Senate Republicans are wincing over former President Trump’s early barrage of attacks against his chief rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), fearing they’re seeing a preview of a brutal primary to come that could leave both candidates weakened heading into the general election.
GOP lawmakers acknowledge DeSantis needs to show he can take a punch and aren’t shocked Trump would take hard shots at a rival as the campaign heats up.
But some are surprised the former president is unloading such a heavy barrage before DeSantis is even in the race, and they worry that getting into a year-long mudslinging battle with Trump isn’t good look for the party heading into 2024.
“I winced in 2016 and I’m wincing now,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) when asked about Trump’s hardball tactics. “That’s just because that’s not my style.
“I don’t think you’ll ever take the New York style out of Donald Trump. It’s too much to ask, he’s a fully-baked cake,” she said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who won reelection in 2022 despite casting one of seven Republican votes to convict Trump of an impeachment charge in February of 2021, signaled she’s not happy about the vitriol Trump is already unleashing in the primary.
“Why anyone feels it’s necessary as part of a campaign to be nasty and personal is beyond me. It doesn’t have to be. Talk about the issues,” she said.
Trump has already settled on a nickname for the Florida governor: Ron DeSanctimonious.
Last month he flagged a photo on his social media platform, Truth Social, that allegedly showed DeSantis posing with three young women while drinking an alcoholic beverage when he taught at boarding school 20 years ago.
Trump claims that DeSantis cried in front of him while begging for his endorsement in the 2018 Florida gubernatorial primary, when he trailed his rival Adam Putman by double digits.
He said this week that he “probably” regrets endorsing DeSantis in the race.
“He was dead as a dog; he was a dead politician. He would have been working perhaps for a law firm or doing something else,” Trump told a reporters who traveled with him to Iowa.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said on Wednesday that he wished Trump would focus on drawing contrasts with Democrats on the issues instead of tearing down fellow Republicans.
“That’s his style. If you’re going to be in the arena, you should expect that,” he said of Trump’s personal attacks on DeSantis.
“Yes, I would like to keep it focused on the issues. I think there’s plenty to talk about, lots of contrasts you can draw with Democrats. I’d rather [they] keep their fire focused on them instead of each other,” he said.
DeSantis has tried to focus on fighting he calls “woke activism” in Florida and getting his agenda through the state legislature but Trump is already aiming the heavy artillery at the governor.
A super PAC aligned with Trump, Make America Great Again Inc., on Wednesday filed a complaint against DeSantis with the Florida Commission on Ethics, accusing the governor and his allies of running a “shadow presidential campaign.”
Trump’s campaign this month starting buying Facebook ads promoting a picture of DeSantis sitting next to Trump in the Oval Office captioned: “An Apprentice Leaning from the Master” and “Re-elect President Trump in 2024.”
Speaking at an event in Davenport, Iowa, Monday, Trump accused DeSantis of wanting to “decimate” Social Security and compared him to Utah Sen. Mitt Romney (R), who voted twice to convict the former president on impeachment charges.
He also accused DeSantis of being a Republican in name only and connected him to former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a Republican leader who for many Trump conservatives embodied the GOP establishment’s leeriness of Trump when he entered the White House in 2017.
“You have to remember, Ron was a disciple of Paul Ryan, who is a RINO loser currently destroying FX, and would constantly vote against entitlements,” Trump said in Iowa. “And to be honest with you, Ron reminds me a lot of Mitt Romney.”
Some Republicans worry relentless negativity on the campaign trail could wind up turning off swing voters, especially suburban women and college-educated voters.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) tacitly blamed Trump’s influence on the Republican Party’s brand for the disappointing performance of GOP Senate candidates in the 2022 midterm.
“Here’s the problem, we underperformed among voters who did not like President Biden’s performance, among independents and among moderate Republicans, who looked at us and concluded [there was] too much chaos, too much negativity and we turned off a lot of these centrist voters,” he told reporters in November.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a councilor to the Senate GOP leadership team, said negative politics tends to backfire in North Carolina, a swing state that Trump carried in 2016 and 2020.
He said he “never used it” and “never found it productive” to wield the politics of personal destruction to win a race.
“I think it turns off a lot of people that are part of gettable votes for the Republican nominee,” he said.
He emphasized he wouldn’t presume to give Trump political advice, but he cautioned that “I don’t think in a purple state like North Carolina it’s the best posture, the best message for suburban voters — the voters that we saw move the other way or not vote in the last election cycle.”
Trump’s political strategy appears to be to drive a wedge between DeSantis and working-class and rural conservatives who don’t have college degrees and make up the core of Trump’s base.
Some Senate Republicans privately speculate DeSantis will not be able to defeat Trump in next year’s primary unless he can make bigger inroads with rural, evangelical and working-class white voters without college degrees. Recent polls show Trump leading by large margins among this swath of the GOP primary electorate.
GOP lawmakers say they expected a bruising race but some of them are marveling over how early the carpet bombing has started.
“Whenever you’re going to have a hard-fought primary as opposed as opposed to something that has consensus, there’s going to be injury from the warfare,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “It looks like it’s getting started very early.”