DeSantis Belly Flop
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the GOP has been largely defined by a struggle between populism and ‘establishment’ conservatism. During Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary challenge, he skewered the incumbent George H.W. Bush as a “globalist” who was helping “bureaucrats in Brussels” to pursue a “European super-state” and undermine national identity. Bush – and the ‘establishment’– ended up prevailing narrowly in those primaries. But Buchanan did not go away, and neither did his ideas for many Republican voters. Donald Trump’s 2016 election represented a triumph of Buchanan’s ideas and the GOP's populist wing.
After two impeachments, a failed coup, abysmal midterm results, a looming DOJ probe, and criminal charges for the former President, the Republican future remains in doubt. Is the GOP moving back towards the kind of establishment conservatism that dominated in the post Reagan years? Or will there be a new path that fuses elements of the Trump-era populism with more familiar tenets of conservative philosophy? Or is the future just more Donald Trump?
At the beginning of the year, Ron DeSantis looked as if he might provide an answer. The Florida Governor gained national notoriety for his stance on issues that unified the party’s populist base with its older-guard establishment, all without eliciting meaningful resistance from Florida Democrats. This confluence of base and establishment appeal in a key battleground state made DeSantis a natural figure to lead a post-Trump Republican coalition. After his nearly 20-point reelection margin in 2022, and a poor performance for Trump-endorsed candidates across the country, the Governor seemed poised to assemble all of the various conservative factions skeptical of Trump under his banner. Until he didn’t.
What went wrong? The issue that put DeSantis on the national political map was COVID. He established a national reputation by challenging restrictions, garnering praise from conservatives and becoming a regular guest on Fox News. He championed in-person learning and maintained open schools, while also prohibiting mask mandates for Florida's approximately 3 million public K-12 students. He also engaged in high-profile disputes with the Biden administration regarding vaccine requirements for workers. DeSantis' approach encountered significant controversy in 2020, but the tides shifted in his favor throughout 2021 and 2022. A combination of evolving circumstances and shifting perspectives on COVID propelled DeSantis to emerge as a winner in public opinion on the issue. Net migration to Florida sharply increased from 2020 to 2021, one study found.
But in terms of electoral politics, the problem is precisely that DeSantis won and nobody is focused on COVID policy anymore. The other issues DeSantis banked on as unifying for the right – woke culture, abortion, and immigration – haven’t served him in the same way. Now, the Governor’s coalition is fracturing.
Where DeSantis has faltered is in finding ways to unite Republicans who don’t like Donald Trump but may agree on little else. DeSantis' inclination to play to Trump’s right has caused more problems for him in the Republican primary than it did when he only had "woke" Democrats as antagonists. While there is enough space to situate himself to attack the "woke" without alienating the right-wing base, trying to be further right than Trump on such issues exposes DeSantis to risks with both the general electorate and his more moderate supporters.
Last year, DeSantis signed HB 7, known as the Stop W.O.K.E. Act and officially called the Individual Freedom Act – an educational gag order. Among other things, it prevents teachers from discussing advantages or disadvantages based on race. Discussion of systemic racism is considered “critical race theory” and not allowed. In the 2021-22 school year, PEN America documented 565 books banned in Florida schools. DeSantis’s legislative attacks on ‘woke culture’ have begun to cost him. A top Republican donor, Thomas Peterffy, said he had paused plans to fund Ron DeSantis’s expected presidential run because of the governor’s “stance on abortion and book banning.” Abortion presents a similar conundrum for him. DeSantis has taken considerable heat from his own party since signing a bill that would ban abortions after six weeks. It’s a microcosm of the bigger problem facing the GOP as the 2024 election looms: Republicans lawmakers are divided on a post-Roe, national approach to abortion, and DeSantis’s positioning on the issue is unpopular to a clear majority of voters who are seeking a middle ground on the issue.
DeSantis does not seem cognizant of the delicate balancing act he faces and has committed errors as a result. His strategic illogic is best illustrated by his approach to Ukraine. The GOP has two diverging and dominant views on Ukraine. The first view, espoused by GOP party leaders and figures such as Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, maintains that Russia's assault on Ukraine poses a threat to the liberal world order, and frames support for Ukraine as in America's vital national interest. The second view, championed by the populist wing, argues that the US has no vital national interests in Ukraine. Tucker Carlson has expressed indifference about Putin's actions in Ukraine, while Trump has suggested that the conflict will persist so long as the US continues to provide aid. DeSantis' lenient stance on the invasion has cost him support from the neoconservative right, which cares deeply about containing Russia, and would likely be needed as part of any successful anti-Trump coalition. DeSantis need not be a neocon to win this support, but neither can he reject U.S. support for Ukraine in the way he did.
A Republican primary contest between populism and a more traditional brand of conservatism makes for a tidy ideological narrative. But 2024 is not shaping up that way. The dominance of Trump's supporters, their unwavering loyalty to him, and his confrontational political style seem to be preempting any effective challenge from democracy-supporting GOP governors, who might consider entering the campaign. DeSantis still looks like the only plausible challenger. And so far, his challenge to Trump doesn’t look very challenging.