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Here Comes Ron DeSantis
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Here Comes Ron DeSantis

Plus: Arizona’s Kari Lake is making moves to distance herself from the state GOP.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in the Florida State Capitol on March 7, 2023. (Photo by CHENEY ORR/AFP via Getty Images)

Happy Wednesday! Looks like it’s time to figure out what this Ron DeSantis guy is all about.

Up to Speed

  • It’s official: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will launch his long-anticipated presidential campaign during a 6:00 p.m. ET Twitter conversation with the social media platform’s owner Elon Musk. Later Wednesday evening, DeSantis will join Fox News host and former South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy for an 8:00 p.m. ET interview.
  • After his Monday debt ceiling meeting with President Joe Biden that both sides later characterized as “productive,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told the House GOP conference Tuesday that the president is still “dug in” on his approach to raising the country’s borrowing limit. As both parties continue to negotiate amidst the standoff, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told a local news outlet in Kentucky on Tuesday that he believes panic in Washington surrounding the default timeline is overblown. “Look, I think everybody needs to relax,” McConnell said. “This is not that unusual.”
  • South Carolina’s Senate passed a House-passed fetal heartbeat bill on Tuesday that bans abortions after six weeks in a woman’s pregnancy with exceptions for medical emergencies, fetal abnormalities, or in cases of incest up to twelve weeks in a pregnancy. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has vowed to sign the bill into law once it reaches his desk.
  • Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency in North Carolina’s public school system in response to Republican state lawmakers considering legislation that would expand school voucher programs and prohibit teachers from promoting critical race and gender theory concepts in the K-12 classrooms, among other public education-related bills. “It’s clear that the Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education,” Cooper said in an address Monday. “I’m declaring this a state of emergency because you need to know what’s happening.” 

DeSantis Takes the Field After Months of Anticipation

Finally a bona-fide presidential candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is skipping the traditional hometown kickoff and heading straight to the crucial early primary states, where Republican voters matter most.

Rather than declare his candidacy with a major speech in suburban Tampa, where he was raised; or Jacksonville, an area he represented for three terms in Congress; or even Tallahassee, the state capital where he transformed into a presidential contender, DeSantis will hit the ground in Iowa and other early primary states immediately after the Memorial Day weekend.

DeSantis is set to formally announce his bid for the Republican presidential nomination on Wednesday, a move expected since last November, when he won reelection by a landslide. The big reveal is taking place in a Twitter interview with Elon Musk, the technology mogul who owns the social media hub. Their conversation, moderated by David Sacks—a wealthy entrepreneur who backs DeSantis—will be broadcast in the evening on Twitter Spaces, the platform’s site for audio discussions.  

DeSantis’ choice to forgo a Florida rally represents a notable departure from his competitors, including Donald Trump, who launched their bids with formulaic campaign events on their home turf, filling seats with a curated, cheering crowd, before parachuting into Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to court Republican primary voters. 

In an interview with journalist John Stossel on the eve of his entrance into the race, DeSantis, 44, exuded confidence, looking ahead to a general election matchup with President Joe Biden, despite trailing Trump significantly in GOP primary polling.  

“It’s a long way off,” the governor said. “But in all of these swing states, I actually beat Biden— Georgia, Arizona, they had a poll in Michigan, some of these states that are necessary to win the Electoral College. Those same polls have Biden beating Trump.” 

DeSantis begins his candidacy under fire from all directions, with both Democrats and his Republican opponents, especially Trump, attempting to foil the governor’s launch. To some degree, it has worked. Initially touted as the most formidable rival to the former president, DeSantis enters the fray amid heavy doubts about his prospects—in the media and quarters of a GOP establishment hopeful he might dethrone Trump. However, DeSantis stands to benefit from a voter turnout operation that, uniquely, is already up and running.

“We’re light speed and light years ahead of any campaign out there, including Trump’s,” said a senior strategist for Never Back Down, the super PAC that is running the ground game for DeSantis’ presidential campaign. 

Typically, a campaign gets underway and then assembles the infrastructure needed to identify, woo and turnout voters in the various primary contests, a product partly of federal election law that severely limits expenditures on political activities for non-candidates. But there are no such restrictions on super PACs. As of Tuesday, the day before DeSantis announced for president, Never Back Down had, by its count, knocked on the doors of 26,919 likely caucusgoers in Iowa. 

Among additional details shared with The Dispatch: So far, Never Back Down has tapped approximately 30 paid political operatives to run grassroots outreach and voter turnout in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, with more staff hires pending in the “Super Tuesday” states that will vote next March. (In the four early primary states, each team has a state director and political director in place.) This doesn’t include the paid door-knocking program.

The super PAC runs a field operation training program in Des Moines for all paid door-knockers, which the group estimates now numbers “triple digits.” Those who participate travel to Never Back Down’s Iowa headquarters there for instruction and are then deployed across the Hawkeye State, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. The most recent class to “graduate” was scheduled to begin knocking on doors in the Granite State Wednesday, the Never Back Down senior strategist said.

Besides Trump, DeSantis will have to fend off Nikki Haley, the former ambassador and former South Carolina governor; Vivek Ramaswamy, the young biotechnology entrepreneur who is spending millions of his personal fortune on his campaign; Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina; and soon others poised to jump into the primary. Their opposition has mostly focused on DeSantis rather than each other, presenting a difficult obstacle for him to overcome. 

But the governor’s supporters are optimistic, and anxious for him to get started.

“He’s doing all the right things,” said Republican Matt Windschitl, majority leader in the Iowa House of Representatives who is backing the newly minted candidate.  “The more people meet Gov. DeSantis, the more they like him.” 

Kari Lake’s Brian Kemp Moment

Arizona’s Kari Lake—stop-the-stealer, one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate, likely Senate contender—has had a week with lots of sizzle and very little steak.

First there was the latest setback to her quixotic months-long legal bid to overturn her loss last year to Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs: An Arizona judge on Monday threw out her lawsuit alleging that signature-verifying election workers had cut corners in their work.

And a teased “huge announcement” Tuesday turned out to be simply the launch of Save America Fund, an organization for Arizona “ballot chasing”—the practice of following up with likely supporters ahead of election day to encourage them to get off the couch and vote. Lake’s apocalyptic rhetoric—“We’ve gotta work in this rigged, corrupt system … We will not allow them to steal another election from We the People”—was somewhat undercut by the fact ballot chasing is an ordinary tactic every well-organized campaign pursues.

But that doesn’t mean Lake’s announcement wasn’t interesting. Traditionally, there’s been a single kind of outside group responsible for supporting campaigns with these sorts of get-out-the-vote efforts: state parties. Lake’s announcement was the latest data point suggesting Republican candidates with powerful personal brands are relying less and less on those parties’ institutional support.

Ironically, the other Republican who exemplifies this trend is one far across the spectrum from Lake: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Kemp became estranged from the Georgia GOP in the run-up to last year’s midterm elections when party leaders threw in with Donald Trump’s stolen-election claims and Trump’s hand-picked primary challenger to Kemp, David Perdue.

After smashing Perdue and going on to defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams, Kemp—as we’ve repeatedly reported—leveraged his huge fundraising base in Georgia to set up a new organization, Georgians First Leadership Committee, to perform many of those basic party functions under his own leadership.

Recently, Lake has developed her own open gripe with state party leaders. (Neither Lake nor the Arizona GOP chose to comment.)

During last year’s midterms, Arizona Republicans faced unprecedented infighting and heavy electoral disappointment under the leadership of then-party chair Kelli Ward, who aggressively aligned herself with Lake and the party’s MAGA wing. State party chair Jeff DeWit, who assumed the role this year, was seen as a bridge-building consensus pick among the factions—but Lake quickly soured on his unwillingness to aggressively ally the state party with her baseless legal challenges.

Last month, Lake skipped a meeting for Republican Senate hopefuls DeWit had organized to urge comity in next year’s primary election. And last weekend, she confronted the chair at a restaurant to chew him out about his silence on her lawsuits—an encounter that prompted DeWit to belatedly tweet an endorsement of her “election integrity fight.” 

In launching an independent group designed to assume a key party function, Lake further empowers herself to ignore DeWit’s operation going into 2024. Should she declare for Senate, she would enter the field as the heavy frontrunner.

Eyes on the Trail

  • Tim Scott hopes for a Republican reversal: ICYMI, here’s Mike Warren’s dispatch from Tim Scott’s presidential launch in North Charleston on Monday, in which he delves into the South Carolina senator’s case to be the GOP standard-bearer against Joe Biden: “Scott’s theory of how he wins the Republican nomination rests on two propositions: that enough GOP primary voters are looking for an optimistic conservative message, and that they value candidates who stay above the fray, not down in the mud with Trump or anyone else.”
  • Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s team is this week once again mostly pushing back on reports that he could run for president next year. On Monday, Axios reported—citing “a top source close to Youngkin” and a “top Virginia GOP strategist”—that the governor was “reconsidering” the possibility of a run. Youngkin senior political adviser Dave Rexrode pushed back, tweeting that Youngkin “is focused on Virginia,” adding that “anyone who anonymously says otherwise probably isn’t as close to the governor as they want people to think.” Don’t count on this dynamic going away anytime soon: While actually running for president would definitely hinder Youngkin’s ability to influence Virginia’s off-year state elections this November, having his name ambiguously in the mix is pure upside, driving eyeballs and donors to those same Virginia efforts. “That energy is a good thing for the commonwealth,” one source familiar with Youngkin’s thinking told The Dispatch. “It allows for raising really good resources … and it’s a good thing for the country overall too.”

Notable and Quotable

“You have basically three people at this point that are credible in this whole thing… Biden, Trump and me. And I think of those three, two have a chance to get elected president—Biden and me, based on all the data in the swing states, which is not great for the former president and probably insurmountable because people aren’t going to change their view of him.”

—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on a call with donors, per a May 18, 2023 report from the New York Times

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.