election, none of them remembering 2016 when the bombastic businessman took out 17 challengers — arguably the GOP’s most talented bench ever.
But at the Miami rally, the president encouraged Republicans to turn out and reelect the governor. And he did so again at his last stop before Election Day, in Ohio with the eyes of the nation wondering if he would officially announce his third bid for the White House.
As in 2015 and 2016, no one took their eyes from Trump’s ever-escalating theater; just as the most effective living communicator designed.
At this writing there’s not a single presidential primary poll — polls that DeSantis could opt out of if he were not already running for president — that shows the governor with even half the support of Trump. Even in a crowded field, Trump gains a supermajority of respondents.
DeSantis has been intelligent not to respond to any insults or contrast in kind. Not yet anyway. But the same can’t be said for his billionaire donors and political operatives rushing to the liberal press.
Hedge-fund billionaire political donor Ken Griffin wants the GOP to “move on” from Trump and nominate DeSantis. This has a familiar ring. In 2016, Griffin backed Marco Rubio, who was in a similar position of being dubbed the future of the party, loved by conservative magazine columnists, and flush with megadonor funds. But Rubio had been tainted with Republican voters because of his role in the Gang of Eight immigration bill prior to his presidential candidacy.
The rising star and party darling fell hard to Trump’s mocking quips. Rubio attempted to earn votes by taking the high road before succumbing to attempts at similar banter that only led to the total collapse of his candidacy and exit from the race.
Griffin, who donated $500,000 to Joe Biden’s inauguration and has a history of giving to candidates of both parties, has mostly center-left positions. However, he has spent $100 million this midterm cycle for Republicans, with $10 million of that benefiting DeSantis and the Republican Party of Florida, where he’s made his new home.
DeSantis has more than $90 million of the $200 million he raised still sitting in the bank after his successful reelection. It appears Trump may have less than $69 million of the $161 million he raised this cycle.
While DeSantis’ war chest is impressive, it’s fueled by the rich, and even billionaires only have one vote. Trump’s, on the other hand, is mostly fueled by online donations from his grassroots supporters. But even more than that, Trump bested a crowded field of primary contenders in 2016 because he was immune to the negative effects of political spending that targeted him. Trump is an anomaly: an exception to the rules of political science.
Said more plainly: Money is not going to beat Trump in a Republican primary. It didn’t work when he had to climb up in the polls, and it certainly won’t work now that a majority of Republicans revere the former president.
Former Trump adviser Michael Caputo points out that, in 2016, Trump “spent the least amount of money of any of the competitive primary contenders that he beat so badly.” And he did it without a super PAC or any sugar daddies. It can’t be overstated enough; Trump spent less, he had no big-money allies on the outside, and none of the money spent against him raised his negatives with Republican voters.
So, with Trump essentially having a monopoly of the primary voters and the ability to fundraise more or nearly as much as any challenger, and with money having no effect on his support with voters, where the heck is the primary?
Even the calendar (with Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada first) and the party apparatus favor his candidacy. That’s to say nothing of his state-by-state infrastructure.
Those eager to see a primary between Trump and DeSantis imagine that media narratives play more of a role in elections than campaigns do. The contrasting between the two seems to, again when properly contextualized, actually favor Trump.
Critics point to DeSantis’ landslide victory over former moderate Republican governor turned liberal Democrat congressman Charlie Crist. Everyone dislikes Crist. Republicans wouldn’t cross over for him, and he couldn’t get all the Democrats. In fact, Crist received nearly 1 million fewer votes than Andrew Gillum did in 2018!
And that nearly “60/40” win was replicated by Rubio and the four other Republican statewide candidates. There was no DeSantis wave, but a Republican wave with the governor deserving some due.
Trump received over 1 million more votes in his 2020 reelection bid than he did in 2016, moving Florida, for many forecasters, from a purple state to a red state.
There goes another talking point!
What of this axiom “candidate quality matters” and that pro-Trump candidates lost? Republicans underperformed across the board. Trump recruited one candidate into a race, Herschel Walker, who is headed to a December runoff election. Candidates like Blake Masters and Dr. Mehmet Oz both ran away from Trump stances, like election integrity, in the general election. J.D. Vance in Ohio and Ted Budd in North Carolina only won because Trump endorsed them. Pro-Trump candidates won across the country, hundreds of them. Even the New York Times is complaining that 220 “election deniers” got into office.
Both DeSantis and Trump endorsed and held events for Kari Lake in the Arizona governor’s race. Lake has endorsed Trump for a 2024 bid.
Both the former president and governor endorsed DeSantis’ former colleague Lee Zeldin, who lost his bid to be New York’s governor.
To the contrary of the “Trump candidates” narrative, DeSantis endorsed Colorado U.S. Senate candidate Joe O’Dea, a “Never Trumper,” who lost in a stunning rebuke by voters, underperforming the margin of his RealClearPolitics polling average by double. No Trump-endorsed candidate underperformed their polling to the degree that DeSantis’ O’Dea did.
So, exclusively DeSantis-endorsed federal candidates did worse.
This wasn’t a Trump problem. He didn’t animate the abortion Left; he doesn’t run the actual national party committees; Trump has done more to fundraise and GOTV than any single private citizen in American history.
All of this was litigated to say that the midterm result narratives peddled by Trump critics just ain’t true. Not that it would’ve stood up to the electoral machinery outlined earlier if it were — but it’s not.
If DeSantis enters the official part of the presidential primary, like Rubio in 2016, he may run second in the Florida Republican primary. It’s hard to imagine a serious person like DeSantis entering a very unserious primary against the next Republican nominee, President Donald J. Trump.
Or, are some Republicans just hoping he is illegitimately indicted? Did I say the quiet part out loud?
Because that would end more than the Republican Party. It would end the republic.