Republicans are warning against counting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) out of the 2024 presidential race, despite a rough few weeks that have raised red flags for his emerging White House campaign.
DeSantis is still likely weeks away from formally launching a 2024 bid, but his status as an early front-runner has been called into question after weeks of relentless attacks from former President Donald Trump, criticism from some fellow Republicans about his policy agenda and hand-wringing by some party donors over his strategy and broader political appeal.
Yet many Republicans say DeSantis remains a powerful force to be reckoned with in the 2024 primary, noting that few other candidates — declared or potential — can compete with the Florida governor in fundraising or sheer influence.
“The guy isn’t even in the race yet, and everyone is trying to count him out,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who’s backing DeSantis. “He may be second in the polls behind Trump, but he’s double digits ahead of every other possible Republican challenger. So unless this isn’t a contest, he’s still a contender.”
“He has the platform as governor of Florida, the financial resources and the story to compete,” he added. “Like in sports, the front-runner doesn’t always win.”
The past month or so hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for DeSantis. More than half of his state’s Republican congressional delegation has endorsed Trump, and some key GOP donors have put their support for the Florida governor on hold. He’s also been bombarded by attacks from Trump and his team, who are hoping to stall his momentum before he formally enters the 2024 race.
But DeSantis’s allies say those headlines miss the bigger picture.
State and federal committees allied with the Florida governor have at least $110 million in the bank; Never Back Down, the main super PAC backing his 2024 ambitions, has begun to counter Trump’s missives; and DeSantis is seeing out the final days of a state legislative session that granted him a long list of policy wishes.
“Ron DeSantis’s success as Governor and fearless leadership is exactly why the never back down grassroots movement continues to grow and build momentum encouraging Governor DeSantis to get in the race,” said Erin Perrine, the communications director for Never Back Down, in a statement.
A source close to DeSantis said the Florida governor’s infrastructure is taking shape behind the scenes and predicted he would not be behind when he launches his campaign.
The DeSantis source pointed to Trump having difficulty getting above 50 percent even after the indictment news in what is shaping up to be a two-man race despite the fact DeSantis “hasn’t even launched a campaign yet.”
The source also pointed to recent polls showing Trump losing to President Biden in key states while DeSantis is beating Biden. Just this week, a poll out of Georgia — a state Trump notably lost to Biden in 2020 — showed DeSantis outperforming Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head general election matchup against the incumbent president.
And despite Trump’s wide lead over DeSantis in most polling, no other Republican presidential hopeful has managed to get within striking distance of the Florida governor.
“Trump has hit his ceiling, and Ron has runway,” the DeSantis source said, adding that the governor has the best financial backing and name ID of anyone who hasn’t been a sitting president.
DeSantis’s political team blamed the onslaught of attacks and negative headlines on Democrats and the “Beltway establishment.”
“There’s a reason Democrats are joining forces with the Beltway establishment to attack Ron DeSantis: They are terrified of his ability to tune out the noise and deliver historic results for the people of Florida,” said Dave Abrams, a spokesperson for DeSantis’s political operation.
Another Republican strategist predicted the trajectory of the race would change when DeSantis actually announces his intentions. DeSantis was always expected to wait until the state Legislature wraps up its business to announce his next steps, and a campaign launch could come later this month or next month.
“He has to do everything with two hands tied behind his back right now,” the strategist said. “I think that changes when he officially enters the race and can make the case on what he’s been able to do. And how he’s action-oriented and Trump is all bluster.”
Trump is facing his own challenges on the campaign trail, as well. The former president was indicted in New York just over a month ago, making him the first former president to face criminal charges.
He’s also received criticism from anti-abortion rights activists and groups, including the influential Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, after his campaign said he believes the issue should be settled state by state. DeSantis, meanwhile, won praise from anti-abortion activists when he signed a law banning the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy.
Martin Sweet, a professor of politics at Purdue University, said DeSantis is “absolutely” viable.
“If he wasn’t, Trump wouldn’t waste his time,” Sweet said. “With a huge war chest and the recent spate of hiring top talent, he looks like a simmering rocket ready to launch. Back in 2008, Obama was down at this point about the same gap behind Hillary.”
“As an unannounced candidate against a super well-known and defined primary opponent, DeSantis has a lot of room for take-off.”
The other Republican candidates, Sweet said, “still pose a big diffusion issue for Ron. There are only so many non-Trump primary votes out there, but you can only worry about what is in your control.”