Skip to content
Trailing Trump, DeSantis Comes Out Swinging
Go to my account

Trailing Trump, DeSantis Comes Out Swinging

Plus: Republican spending groups pick their horses for West Virginia Senate Seat.

Illustration photo of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announcing his 2024 presidential run on his Twitter page on May 24, 2023. (Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Happy Friday! No Dispatch Politics Monday—we hope you have a pleasant Memorial Day and we’ll see you in your inboxes on Wednesday.

Up to Speed

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis officially announced Wednesday he is running for president, entering the contest as the top challenger to former President Donald Trump for the GOP nomination. The announcement, made in an audio-only Twitter Spaces conversation with Twitter owner Elon Musk and entrepreneur David Sacks, was delayed at first by a sequence of audio glitches. In a video posted afterward, DeSantis joked that the event “broke the internet.” His campaign later said they brought in $8.2 million in the 24 hours following the announcement.
  • President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy looked poised Thursday to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for cutting spending not related to military or veteran programs, though the deal hasn’t been finalized yet.
  • Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano announced Thursday he will not run for U.S. Senate against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey “at this time, at this moment, the way things currently are.” Mastriano’s apparent prior interest in the seat had alarmed some Republicans following his 14-point gubernatorial loss last year to current Gov. Josh Shapiro.
  • Shortly after Mastriano’s news, hedge funder Dave McCormick released a statement of his own, thanking Mastriano for his military service before stating that “I am seriously considering a run for the U.S. Senate.” McCormick was narrowly edged in last year’s Pennsylvania Senate GOP primary by Dr. Mehmet Oz, who went on to lose to Democratic Sen. John Fetterman in November.
  • A Texas House committee voted unanimously Thursday to recommend articles of impeachment against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, charging him with offenses including bribery and obstruction of justice. Although Paxton became nationally notorious in 2020 for spearheading a lawsuit that attempted to throw out the election results in several battleground states won by President Joe Biden, his current predicament stems from allegations that he abused his office to help a political donor. If impeached by the House, Paxton would be removed from office while awaiting trial in the Senate.

DeSantis Takes the Fight to Trump

What a difference a campaign launch makes.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis used his first full day as a presidential candidate to pummel Donald Trump, responding to months of unanswered attacks and differentiating himself from a field of declared Republican contenders that has avoided confrontation with the former president.

In several interviews Thursday with conservative talk radio hosts, DeSantis essentially called Trump a loser, claimed he grossly mismanaged the coronavirus pandemic—and said he shared blame with President Joe Biden for the exploding federal debt and subsequent high inflation. The governor’s comments, delivered on programs whose audiences are dominated by Trump supporters, were quickly amplified by his Tallahassee-based campaign, indicating his offensive against the former president was part of a premeditated strategy.

“The debt has gone up under both Republicans and Democrats. I mean, we act like it’s just Biden. It went up $8 trillion—the debt—under Trump as well,” DeSantis told Glenn Beck. “We’ve got to stop doing that. That has absolutely driven the inflation since March of 2020 with all the borrowing and spending.”

During the same interview with Beck, the governor rejected the premise that Trump was a good steward of the nation’s economy—among the former president’s favorite boasts and favorable attributes among voters. “He did great for three years. But when he turned the country over to Fauci in March of 2020, that destroyed millions of people’s lives,” DeSantis said. 

The governor was referring to Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and top medical adviser to Trump during the pandemic. Many grassroots Republicans hold Fauci responsible for the wide embrace of lockdowns, masking, and school closures.

The campaign buttressed the governor’s remarks with a video, posted on social media, that features clips of the former president from 2020 bragging about his decision to embrace COVID-cautious policies.

DeSantis made news in these opening campaign interviews in other ways. 

He suggested he’s open to pardoning individuals convicted of crimes related to the January 6, 2021, riot at the United States Capitol—including Trump, should he land in that category. And in contrast with his normal policy brashness, he was noticeably vague when asked to detail his position on entitlement reform and abortion rights. 

But in the context of the Republican primary, DeSantis’ combative approach to Trump might be the most significant development of his nascent campaign.

“We’re going to end this culture of losing that’s infected the Republican Party, we’re going to make sure that we’re winning,” DeSantis told New Hampshire talk radio host Chris Ryan, explaining that it’s not enough to excite grassroots conservatives—Trump’s specialty. The GOP nominee has to attract independents and even some Democrats to win the White House, the governor said.

DeSantis went even further, however, making the argument that even if the former president ousted Biden and returned to the White House, he would be a lame duck and struggle to get things done. “You need to be able to serve two terms. I think that’s very important,” DeSantis said in an interview with Jack Heath, another talk radio host in the Granite State. Having already served four years, Trump is limited by the Constitution to one more term.

Trump’s assault on DeSantis began months ago, soon after the governor emerged from a landslide reelection win in Florida as a top 2024 contender and leading the former president in many polls. As of Friday morning, Trump led DeSantis nationally, 53.9 percent to 21.3 percent, among GOP primary voters, according to the RealClearPolitics average. During the period leading up to Wednesday’s formal campaign launch, DeSantis largely resisted returning Trump’s fire, raising questions among Republican insiders about whether he would do so at all.

None of the other major candidates in the race have made a habit of directly criticizing Trump: not former ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley; not wealthy biotechnology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; not Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. (Granted, the former president has not attacked them, either.) Indeed, Haley and Ramaswamy have so far focused the balance of their primary attacks on DeSantis. 

And so the governor, during the first 24 hours of his campaign, appears to have carved out a wide lane that he has, at least for now, entirely to himself: He is both alone in trying to take down the frontrunner, and the candidate nearly everyone else, including Trump, is trying to beat. 

That posture—and the $8.2 million the governor’s campaign announced it had raised by Thursday afternoon, a record haul for the first day of a presidential campaign—could help DeSantis turn the page from Wednesday’s lackluster launch event. DeSantis’ announcement on Twitter Spaces, the social media hub’s audio platform, was plagued with technical glitches and at times appeared to be more focused on host Elon Musk, Twitter’s owner, than the governor.

The headlines were brutal, with media reports referring to DeSantis’ 2024 reveal as a “DeSaster.” The governor’s opponents were similarly savage. 

“This is one of the most out-of-touch campaign launches in modern history,” Karoline Leavitt, spokeswoman for MAGA, Inc., a pro-Trump super PAC, remarked in a statement. Added Mark Harris, spokesman for SFA, Inc., the designated Haley super PAC: “Failed soft launch? Check. Failed announcement? Double check. We look forward to Ron DeSantis’ failed campaign.”

GOP Groups Bet on Jim Justice in West Virginia

The recruitment approach this cycle of Senate Republican leaders in West Virginia came down to one central question: Which GOP candidate has the best chance to spook Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin out of the race altogether?

For the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), the answer to that question is the state’s popular Republican governor, Jim Justice. 

It’s not that either spending group perceives GOP Rep. Alex Mooney—the only other high-profile contender in the Senate GOP primary thus far—as a subpar general-election option in 2024.

Rather, Senate Republicans have estimated that Justice’s deep pockets, high name ID, and statewide popularity give the party the best odds of pressuring Manchin to bow out of a tough re-election race in 2024, when the party only needs to flip two Democratic seats to shift control of the upper chamber. McConnell has said that West Virginia, Montana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are Senate Republicans’ top targets this cycle. 

It’s that political calculus that prodded NRSC Chairman Steve Daines into heavily recruiting Justice and publicly praising his entrance into the race last month over Mooney, who announced his candidacy in November and now boasts a $10 million financial commitment from Club for Growth Action, the super PAC affiliated with the anti-tax, small-government group Club for Growth. 

Whether the bet will pan out remains to be seen: Manchin has so far kept close counsel on his 2024 plans, although he has pledged to win “any race I enter.” His campaign team did not respond to a request for comment. 

Pro-Justice spending groups have yet to unveil their spending commitments for the governor, who is expected to put some of his own money into the race. An SLF-commissioned poll shows Justice as the favored candidate against Manchin, and the McConnell-aligned nonprofit One Nation has already begun hitting the Democratic incumbent in ads.

Still, Mooney’s team resists the notion that the primary is shaping up to be an intra-party grudge match between D.C.-based spending groups. “Those people can disagree all they want, but that’s not what this is about,” Mooney’s general consultant Mark Harris said in an interview.

Harris said that Mooney maintains a strong working relationship with the NRSC despite Daines’ public recruitment of Justice. “We talk to them regularly,” Harris added. “They’re providing assistance and things to the campaign on an ongoing basis as they would to, I assume, any legitimate Republican candidate. So yeah, we have a good ongoing relationship with them.”

It’s not uncommon for Senate Republicans’ campaign arm to maintain open lines of communication with all viable Republican candidates in a primary even after the committee has picked an early favorite in the race. 

But the Club for Growth is taking a far more aggressive approach to knocking out Justice. Earlier this month, Club for Growth Action bought $10,ooo of negative ads that characterize Justice as a “deadbeat billionaire” who cut off health coverage for coal miners and is facing a court order from a bank to garnish his gubernatorial wages over legal troubles involving one of his companies. 

In an interview, Justice campaign manager Roman Stauffer waved off those attacks. 

“Gov. Justice has been in two statewide campaigns before and both of those candidates—which lost pretty handily—have tried to highlight those things about Gov. Justice and the Justice family and the Justice companies,” Stauffer told The Dispatch. “West Virginians see through that and they know at the end of the day, the Justice companies and the family businesses, they’ll take care of those issues and work themselves out.”

But the early primary matchup between Justice and Mooney presents a test case for GOP primary voters in West Virginia.

Justice—who switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in 2017—plans to lean heavily on his two-term record as governor: balancing the budget, cutting taxes, and leading the state to record-low unemployment. Meanwhile, Mooney hopes to run to Justice’s right, depicting him as a phony Republican who supported COVID relief and the bipartisan infrastructure package. (The two candidates’ policy platforms have significant overlap, with both candidates running on strengthening the southern border, protecting West Virginia’s coal industry, and reining in inflation, among other issues.)

Operatives for both candidates are preparing for a costly contest and are vying for the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, who carried the state by 39 points in 2020. 

Expect Justice to campaign heavily on Mooney’s low name ID and Maryland roots, where he once served as a state senator and state party chair. “Congressman Mooney came here from Maryland to seek public office and ever since his election, has spent most of his time in Congress visiting West Virginia every so often for photo ops,” said Stauffer.

Harris acknowledged Mooney’s underdog status and conceded that “early polling won’t be in our favor,” but insisted that Mooney’s decision to characterize himself as the more conservative candidate in the race will play to his benefit.

“Republican primary voters aren’t voting on who brings home the pork,” Harris said. “Voters want authentic conservative leadership.”

Eyes on the Trail

  • No 10x match in DeSantisland: With DeSantis now trying to differentiate himself from Trump in large and small ways, here’s one smart move he’s already made: A swerve away from Trump’s signature carnie-style online fundraising strategy. “A lot of campaigns are trying to convince you to donate with a fake 1,000% matching gimmick,” one DeSantis donor email sent Thursday reads. “Times are tough thanks to Joe Biden’s Economy and our team doesn’t want to pressure you towards donating if you can’t afford it. You will never receive a solicitation from this campaign that promises a fake match or degrades you for not donating.”
  • NRSC Closing in on Tim Sheehy? We caught up this week with Montana GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke to get his thoughts on prospective Senate candidate Tim Sheehy, the Montana-based CEO of Bridger Aerospace and former Navy SEAL whom Steve Daines is recruiting to take on Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2024. “He’s certainly capable—he can write a check. I’m very fond of Tim Sheehy,” said Zinke, who pinned Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals on Sheehy in 2015 at Fort Harrison (photo of that moment here.) Zinke also seemed to rule out a Senate run of his own. “Right now, I’m looking at our appropriations, so I can only balance one ball at a time.” Meanwhile, the Club for Growth is actively recruiting GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale, Senate Republicans’ 2018 nominee who lost to Tester by 3.5 points. “Daines really doesn’t want him to run,” David McIntosh, president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, told The Dispatch earlier this month. “I think Matt’s testing the waters to see if he can do the fundraising. We supported him last time and he’d make a great Senator.”

Notable and Quotable

“The RINOs in the Texas Legislature are now on the same side as Joe Biden, Alejandro Mayorkas, and Chuck Schumer, collaborating to tie our hands and render Texas less powerful and effective in the fight for the nation’s future. They want nothing more than to sabotage our legal challenges to Biden’s extremist agenda by taking me out as the state’s Attorney General.”

—Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton responds to his likely impeachment, May 25, 2023

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.