The Republican challenges in picking a nominee in 2024 shouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone. They are not really that different from the rest of the party’s modern history. It’s just that the stakes are so damned high.
Samuel Johnson is said to have given a brutal critique to an aspiring writer who asked the old man to look at a manuscript: “I find much in this that is good, and much that is new; but that which is good is not new, and that which is new is not good.”
So far, we might say the same of Ron DeSantis.
The Florida governor looks like he has a bad case of Ted Cruz-itis: Overfunded and underwhelming. And he contracted the malady in much the same way. Like his 2016 forerunner, DeSantis has done a good job of convincing conservative donors and party elites that he has the special sauce for gulling yokels with culture war politics while still quietly delivering normal reformist policies and stable governance.
It’s not about giving the mainstreamers what they want, but what they think they can get through a primary electorate that gave the party close brushes with the likes of Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee over the years before finally pushing Donald Trump down everybody’s gullet. DeSantis isn’t the radical they want, but the one they thought they needed.
He’s even got Cruz’s strategist on his team. And right now, at least, seems destined for a similar finish: blowing $140 million and wrapping up the Republican National Convention by getting taunted by his home state’s delegates.
In the spring of 2015, Cruz was trying to run the same playbook DeSantis is now employing, but instead of chasing frontrunner Trump, it was Jeb Bush.
First you establish yourself as the real conservative in the race—which I don’t suggest is any mean feat. Both guys had to pull off big wins in audacious primary campaigns against potent mainstream candidates just to establish themselves, Cruz for Senate against David Dewhurst in 2012 and DeSantis for governor against Adam Putnam in 2018, both of whom were strong frontrunners and allies of the relevant Bushes for their respective states.
Both DeSantis and Cruz sought to use their new statewide titles to show their chops with right-wing voters, and there DeSantis has the far better story to tell, because of some additional skills, some more authenticity, and very much because of place and time.
Cruz rode his backbench spot in the Senate into national celebrity by willing a government shutdown into being, but he lacked an exit strategy for what was always fated to be a symbolic effort to “defund Obamacare.” The Senate is boring by design and lame by the mutual agreement of its members, so being the bad boy of a failed faux filibuster is a distinction of deeply limited appeal.
It was good for getting ahead of the previous Senate frontrunner for real conservative status, Rand Paul, but that’s pretty small beer for all the enemies Cruz won for himself in the process. And those resentments were a help, not a hindrance, to the other senator in the running, Marco Rubio. Rubio was fishing in a different pond from Cruz. He was going to be the 21st-century Jeb Bush: A Floridian focused on immigration and education, but with bootstraps rather than a silver spoon.
DeSantis had a better perch than Cruz did to begin with. Governorships provide many more opportunities to look presidential. And DeSantis took the job in Florida as the Sunshine State was eclipsing Texas as Republicans’ favorite Sun Belt success story. But it was the coronavirus pandemic—not the culture war, not the press hating, not the airmailing migrants to Martha’s Vineyard—that made DeSantis the biggest gator in the pond.
DeSantis had to take a way bigger risk to get there than reading Dr. Seuss books on the Senate floor, though. The Floridian had to start out by bucking a president of his own party on a topic so serious that even normal people were disinfecting their groceries. There were other even more enthusiastic risk takers, like Gov. Kristi Noem in South Dakota, but if South Dakota were in Florida, it would only be the eighth-largest county. Also, the bison would be very confused.
But DeSantis’ gamble paid off and made him the face of the effort to end the lockdowns long before Democrats were able to address their own internal divisions on the question. It was a stance that won him admirers among traditional conservatives and raised his status to the sky with the nationalists. His 19-point improvement from his first win in 2018 to his 2022 re-election tells the tale. The battles over drag shows and Disney made it clear that he was no squish, but the Reagan Library speech and huddles with big fundraisers kept the right heads nodding.
The argument was evident, just as it was from Cruz: Raise big bucks to outlast the also-rans, then, as they fall out, consolidate their shares of the vote and get ready for the final showdown. For Cruz, that shifted from Bush to Trump along the way. For DeSantis, it’s always been Trump. But that difference points to a serious problem for DeSantis’ sheep-in-wolves-clothing approach.
If the Republican Party is as profoundly MAGAed as DeSantis seems to believe, how does one accumulate mainstream votes over the course of many months without alienating too many Trump voters? Maybe the former president succumbs to the mounting legal threats he’s facing, but not any time soon and not without forcing his own governor into some very uncomfortable places. DeSantis’ own well-cultivated brand of bluntness wouldn’t seem to allow it.
DeSantis has been lucky many times before, and he has shown some strong political instincts. Maybe he can do the dance. God knows he’ll get a lot of latitude from conservatives and moderates desperate to avoid a third Trump nomination. Or maybe DeSantis repeats Cruz’s performance of being the last dog hung, but gets strung up all the same. Or maybe the race starts breaking open and somebody does with the mainstream what Trump did with the nationalists, and shoots the gap between two bogged-down factions with solid support from a plurality.
DeSantis is a stronger candidate in lots of ways that Cruz was, and he may learn as he goes. But right now, he needs a different role model.