Sitting at the head table in a white and gold ballroom, beneath glistening chandeliers and an ornately corniced ceiling, Donald Trump looked sullen as midterm election results flashed up on a giant TV screen.
Across Florida, 200 miles from his opulent Mar-a-Lago estate, the mood was quite different. In Tampa, Governor Ron DeSantis was celebrating his landslide re-election by repurposing lines from Winston Churchill.
“We fight the woke in the legislature,” DeSantis declared as his photogenic young family looked on against a stars and stripes backdrop. “We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.”
As the jubilant crowd chanted “two more years!”, suggesting that DeSantis, not Trump, should run for US president in 2024, was this the moment that power slipped inexorably from one to the other – that the Republican crown passed from old king to young pretender?
Some in the party are ready to declare it so. David Urban, a longtime Trump ally, told the Washington Post: “It is clear the center of gravity of the Republican party is in the state of Florida, and I don’t mean Mar-a-Lago.”
If such a shift has taken place, it did so gradually, then suddenly. Since he descended an escalator at his New York headquarters in June 2015, Trump has dominated and defined the Republican party, crushing rivals in the Republican primary then eking out a victory over Hillary Clinton to seize the White House.
But the party of Trump suffered drubbings at the ballot box in 2018 and 2020. And despite forecasts of a “red wave” in 2022, it fell short again. From Michigan to Pennsylvania, novice candidates endorsed by the former president proved they were unready for prime time and too extreme for a wary and weary electorate.
Finally, some Republicans admitted what everyone else could see: Trump is an albatross around the party’s neck. Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Winsome Earle-Sears, once a vocal supporter, told the Fox Business channel: “The voters have spoken and they have said that they want a different leader. And a true leader understands when they have become a liability. A true leader understands that it’s time to step off the stage. It is time to move on.”
Rupert Murdoch already has, it seems. “Trumpty Dumpty”, boomed the front page of his tabloid the New York Post. “Trump is the Republican party’s biggest loser” was the verdict of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. A column on the Fox News website proclaimed: “Ron DeSantis is the new Republican party leader. Republicans are ready to move on without Donald Trump.”
Indeed, if Trump was the big loser of the night, DeSantis was the big winner. His victory by nearly 20 percentage points was a personal vindication that appeared to put Florida, once the quintessential swing state, beyond Democrats’ reach for a generation.
His stunning wins in big, majority Latino counties, including Miami-Dade and Osceola, set him up to make the case that, as a presidential candidate, he could repeat the formula in states such as as Arizona, Nevada and Texas. “We have rewritten the political map,” he told supporters.
A DeSantis 2024 campaign would also promise generational change. At 44, the former navy lawyer and congressman would be similar in age to John F Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama when they ran for the White House, a sharp contrast from 76-year-old Trump or Joe Biden, who is turning 80 this month.
Crucially, DeSantis could sell himself as Trump 2.0, an upgrade committed to the same “America first” policy agenda, media sparring and liberal-baiting (he recently flew Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard) but without the liability of multiple federal, state and congressional investigations.
He could also break from Trump over the coronavirus pandemic, contending that he kept Florida open while the then president was urging lockdowns. Tim Miller, former communications director for Jeb Bush 2016, said: “He would try to paint Trump as somebody that lost, is a loser and is costing the party. He’d probably criticise Trump for not being stronger on Covid and say he should have fired [Dr Anthony] Fauci.”
DeSantis is especially popular with conservatives for taking the lead on “culture war” issues related to race and gender. Last year he got into a spat with the Walt Disney Company over his support of the controversial law, nicknamed “don’t say gay” by opponents, prohibiting the teaching of gender identity concepts to young children.
But if you come at the king, you best not miss. Trump has spent months preparing to strangle the DeSantis campaign at birth. At a campaign rally in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, last weekend, he casually rolled out a nickname, “Ron DeSanctimonious”, hoping to brand his opponent as he has so many before.
On Tuesday, menacingly, he told Fox News: “I think if he runs, he could hurt himself very badly. I really believe he could hurt himself badly. I would tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering – I know more about him than anybody – other than, perhaps, his wife.”
And on Thursday, with DeSantis buzz reaching a crescendo, Trump lashed out in a lengthy and angry statement berating Fox News and other Murdoch-controlled media for going “all in for Governor Ron DeSanctimonious DeSantis”, whom he called “an average REPUBLICAN Governor with great Public Relations”, as he again took credit for DeSantis’s 2018 win.
“Well, in terms of loyalty and class, that’s really not the right answer,” he wrote, comparing the race to his winning 2016 campaign. “We’re in exactly the same position now. They will keep coming after us, MAGA, but ultimately, we will win. Put America First and, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
Soon after, he invited reporters to a “Special Announcement” at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday night, presumably confirming that he is mounting a third consecutive bid for the White House. Some allies were quick to offer pre-endorsements, with Elise Stefanik, the Republican chair in the House of Representatives, declaring herself on team Trump.
JD Vance, who won a Senate senate race in Ohio with Trump’s backing, did likewise. And at a rally for Vance in Dayton the night before the elections, many supporters sporting Make America Great Again hats and T-shirts were hoping for Trump to announce his candidacy there and then.
But even within a crowd of enthusiastic fans there were those who had doubts. Mandy Young said: “I think Trump was a great president but I don’t think he can win again. He is too divisive. The independents who voted for him before won’t vote for him again because of all the investigations.
“Also, I don’t like the way he called DeSantis ‘DeSanctimonious’. I think DeSantis would be a great president. It makes me think Trump doesn’t care about the Republican party winning, only himself. He should step back. He would still have a lot of influence as a respected godfather giving advice.”
On election day, Jeffrey Weisman, a consistent Republican supporter because he says the party is better for the economy and his jewellery store business, voted at the biggest Greek Orthodox church in Columbus, Ohio.
Weisman supported Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections but would prefer the former president stayed out of the next one. “I like DeSantis. Having Trump going out there as well I think will hurt DeSantis’s chances. So for that reason, I do not want Trump to run,” he said.
The strengths and weaknesses of Trump’s influence were on display in Ohio’s election for US senator. The former president’s endorsement of Vance pulled the bestselling author of Hillbilly Elegy and venture capitalist from the back of the field in the Republican primaries and won him the nomination. But Trump’s backing then dragged down support for Vance in Tuesday’s general election, even if he won.
Mark R Weaver, a Republican strategist in Columbus, who has worked on several hundred state and national campaigns, said that has implications for any challenge from DeSantis both in Ohio and across the country.
“Trump’s ability to improve a candidate’s chances is weakening. He’s no longer able to guarantee or even predict someone he endorses is going to win. Whatever charm he had has worn off, certainly in the general elections. In the primaries, he can still be a big factor. In Ohio he was.”
Weaver said that while Trump would still win a Republican contest for the presidential nomination against DeSantis if it were held today, that may not be true by the time the primaries actually begin in early 2024.
He said: “I have noticed a slow descent of Donald Trump’s popularity amongst Republicans. I’ve noticed a rapid ascent of Ron DeSantis’s popularity.
“If those two trajectories continue, Trump slowly getting weaker and people looking for better options, and DeSantis quickly getting stronger and having more people support him, the trajectory lines could cross right about March of 2024. That sounds like a crazy statement right now but if those trajectories cross, Ron DeSantis can beat Trump in the primaries in 2024.”
Trump’s political obituary has been written by Republican elites countless times before only to prove wishful thinking. An Access Hollywood tape in which he boasted about groping women’s private parts couldn’t do it. His half-hearted condemnation of a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, couldn’t do it. His proposal that injecting bleach might cure coronavirus couldn’t do it. Even his incitement of a coup attempt at the US Capitol couldn’t do it. Can DeSantis do it by appealing to the bottom line: electability?
Tara Setmayer, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said: “I’ve always said that the Republican party would not fully respond to offloading Trump until they lost enough elections. Political actors are single seekers in re-election, and once their power is threatened, that is usually where a course correction happens.
“But they’ve gotten themselves into quite a quagmire with Donald Trump because he still has a solid 30%, at least, base of support, and that is large enough to still create headaches for the party if they try to offload him.”
Setmayer, a former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill, added: “They also do not have a formidable enough heir apparent. It is not Ron DeSantis. Ron DeSantis is a paper tiger who was created and propped up by Donald Trump. He does not have the political talent, the charisma or the toughness to take on the onslaught coming his way from Trumpworld. It’s already beginning.”
Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, agreed. “Trump would eat him alive,” he said. “Right now Trump is still the dominant player in the Republican party. Most of the base is still with him. DeSantis is utterly untested. He’s weird. He has zero charisma. He’s thin skinned. He can’t think on his feet. He’s never been tested and he’s easily offended. Trump will do and say anything.”
Walsh, who challenged Trump in the 2020 Republican primary, added: “Trump’s the king. If you try to slay the king and you don’t, your career is over. That’s a huge, huge risk a 44-year-old guy like DeSantis would be taking.”
They are not alone in arguing that, while DeSantis is like Trump without the chaos, he is also Trump without the charisma. The former president’s rallies are rollicking, knockabout affairs that give his fans community, entertainment and laughs. DeSantis is said to be unskilled in retail politics and somewhat humourless.
Jennifer Mercieca, a professor in the communication and journalism department at Texas A&M University, said: “Donald Trump is an authoritarian PT Barnum. He’s able to keep our attention and curiosity. He’s got great comedic timing. He has a good sense of drama and Ron DeSantis doesn’t have that kind of easily translatable appeal for media audiences. His affect is flat. He’s not as entertaining.
“The thing about Donald Trump is that he’s really entertaining. He’s good at keeping our attention and primarily he does that through outrage and things that are very negative for politics and political problem solving. But in terms of a matchup between those two, I would put money on Trump.”
Trump has shown himself perfectly capable of going scorched earth and burning the whole party down. A ferociously nasty bareknuckle primary fight between him and DeSantis will have Democrats reaching for the popcorn. At a valedictory press conference at the White House, Biden seemed amused at the prospect. “It’ll be fun watching them take on each other,” he said.