Is rising Maga star Ron DeSantis the man to displace Trump in 2024?

The Florida governor has beaten the former president in recent polls of activists and could offer a younger version of Trumpism without Trump

As Donald Trump continues to prevaricate over a further run for the White House in 2024, another name has emerged as a possible candidate for the Republican party’s presidential nomination: Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis.

The rising star of the conservative Maga movement – named for Trump’s “make America great again” campaign slogan – has beaten the former president in several recent polls of party activists, some of whom appear to finally be growing weary of Trump’s “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen.

And with Trump’s grip on Republicans taking hits, aided by scrutiny of his actions around the deadly 6 January 2021 riot when a mob of his supporters ransacked the Capitol building in Washington DC in an attempt to keep him in power, some analysts say the time could be right for a younger, more appealing candidate to seize the baton.

DeSantis, 43, appears to offer everything that the Maga base would want in a candidate, a high-profile yet irascible and media-hostile politician who embraces the ultra-conservative tenets of Trumpism, but without the baggage of Trump’s two impeachments and seven-million vote thumping in the 2020 election after a single term in office.

While Trump, who left the White House in January 2021, berates his enemies real and perceived from his waterfront Mar-a-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, DeSantis has been enhancing his governing credentials from the Florida governor’s mansion in Tallahassee.

In recent weeks he has signed numerous “culture war” bills into law, including stripping Black voters of power by gerrymandering Florida’s congressional districts to favour Republicans; restricting how race and diversity are discussed and addressed in schools and businesses; and banning conversations of gender identity and sexual orientation in certain Florida classrooms with his “don’t say gay” law.

DeSantis’s self-styled war on “wokeism” has also encompassed banning mathematics textbooks deemed to contain “prohibited topics” including critical race theory; attempting to ban medical care for transgender youths; and picking a fight with Disney over its opposition to his clampdown on LBGTQ+ rights.

“He’s nicknamed Governor Grievance,” said Michael Binder, political science professor and director of the public opinion research laboratory at the University of North Florida (UNF), Jacksonville.

“Even though he has an election [to remain Florida governor] coming up in a few months, and I’m sure he’s taking it seriously, the choices that he’s making, the issues he’s attending to and the actions he takes are really designed for 2024.

Ron DeSantis speaks to the crowd during the Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam in Panama City Beach, Florida, last week.
Ron DeSantis speaks to the crowd during the Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam in Panama City Beach, Florida, last week. Photograph: Michael Chang/Getty Images

“The types of issues that are being discussed, particularly a lot of these social issues, in all honesty are not what matters in the state of Florida, but it’s generating immediate attention. It’s getting him on Fox News, and he can play to that conservative base that maybe has a feeling of that kind of white grievance that maybe their general state in society is slipping.”

The argument that DeSantis is focusing on topics more in alignment with his individual political ambitions than the good of the state he serves has traction with opponents.

Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democratic state congressman who has criticised the governor over concerns ranging from banning mask mandates at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic to vetoing $500m (£400m) from the Florida budget for a housing program for homeless LGBTQ+ youth, challenged DeSantis this week over his latest hobby horse, a threat to have child protective services investigate parents who take their children to drag shows.

Even so, DeSantis remains favorite to comfortably win his re-election race in November, and use that as a likely springboard to seeking the 2024 nomination, regardless of whether Trump, who will be 78 by the time of the next election, runs again or not.

While DeSantis won’t comment on the speculation, he has been fundraising in recent months in other states. In Colorado, Republican activists at last weekend’s Western Conservative Summit voted 71%-67% for DeSantis over Trump in a straw poll for their preferred candidate for 2024, his second successive win (participants could offer multiple responses).

DeSantis also won a straw poll of Wisconsin Republicans last month with 38% to Trump’s 32%.

“There is no real party standard-bearer at the moment, and DeSantis in many eyes is starting to define the post-Trump party,” veteran Republican operative Tyler Sandberg told Politico.

“He fights more about policy and less on his Twitter account.”

Trump, as expected, is not appreciating the prospect of being usurped by his former protege, whom he described in 2017 as “a brilliant young leader”. The two have clashed over their respective responses to the pandemic while Trump was in office, and Axios reported more disharmony, claiming that Trump had privately slammed DeSantis as a “dull personality” with no chance of beating him for the 2024 nomination.

Ron DeSantis’s ambitions appear to stretch beyond Florida.
Ron DeSantis’s ambitions appear to stretch beyond Florida. Photograph: Octavio Jones/Reuters

This week Trump sent out emails highlighting a Morning Consult poll that showed him still in command of the Republican party nationally with 53% support, although he dropped 3% and DeSantis rose by the same mark since the previous poll in March.

Binder, the UNF professor, expects a crowded field chasing the Republican nomination, which could include former vice-president Mike Pence, Texas senator Ted Cruz, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and Nikki Haley, previously South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations.

“I’d venture you’d probably see closer to a dozen-plus candidates rather than just two-plus candidates, maybe even more,” he said.

“Anybody that doesn’t show deference to Donald Trump is potentially on the enemy list of Donald Trump no matter what your politics are [and] certainly it’s been clear for a while that DeSantis has had his eye on 2024.

“Trump has been cool, if not outright cold towards DeSantis since a lot of that has become known. If and when Trump decides to get into the race, the interaction between those two candidates, and that relationship, will tell a great deal about how the entire election is going to play out.”


Richard Luscombe in Miami

The GuardianTramp

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