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Don’t look now, but it sure feels like the full Republican presidential field is going to take a minute to settle itself down.
That doesn’t mean the would-be contenders are sitting around and killing time. No, in fact if they’re doing anything, they’re using the pre-season to essentially re-pave the political runway so they take off with some fresh wins behind them. They are shining their existing credentials and road-testing their messages to see what riles up supporters. And nowhere is this experiment more on display than the almost-dozen current and recent Governors looking at trading their state CEO roles for national ones.
Take Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who won in 2018 by a narrow 1 percentage points and roared to re-election last year by almost 20 points. At his glitzy—if disorganized—second inaugural last week in Tallahassee, DeSantis sounded every bit like a declared White House hopeful, using Reaganesque rhetoric to preview an anti-progressive agenda tailored for those who fit his base’s image of Americanness, all wrapped in a hostility toward elites and elitism.
“We reject this woke ideology. We seek normalcy, not philosophical lunacy. We will not allow reality, facts, and truth to become optional. We will never surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die,” DeSantis roared, offering what may be the cleanest summation of mainstream Republican rhetoric heading into 2024.
At least for now, DeSantis appears to have secured the role of leading heir to Trumpism fairly well, although not absolutely. Plenty of other governors in particular are hoping to steal his thunder in the coming months. Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, and Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota are all polishing their Trumpian rhetoric even as they to varying degrees have downplayed their presidential ambitions. Others, like New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, are tinkering with Trumpism, using the parts that spark enthusiasm without burning down their majorities.
Look at those current Governors—and their statements, legislative agendas, and travel—for hints about what at least some in the Republican Party see as a winning agenda, at least in a primary. Youngkin, an early test for how to run as Trump without the baggage, pushed a “parents matter” agenda and promoted $1 billion in tax cuts. He spent the fall jetting around helping fellow conservatives’ campaigns. Abbott consolidated power like few before him in a state with an historically weak governorship and is sure to continue pushing challenges to Biden’s agenda. Noem for a while was basically a one-person tourism board, promoting the state on Fox News like none other and introducing herself as an attractive and younger conservative and a contrast to DeSantis. Even Sarah Huckabee Sanders, on the job mere hours, banned the use of Latinx as too P.C. in Arkansas, a state now with a father-daughter pair of governors.
But perhaps the crowning Gov to be testing routes to a national launch is DeSantis, whose inaugural address might well become a playbook for other Republicans looking to chase the presidential nomination across the fields of Iowa, through the valleys of New Hampshire, and down the Las Vegas Strip flinging political red meat. DeSantis is as popular as he’s ever been, has built a record-breaking finance team, and has Trump’s team spooked. Democrats failed last year to stop him before the starting line, as TIME’s Molly Ball reports. Still, DeSantis has his legislature gathering in Tallahassee for this term, and he’s telling would-be supporters that he won’t make any moves until this session ends in May. That means DeSantis might not join the contest until June or even after the July 4 holiday. In turn, that may freeze at least some of the field.
Some recent head-to-head polls, like one from YouGov/ The Economist, show DeSantis is ahead of Trump by 15 points. That same poll found a majority 56% of voters don’t want to see Trump run again. Another from Suffolk University shows Trump trailing DeSantis by 23 points, while DeSantis defeats Biden by 4 percentage points in that hypothetical matchup and Trump losing to Biden by seven. And a third, from The Wall Street Journal, showed Trump chasing DeSantis from 14 points behind.
DeSantis’ fortunes are strong—as long as he is the only one challenging Trump. In a fractured field, DeSantis sinks and Trump rises, much as was the case in 2016 when Republicans failed to coalesce around a leading alternative to Trump. This time, as before, plenty of Trump apprentices are sharpening their impression of his populist rage, his anti-illegal immigrant seething, his purposeful trolling. And that could spell a re-nomination of Trump.
Still, at least anecdotally, rank-and-file Republicans last year seemed to have been ready to turn the page on the Trump era. Sure, he was the biggest name in politics—in either party—but there remains something about Trump that doesn’t quite sit as quaintly as it did before Jan. 6, 2021, particularly after a select House committee spent much of last year painting in exquisite detail all the ways he encouraged a failed, but deadly, insurrection.
All of which helps explain why GOP donors are looking for an alternative with more fervor than they have in years. They’re shopping for someone who can animate the Trumpists in the party without the baggage. One-time Trump insiders like former Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are all laying the groundwork to challenge their old boss, or at least be ready should he stumble. But only the sitting governors are in a position to actually wield an agenda that might make base voters sit up and take notice.
And that’s why the first half of this year will feature plenty of DeSantis honing his anti-D.C. messaging. “Decline is a choice. Success is attainable. And freedom is worth fighting for,” DeSantis said, standing at the statehouse branded the base of “the free state of Florida.” “The threats can come from entrenched bureaucrats in D.C., jetsetters in Davos, and corporations weidling public power. But fight, we must.”
Fight? Yes. Rush to run? Not yet. After all, there’s still time to tweak that messaging to get it right—and maybe block others who would adopt it.
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