Will Donald Trump’s Attacks Sink Ron DeSantis?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Iowa voters on March 10, 2023. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Happy Monday! Our hearts are with the people of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia today as they try to pick up the pieces after a weekend of intense storms and deadly tornadoes.

Up to Speed

  • Former President Donald Trump kicked off his first official campaign rally of the 2024 election cycle in Waco, Texas, on Sunday. He rolled out his campaign priorities and lambasted political adversaries—namely Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and likely presidential primary challenger Gov. Ron DeSantis. The rally kicked off with video footage of the January 6 riot and Trump’s recent song “Justice For All,” which features the former president reciting the Pledge of Allegiance over a track of men imprisoned for storming the U.S. Capitol singing the national anthem.
  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell left inpatient physical therapy over the weekend, the Kentucky Republican said in a statement Saturday evening, after an early March fall left him with a concussion and fractured rib that required hospitalization. He’ll work from home for “the next few days” before returning to the Capitol, the statement said.
  • Erin Perrine, who previously served as Trump’s communications director during the former president’s 2020 campaign, will join pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down as the group’s spokesperson, CBS News reports.
  • Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson of North Carolina plans to announce his run for outgoing Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s seat in late April, Axios reports
  • Democratic Rep. Rho Khanna of California told CNN he will not run for retiring Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat in 2024 and will continue to serve in the House. Instead, the California progressive will endorse Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee and co-chair her campaign. Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter are also running for Feinstean’s seat.
  • Michigan Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a video announcement Friday she will not run for retiring Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s seat in 2024, all but clearing the Democratic primary field for declared candidate and U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and state Sen. Mallory McMorrow—two other high-profile Democrats who were also considered strong potential Democratic challengers—have also said they won’t run for Stabenow’s seat.

Can DeSantis Handle Trump? 

TALLAHASSEE—Here in Florida’s capital, Ron DeSantis is practically indestructible. What the governor wants, the governor gets. Even doubters—the Republicans among them, anyway—offer grudging respect for the political heights he commands and the policy accomplishments he’s notched in little more than four years.

But none of that will amount to much beyond a thumbnail biography in the history books if he can’t figure out how to take on a certain other Florida man. Even some of the governor’s ardent admirers hesitate when asked whether DeSantis can handle Donald Trump.

“Can anyone handle Trump? I mean, he’s a master at dismantling people and he’s incredibly good on the debate stage,” a Republican operative supportive of DeSantis told The Dispatch last week, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “I think he can. … If he decides to run, he’s going to have to.”

One veteran Republican lobbyist who otherwise finds DeSantis, 44, to be “uncannily bright” expressed misgivings about the governor’s ability to weather the barbs of the 76-year-old former president, particularly under the bright lights of a primary debate. “He has a temper, and I think Trump knows it,” this GOP insider said. 

DeSantis has been inching toward a White House bid for months, particularly since he romped to a nearly 20-point reelection victory in November. He’s made his intentions more explicit in recent days—possibly because the May conclusion of the Florida Legislature’s current session, the governor’s unofficial target for a campaign launch, is fast approaching; possibly because months of unanswered attacks from Trump have finally started to dent his national polling numbers. (The governor’s political team declined to comment.)

In the immediate aftermath of his commanding victory last fall—a bright spot in otherwise disappointing midterm elections for Republicans—DeSantis enjoyed a run of polls that showed him ahead of Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup. But his position has slipped amid the inevitable Trump blitzkrieg. DeSantis, the 45th president insists, botched COVID, has let crime run amok, presides over failing public schools, and gets away with it all thanks to Florida’s nice weather, which attracts millions of tourists and new residents every year.

“Man, he’s dropping like a rock,” Trump said Saturday during his rally in Waco, Texas, adding, “Florida has been tremendously successful for many years, long before this guy became governor.” For good measure, the former president accused “DeSanctimonious” of asking for his endorsement in the 2018 Florida GOP gubernatorial primary with “tears in his eyes.” 

Until recently, Trump’s rhetorical carpet bombing drew little response from the governor. But last week, DeSantis finally broke his silence. “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star,” he told reporters, a reference to allegations Trump had an extramarital affair with adult film actress Stormy Daniels in the mid-2000s and later paid her to keep quiet about it. 

In a subsequent interview with Piers Morgan, DeSantis chuckled when asked about “DeSanctimonious,” the nickname Trump seems to have settled on in an attempt to tear him down. “I kind of like it, it’s got a lot of vowels. We’ll go with that, that’s fine,” the governor said. “You can call me whatever you want, just as long as you also call me a winner.”

Republicans who work in and around the Florida Capitol were “impressed” with the governor’s pivot.

That includes party operatives and lobbyists who question whether DeSantis can handle Trump in the pressure-cooker of a 2024 campaign. Maybe, just maybe, they said after watching the governor’s strategic yet aggressive jabs at the former president, he has the fortitude and resilience to go the full 15 rounds and still be standing at the end. As for the true believers, they say everything they have seen from DeSantis confirms their confidence in his ability to turn the tables on Trump.

Political analysts and Republican insiders nationally look at the apparent deterioration of DeSantis’ standing and, until last week, his relatively silent response to Trump’s heavy criticism, and conclude he may have been overhyped. But Republicans here who know the governor well and support his presumed presidential bid counter that his skeptics are missing the point. Rather than engage with Trump on Trump’s terms, DeSantis did so when he was ready— avoiding a pitfall that has sunk other Republicans in his position. 

When the governor did engage, he did so with surgical precision. It’s all a product, DeSantis partisans say, of intense discipline from a politician who doesn’t get rattled. 

“Trump is like the guy on the back of a Humvee holding a .50-caliber weapon; DeSantis is a sniper,” said a Republican official in Tallahassee who used to back the former president. As to that central question—can the governor handle Trump?—this Republican was unequivocal. “He can and he will. The governor understands that the way you get under Trump’s skin is to marginalize him, but with marginalizing somebody like Trump, he becomes louder and he lashes out more.”

“He’s a pretty tough guy,” a Republican insider said of DeSantis. “I think he can handle it. I think he will handle it.”

A ‘Republican’ Mayor in Chicago?

You can tell two basic stories about Chicago’s mayoral runoff election, now just over a week away. One story is that of a party at a crossroads. With incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot eliminated in the first round, will overwhelmingly Democratic Chicago throw in with Cook County Commissioner and progressive champion Brandon Johnson, a former teachers-union organizer and onetime “defund the police” sympathizer, or will they opt instead for the law-and-order message of centrist Democrat and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas?

The Johnson campaign prefers a simpler narrative.

“The central pitch is that this election boils down to a choice between a Republican and a Democrat,” Karthik Ganapathy, a Johnson spokesman, told The Dispatch Friday. “The politics of old versus a stronger, better, safer Chicago for all.”

Three years on from the death of George Floyd and the subsequent anti-police protests of 2020, there’s little question the pendulum of public opinion in many cities has swung away from tearing up police programs by the roots and toward reining in rising crime. While Republicans have consistently capitalized on this trend—anti-crime messaging was one of the constants of red-team messaging in last year’s midterms—some Democrats, like New York City Mayor Eric Adams, have deployed similar messaging to great effect in intra-party contests too.

Vallas has followed a similar playbook, pledging to put more beat cops on Chicago’s streets and slamming Johnson’s 2020 calls for “redirecting money away from policing and militarizing police forces.” He’s also hit Johnson on fiscal issues and savaged his closeness with the Chicago Teachers Union, which he blamed for Chicago’s slow return to in-person schooling during the pandemic.

For his part, Johnson has backed away from “defund the police,” explicitly disavowing the slogan at debates and saying that as mayor he’d promote hundreds of new detectives to try to reduce the number of unsolved crimes. Still, it’s easy to see why “law-and-order Democrat vs. progressive Democrat” is a narrative he’d be happy to avoid in the current climate.

As a result, the Johnson team has tried to paint Vallas as a crypto-Republican. They’ve repeatedly referenced Vallas’ most conservative-sounding comments from the longtime school chief’s decades in public life, including a 2009 clip when he told a local radio show that “I’m more of a Republican than a Democrat now” and added that “fundamentally, I oppose abortion.” Johnson’s camp has also spotlighted reporting about Vallas’ prolific social media use, including instances where his Facebook account “liked” posts disparaging Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and referring to Chicago as a “hell hole.” (Vallas, who has repeatedly run for office as a Democrat, has claimed he does not run his own accounts and has sometimes additionally—and dubiously—claimed some social media activity was the work of hackers.)

It is true that such right-leaning folks as there are in Illinois are largely pulling for Vallas. “If Vallas can win this thing, Chicago starts looking like a very different city pretty fast,” Matthew Paprocki, president of the libertarian Illinois Policy Institute, told The Dispatch. “Right now the two things that people talk about in the city of Chicago are crime and taxes … You have somebody in Paul Vallas who’s saying, ‘Look, we need more police out on the streets and we need to get this in check.’”

But Vallas’ supporters argue that a few out-of-context lines shouldn’t outweigh his decades of work in Democratic politics. Joe Trippi, the prominent national Democratic strategist who is managing Vallas’ campaign, argued it’s misleading even to describe him as a moderate: Vallas already supported gay marriage, for instance, during his 2002 Democratic bid for governor, long before much of the rest of his party came around.

“He’s a progressive,” Trippi said, “who does happen to think that it’s a human right to have safe streets.”

In addition to a cornucopia of endorsements from prominent progressives—Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Rev. Jesse Jackson—Johnson has also bagged the blessing of a few more establishmentarian types, most notably South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn

But over the weekend, Vallas, who is notably supported by Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, added another high-profile endorsement of his own: Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who called Vallas “a lifelong Democrat committed to democratic values.”

Team Vallas hopes such endorsements will be key in counterprogramming Johnson’s central message.

“If the undecided are asking themselves, ‘Why would Dick Durbin be supporting somebody Brandon Johnson says is [a Republican]?’ Trippi said, “I think we have a good chance, a good opportunity here to create questions about the attacks he’s made. I’m not sure he has the same ability to do it on his end, on the defund-the-police side of things.”

With a week to go, the latest polling shows a tight race, with Vallas holding on to a two-point lead.

Eyes on the Trail

  • ‘Old Dudes Eating Jell-O’: Over at Politico, Jonathan Martin has the latest scoop on newly independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s disdain for her Senate Democratic colleagues. (Remember, Sinema is up for reelection in Arizona in 2024 and already has one Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego.) “As she races to stockpile campaign money and post an impressive, statement-making first-quarter fundraising number, Sinema has used a series of Republican-dominated receptions and retreats this year to belittle her Democratic colleagues, shower her GOP allies with praise and, in one case, quite literally give the middle finger to President Joe Biden’s White House.” And speaking before Republican lobbyists earlier this year, Martin reports, Sinema explained why she no longer attends weekly lunches with Senate Democrats, even though she’s formally aligned with the party to get committee assignments. “Old dudes are eating Jell-O, everyone is talking about how great they are,” Sinema reportedly said. “The Northerners and the Westerners put cool whip on their Jell-O … and the Southerners put cottage cheese.” Democratic Sen. Tina Smith reacted to Martin’s article with some trademark Midwestern snark:

Notable and Quotable

“I don’t think that ‘spying’ is the right way to describe it.”

–TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, testifying before the House Commerce Committee, asked whether parent company ByteDance has spied on American citizens, March 23, 2023

Also Notable and Quotable

“During Women’s History Month, we celebrate and we honor the women who made history throughout history.”–Vice President Kamala Harris at a White House reception honoring Women’s History Month, March 22, 2023

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