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Is DeSantis ‘DeFuture’ of the GOP?

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We have already heard it: it’s time for Donald Trump to pack it in. And in some quarters, the heir apparent, Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, is already being hailed as the Republican Party’s ostensible “DeFUTURE.”

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Opinion

We have already heard it: it’s time for Donald Trump to pack it in. And in some quarters, the heir apparent, Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, is already being hailed as the Republican Party’s ostensible “DeFUTURE.”

Karl Rove, one of former U.S. president George W. Bush’s top spinmeisters, titled a column, “With No Red Wave, Trump Out at Sea.” The right-leaning New York Post also bashed Trump with its front-page headline, “Trumpty Dumpty.”

And in a pointed editorial, the conservative Wall Street Journal barked: “Trump Is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.”

Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is considered by many to be the only Republican capable of challenging Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.

It’s true the Joe Biden Democrats performed better than expected in November’s midterm elections, in spite of Biden’s considerable political negatives. But what they really had going for them was a GOP alternative that was simply politically unpalatable. In fact, the 2022 U.S. midterms were essentially a rejection of “MAGA extremists.”

One of the major issues was that American voters did not trust the Republicans under Trump’s tutelage. Add to that fears about the undermining of the democratic process and Trump’s endorsement of poor-quality candidates — such as Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia and Blake Masters in Arizona.

A number of GOP insiders and luminaries, then, believe Trump has become a liability for the party. They think his influence is now starting to wane — and will continue to do so over the coming years.

More and more Republicans are convinced Trump has become off-putting to moderate and independent voters. His seemingly endless legal troubles, disturbing testimony from the Jan. 6 House Select Committee and persistent rumours about justice-department indictments have all damaged the Republican brand.

Simply put, Trump’s a drag on the party whenever he’s at the centre of the political conversation.

Accordingly, Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, a conservative Republican, has called for Trump to exit the political stage. “Because he stepped in and endorsed candidates, and yet, it turns out that those he did not endorse on the same ticket did better than the ones he did endorse,” she explained recently.

She then went on to add: “That gives you a clue that the voters want to move on, and a true leader knows when they have become a liability to the mission.”

Not surprisingly, some commentators are breathlessly suggesting DeSantis’s huge election victory on Nov. 8 has turned Florida into a red state. Others are arguing he can replicate his Floridian “red wave” on a wider scale and thus bring the GOP out of the political doldrums.

Indeed, he racked up impressive vote totals — winning the state by an almost unheard-of 20 per cent — from independent and female voters.

More importantly, he garnered a 22 per cent increase from 2018 in votes from the growing Hispanic community. He even won in longstanding Democratic strongholds such as Miami-Dade, Osceola and Palm Beach. Unlike Trump, DeSantis has actually figured out that you can appeal to moderate and swing voters and the Republican base at the same time.

There are those who say DeSantis’s handling of October’s devastating Hurricane Ian also demonstrated calm under pressure and textbook crisis management leadership. Stated differently, he has the royal jelly to be a successful U.S. president, and to produce a Republican landslide in the 2024 election.

Trump’s recent “Ron DeSanctimonious” crack only underlines the real threat that the Florida governor poses to his control of the GOP. And Trump knows only too well that the party is desperately looking for a new saviour after the midterm setback.

Of course, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that DeSantis has a number of political weaknesses. His record, for instance, on mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic left the Sunshine State with some 83,000 deaths. And his predilection for secrecy, the withholding of sensitive information (remember the fiasco of sending Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard), hard-right policies such as his “Don’t Say Gay” law and a penchant for avoiding media availabilities will eventually cost him politically.

Additionally, he does not do retail politics very well, or connect with voters on an emotional level. His debate performances (which are few and far between), moreover, have been mostly unimpressive. Indeed, he comes across as stilted, tense and looking like he wants to be anywhere else other than on the debate floor.

So I’d be doubly careful about saying Trump is down and out for the political count. He still has a huge following in rural areas of many midwestern states. As Richard Walters, a former chief of staff at the Republican National Committee (RNC), confided to the Washington Post, “Turning out the Trump voters is important for the party. It just is.”

Trump also has remarkable recuperative powers, has mastered the game of media manipulation and has taken the notion of America’s “Teflon King” to a whole other level. Besides, he has a loyal base, perhaps 30 per cent of eligible Republican voters, who will never desert him.

All of this, then, will make for one battle royal between Trump and DeSantis in the coming months. Brace yourselves.

Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

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