Inside the Florida statehouse, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Republican allies say they’re working “at warp speed” to finish their legislative business.
In South Carolina and Nevada, early voting states that are critical in a presidential primary, his operatives are moving quickly to build out a political team that is essentially a campaign in waiting. And in Washington, his most vocal supporters are urging him to announce his White House intentions now.
Just six months after a dominant reelection sent his national stock soaring, a palpable sense of urgency is growing among DeSantis’ allies as increasingly emboldened critics within his own party — particularly former President Donald Trump — work to undermine his presidential campaign before it begins.
Questions about DeSantis’ apparent slide followed him to Japan on Monday as he launched a multi-country international trade mission.
“I’m not a candidate, so we’ll see if and when that changes,” the Florida governor told reporters in Tokyo.
The answer, a consistent refrain from DeSantis for much of the year, is frustrating some allies who worry that it’s time to move even faster.
“I would prefer him to be in the race right now. In fact, I encouraged him to get in the race right now,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who hosted a visit by DeSantis to Washington last week that was overshadowed by Trump’s efforts to pick off support among Florida’s congressional delegation.
In an interview, Massie, who is one of just three members of Congress who has endorsed DeSantis for 2024, acknowledged the governor is losing some political strength.
Many GOP voters have rallied behind Trump in the wake of his recent criminal indictment in New York. Some DeSantis donors are pausing their donations, citing concerns about his readiness for the national stage. Other would-be supporters have begun to worry that the policy victories he celebrates in Florida — including the six-week abortion ban he signed earlier in the month and an ongoing crackdown on Disney, the state’s largest employer — may ultimately become political liabilities.
“If there is any urgency, it’s to make sure no third-place candidate emerges. Right now, it’s a heads-up race between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis,” Massie said. “The urgency I feel is, the more cats and dogs that get in the race, the more they could siphon from Ron DeSantis.”
The Republican Party won’t formally choose its next presidential nominee until August of next year at its national convention. But with the first presidential debate little more than three months away, several Republicans have launched campaigns already. More are expected to join in the coming weeks.
DeSantis, who has operated for much of the year with a quiet confidence that he could enter the race on his terms, isn’t likely to make any announcements until after the state legislature concludes its business in early May. Some allies initially believed he might wait until as late as early summer to enter the race, but with the political landscape shifting, they now expect him to announce as early as the week of May 8, but more likely around the end of the month.
DeSantis’ decision is complicated, at least in part, because the Republican-controlled state legislature has yet to overturn Florida’s so-called “resign to run” law, which prohibits elected officials from qualifying as a candidate for another office that would overlap with their current term. Republican House Speaker Paul Renner said last week that he’s confident the change would make it through the Legislature in the coming weeks.
As DeSantis prepares to launch, the Republican statehouse supermajority has worked at a rapid pace to carry out the governor’s conservative cultural agenda. In a sign of their ongoing compliance, lawmakers last week began to move legislation that would further solidify DeSantis’ control of Disney World’s governing body, the latest spat in the Republican governor’s extraordinary feud with the private business.
Florida state Rep. Spencer Roach, a Trump critic allied with DeSantis, noted that the state Legislature has been conducting its business “at warp speed” this spring. The accelerated pace, he said, is likely to allow DeSantis to shift his attention to the 2024 contest as soon as possible.
Roach downplayed any sense of urgency around DeSantis’s announcement, but acknowledged Trump’s merciless attacks against the Florida governor may be taking a toll. Indeed, Trump has been almost singularly focused on tearing down DeSantis, whom he calls “Ron DeSanctimonious” and “Meatball Ron.” The kitchen-sink assault on social media, in speeches and in paid ads covers everything from DeSantis’ past policies on Social Security to his character and even his sexuality.
Trump’s jabs on Social Security and Medicare have been particularly effective, Roach conceded.
“I have had elderly constituents and even members of my family say, ‘Hey, I’m a little worried,’” Roach said. “Those attacks are landing.”
To that end, the DeSantis-sanctioned super PAC, Never Back Down, is taking aggressive steps to build out what appears to be a campaign in waiting across several key states. The super PAC, which has reported $30 million in the bank so far, is based in an Atlanta office with roughly two dozen paid staff.
As of Friday, the group said it had installed at least six paid staffers on the payroll in each of the first four states on the Republican presidential primary calendar: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Each state features a director, political director and a field director, among others.
The super PAC has also established 28 Students for DeSantis chapters across 18 states, including the first four on the calendar and others in subsequent primary states like Alabama, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. Several more are already in the works.
Most of the announced candidates don’t have that much manpower on the ground so far.
“This really is based on people who are excited and in these states craving action now,” said Kristin Davison, Never Back Down’s chief operating officer. “We want to give them a vehicle and infrastructure to convert their enthusiasm into action.”
Davidson pushed back against the negative narrative developing around DeSantis, who isn’t even an announced candidate. “Some of the D.C. headlines are just disconnected from the reality of what we’re seeing on the ground,” she said.
As DeSantis wraps up his business in Florida, the super PAC has begun to give him protection from Trump’s attacks on the airwaves.
The group’s first paid ad, which ran earlier this month on Fox News, knocked Trump for attacking fellow Republicans: “Trump should fight Democrats, not lie about Gov. DeSantis,” the narrator says.
But the group invested much more in a positive ad highlighting DeSantis’ background and record in Florida, which ran on broadcast television in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina last week. The super PAC believes that DeSantis’ name is well known among primary voters, but most don’t know about his origins.
To that end, the group distributed its first mailer last week to likely primary voters in the same four states noting the DeSantis family’s “humble beginnings” in Pennsylvania and Ohio, his participation in the Little League World Series, his military service and his political victories in Florida.
“Ron DeSantis: A blue-collar backbone forged with steel,” reads the main headline on the mailer, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
And while the super PAC is spending millions to ensure DeSantis has momentum when he gets into the race, DeSantis himself has only just begun to introduce himself to voters beyond Florida.
He made one trip to Iowa last month, but he hasn’t returned since, even as his rivals flock to the first-in-the-nation primary voting state. DeSantis was notably absent this weekend as Iowa’s religious conservatives gathered for the state’s Faith and Freedom Coalition spring meeting.
Steve Scheffler, the Republican National Committee member who leads the group, described DeSantis as “a pretty appealing” potential candidate. He said the Florida governor paid to help sponsor the event and had representatives on site, but he still encouraged DeSantis to spend more time with Iowa voters — especially in the rural parts of the state.
“It’s going to need to happen sooner than later,” Scheffler said.
Associated Press writer Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.