DeSantis has momentum in bid to wrestle GOP away from Trump

Is Florida's governor 'getting too confident too early'?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday in Orlando, Fla.  (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday in Orlando, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Posted March 4, 2022 at 11:34am

ANALYSIS — Ron DeSantis is having a moment.

Yelling at young students is not typically a wise political tactic. These are not, however, typical political times. Only one star in the Republican universe shines brighter these days: former President Donald Trump.

DeSantis, the Republican governor of what he calls the “free state of Florida” over his COVID-19-skeptical policies, left last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference with ample momentum. He cut into Trump’s lead in CPAC’s 2024 presidential straw poll by a double-digit margin.

After Trump has so dominated the GOP since he became its presidential nominee in June 2015, the 28 percent who said they — right now, at least — would prefer DeSantis to be the Republican presidential nominee in two years might look insignificant against the 59 percent who chose The Donald.

But consider this: Trump won the July version of the CPAC survey with a commanding 70 percent. The Florida chief executive netted 21 percent just eight months ago.

“The only person who can stop DeSantis is Donald Trump. The rivalry, even disdain, between them is real and growing,” former Florida Republican Rep. David Jolly told CQ Roll Call. “But if Trump doesn’t run, the 2024 GOP primary will be more a coronation than a contest, similar to the 2000 nomination of Bush 43, when the field was cleared for him. Barring Trump, it’s Ron DeSantis and then everyone else.”

How does one build on this kind of momentum? It turns out in today’s conservative politics, brusquely reprimanding young people amounts to a pretty solid start.

“You do not have to wear those masks. I mean, please, take them off,” DeSantis told the students as he approached his lectern at the University of South Florida, before getting even more brusque: “Honestly, it’s not doing anything. We’ve got to stop with this COVID theater. So, if you want to wear it, fine. But this is ridiculous.”

The outburst did not go over so well with some.

“I’m responsible for him, and I told him to wear that mask,” one of the students’ mothers told a Florida television station Wednesday evening. “And Gov. DeSantis, he’s looking at this adult authority and he’s telling him he doesn’t have to wear this mask.”

But the governor’s reelection campaign signaled that it scored well with plenty of others.

As the DeSantis campaign was putting out a hype video set to rock music boasting about his interaction with the students, it also was using it to rake in campaign cash.

“While in Tampa, I told a group of students masks were ridiculous, and they didn’t have to wear them if they didn’t want to,” a DeSantis campaign email said. “Predictably, the leftist propagandists in our media had a meltdown and called me a ‘bully’ for allowing children to breathe fresh air.”

DeSantis’ minisurge comes as Trump is distracted by myriad local and state races, as well as mounting legal issues. Just this week, the Democratic-led House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot said in a court filing that it has a “good-faith belief” that Trump may have committed criminal acts in his effort to overturn the 2020 election results.

The Florida governor was not treated like a rising star at CPAC — but very much a well-established and powerful one. Before DeSantis took the stage to address the conference, CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp said DeSantis had “made every right move — you name the topic.” As he spoke, DeSantis garnered thunderous applause several times.

He also is showing every willingness to cast himself as a potential 2024 nominee by sharply criticizing his would-be general election foe, President Joe Biden, and the mainstream media that is so loathed by Trump’s MAGA base, which he would need to vote in big numbers to win the White House.

“Let’s not forget that just 36 hours ago, Joe Biden and the radical Democrat hypocrites were parading around the Capitol without masks,” the DeSantis campaign’s fundraising email states, “and without so much as a peep from the corporate press, but suddenly permitting children to unmask is ‘unacceptable.’”

But the governor’s rise comes with risks. A star can burn too fast, exploding into a supernova — but then becoming nothing but space dust. There is also the matter of his reelection race this year. A GOP incumbent in a GOP-leaning state starts with an advantage, but it’s a long way to November.

“I do think the USF event represents a significant unforced error for DeSantis and may suggest he’s getting too confident too early. Politically, he’s landed very safely, and powerfully, on the freedom message when it comes to public health,” Jolly said. “Starting a war on science might please a few in the GOP, but it’s completely unnecessary, and reflects a rare undisciplined moment for the Florida governor.”