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DeSantis, Not Yet Running for President, Courts Republicans in D.C.
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DeSantis, Not Yet Running for President, Courts Republicans in D.C.

Plus: Do Republican voters care about the debt ceiling?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a press conference in Lake Buena Vista. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Happy Wednesday! A friendly reminder that politicians are subject to federal robocalling laws too. Take it from former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose campaign paid a $7,500 settlement to an Illinois man after he “sued over ‘invasive and harassing’ fundraising texts,” Insider’s Bryan Metzger reports.

Up to Speed

  • Senate Republicans blocked an effort by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer Tuesday evening to appoint a temporary replacement for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on the Senate Judiciary Committee, prolonging Senate Democrats’ backlog in approving judicial nominees as the senior senator from California recovers from shingles away from the U.S. Capitol. Feinstein has previously stated she would not seek reelection in 2024 but that she will serve out the rest of her term. Though no Senate Democrats have called for her resignation as of Wednesday morning, a handful of House Democrats—including Reps. Ro Khanna, Jamaal Bowman, and Dean Phillips—are calling for her to step down. Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has also said “unfortunately something that I think it is appropriate to consider.”
  • The ​​Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition will host its 23rd annual spring kickoff on Saturday. One of the first high-profile GOP presidential events in the earliest caucus state, the event will feature remarks from a host of declared GOP presidential candidates—former President Donald Trump (who is speaking virtually), former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy—and prospective ones, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. 
  • Scandal-embroiled GOP Rep. George Santos of New York announced Monday that he will seek reelection in 2024. But he shouldn’t expect House GOP leaders to help him fundraise. FEC reports show that Speaker Kevin McCarthy created a joint fundraising committee, Protect the House New York 2024, to boost fundraising efforts for several House Republicans from New York—but Santos’ fundraising committee is notably absent from the list.

DeSantis 2024 Launch Comes Into View

Republican insiders in Florida now expect Ron DeSantis to launch his presidential bid in mid-May, approximately one month earlier than anticipated. By moving up his timeline, DeSantis will have the ability to respond more quickly and directly to attacks from former President Donald Trump and stanch his recent bleeding in the polls. 

Multiple sources also tell The Dispatch that Never Back Down, the pro-DeSantis super PAC, will likely be responsible for fielding the campaign’s ground game. Both Never Back Down and the governor’s political team declined to comment Wednesday morning. The PAC’s chief strategist, Jeff Roe, has experience running field operations in a high stakes presidential primary. He did so for the 2016 GOP runner-up, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. 

DeSantis signaled the accelerated kick-off Tuesday during a meet-and-greet with congressional Republicans and GOP lobbyists and operatives in Washington, telling attendees he would turn his attention to what’s next soon after Florida’s legislative session concludes on May 5 and the state budget is wrapped up.

DeSantis’ trip to Capitol Hill this week comes as Trump racks up endorsements from lawmakers—including more than half a dozen members of the Florida GOP delegation. Even among the nine congressional Republicans who, according to the invitation, essentially functioned as co-hosts of the DeSantis meet-and-greet, only three have endorsed him, including Reps. Laurel Lee of Florida, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, and Chip Roy of Texas.

Still, the majority of congressional Republicans remain uncommitted in the emerging 2024 primary; several showed up to meet with DeSantis to “kick the tires” and take the measure of the former president’s main obstacle to the nomination. 

Republicans who attended the event, held near the Capitol at a satellite office of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said DeSantis alternated between speaking to the full group and holding private, one-on-one conversations. 

“Each individual’s trying to figure out where they should stand, who they should support,” said Rep. Randy Feenstra, an Iowa Republican who co-hosted the DeSantis event but has not yet made an endorsement in the presidential race. “There’s a lot of time yet, before the first caucus that’s going to happen in January.” Feenstra is hosting DeSantis for an event in his Northwest Iowa district next month.

Rep. Austin Scott praised DeSantis effusively as he exited Tuesday’s meet-and-greet, during which he huddled with the governor, saying “he’s been a great guy, been a great governor, would be a great president.” But the Georgia Republican said he is “not prepared to endorse” DeSantis at this time. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who attended with his wife, also isn’t endorsing, although he echoed what appears to be the main interest in DeSantis among Republicans declining to back Trump.

“I want to win. That’s my goal—pretty much my sole criterion,” Cornyn said.

Meanwhile, Roy has been prosecuting what amounts to a shoestring pro-DeSantis whip operation on Capitol Hill, encouraging congressional Republicans to get to know the governor and consider backing his budding presidential bid. 

In a brief interview as he headed into the meet-and-greet, Roy told The Dispatch the purpose of the event was to give colleagues an opportunity to become better acquainted with the governor personally. Although DeSantis maintains some relationships from his three terms in Congress, he is famously standoffish—even allies concede he “is not relationship focused.”

To help turn that round, Roy has been reaching out to GOP members, especially those in the large and influential Texas delegation. “We’ve had lots of conversations with Texas members,” he said. Roy has more work to do on that front. Tuesday evening, Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas issued a press release announcing that after holding a “positive meeting” with DeSantis, he had decided to endorse Trump.

The House GOP Rediscovers Fiscal Restraint

While Donald Trump bludgeons Ron DeSantis for being too eager to cut federal entitlement spending, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his Republican conference have instigated a standoff with President Joe Biden over the federal debt limit, threatening to block any attempt to raise the ceiling that does not also curtail federal spending.

Debt ceiling wrangling has dominated conversations on the Hill this week, where McCarthy just unveiled the outline of a proposal that he’s characterized as a starting bid to show Republican unity and get Biden to the negotiating table. The proposal, which remains vague on details, would freeze federal spending at 2022 levels, impose stricter work requirements on welfare programs, and claw back unspent federal COVID funds from the states. It would also suspend the debt ceiling for only a year, putting yet another battle on the subject on the calendar in the middle of the 2024 election season. (Haley Byrd Wilt covered more details about the proposal in yesterday’s Uphill.)

Failure to pass a debt limit increase could cause the U.S. to default on its debt as early as June—a no-win outcome almost everyone in Congress wants to avoid, but which Republicans have targeted as a leverage point to extract concessions from the White House.  

Getting his conference in line will be a tall order for McCarthy. He can afford to lose only a handful of votes, and more than a dozen members of his caucus have never voted for a debt ceiling increase of any kind.

Some of those possible holdouts suggested Tuesday there is life in the McCarthy plan. “I’m sure there’s a deal we can get to—we’re not there yet,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, who has never voted to raise the debt ceiling and fought hard to oppose McCarthy’s speakership earlier this year, told The Dispatch, adding he wants to see even more rigorous work requirements than McCarthy had proposed.

But Gaetz also waved off concerns about what would happen if leaders failed to strike a debt-ceiling deal: “Then the government spends less money.”  

As in previous debt-ceiling fights, Republicans have characterized the current standoff as a way to exercise some control over runaway federal spending. “The American people are tired of politicians saying, ‘We’ll do this in five years, we’ll do this in 10 years,’” Rep. Ralph Norman told reporters Tuesday. “Five years never comes in politics, so we’ll do it this year.”

Rep. Bruce Westerman told The Dispatch his constituents have “always” raised concerns about the growing national debt: “It’s a crisis in our country. And the past several years, Democratic control has just highlighted how big a problem it is because they just spent like there is no tomorrow.” (Neither Norman nor Westerman has ever voted for a debt limit increase.)

At a national level, though, it’s less clear the Republican base has the appetite for spending cuts that provided the juice when the congressional GOP ran the same playbook a decade ago. Donald Trump’s presidency fundamentally uprooted the notion that a Republican had to be a fiscal hawk to be embraced by the Republican base.

And the polling on the details of this fight is all over the map. 

One CBS poll this week found a narrow majority opposed to raising the federal debt ceiling—but a 70 percent majority in favor, in a subsequent question, of raising the debt ceiling “if not raising the debt ceiling will result in the U.S. defaulting on its current debts.” Another poll, commissioned by the center-right American Action Network and conducted across 87 swing congressional districts, found that a 50-37 majority of respondents were opposed to “increasing the debt ceiling without cutting government spending,” even given the knowledge that the government “will likely begin to default on its debt obligations sometime this summer if the debt ceiling is not increased.”

For McCarthy and his conference, though, taking on Biden over the debt ceiling may have little to do with how much enthusiasm base Republicans have about the prospect of cutting this or that particular federal program. Not every Republican voter is a fiscal hawk—but most of them remain attuned to the question of whether any given Republican at any given moment is fighting the Democrats or caving to them.

“To properly understand this, you have to start from the premise that this is about not giving Biden a win,” said Liam Donavan, a lobbyist at Bracewell LLP and former Republican operative. “It’s about not being seen as caving. What the prize is is almost incidental. It has to be good enough to allow themselves to save face, but this isn’t Republicans out in search of concessions. This is Republicans trying to survive this without losing face.” 

Eyes on the Trail

  • Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin won’t rule out Senate bid: GOP Rep. Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin confirmed to The Dispatch he isn’t ruling out challenging Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2024. (Earlier this week, Tiffany confirmed to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he approved his campaign team’s decision to buy two new website domains, “thomastiffanyforsenate.com” and “tomtiffany4senate.com” and that he hasn’t made a decision one way or another.) But speaking with The Dispatch on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Tuesday, the congressman was noncommittal. “It’s regular campaign stuff. We’re always prepared for anything that happens,” he said of the campaign website domain purchases. “The time will be right to make that decision. It’s not right now but just haven’t ruled anything out.” Tiffany said he hasn’t met with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Steve Daines about a 2024 bid—“between Judiciary and Natural Resources, and a subcommittee chairmanship, just been so busy”—and floated GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher as a strong prospective candidate to run against Baldwin, whom he described as “beatable” in 2024.
  • The robots are coming: The biggest tech story of early 2023 has been the remarkable leap forward for artificial intelligence tech, with eye-popping advances in AI-generated text, art, and audio seeming to crop up on a near-weekly basis. We can’t know yet all the ways these new tools will shape messaging in the 2024 campaign season, but a new ad from the anti-Trump Republican Accountability PAC offers a glimpse of that future. The spot, released on the heels of Fox News’s monster settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, features text messages from Fox’s primetime hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham—released as part of the discovery process in that lawsuit—in which the hosts expressed skepticism about Trump allies’ 2020 stolen-election claims. But the ad uses AI clones of the hosts’ voices to read the texts aloud—a striking effect we’re likely to see other ad mavens make use of in the months ahead.

Notable and Quotable

“The question is, how long until she goes back? So if it’s three months, I don’t know, that becomes a really difficult question. If it’s a couple of weeks? I’m fine with it. I’m not going to pressure her one way or the other. But I think, you know, if it’s going to be months and months? My guess is that … she will be her own harshest critic.” 

— Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado to Politico when asked about Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s two-month absence from the U.S. Senate

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.