July 24, 2024

© Travis Dove/For The Washington Post
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to South Carolina supporters in North Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (Photo by Travis Dove/For The Washington Post)

Republican megadonor Ken Langone is eager to support Ron DeSantis for president in 2024. But he has some concerns about the Florida governor as he prepares to enter the race.

Langone didn’t like that DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban and wants him to moderate his stance on the issue. It wouldn’t hurt for DeSantis to “be a little more conciliatory” in his demeanor, he suggested. And Langone worries about the resurgence of former president Donald Trump, who Langone previously backed but argues can’t win another general election.

“It scares the hell out of me,” he said of Trump’s growing dominance in the polls.

Tracking presidential candidates for the 2024 election

A few months ago, DeSantis was celebrating his landslide reelection to chants of “two more years!” as enthusiastic fans begged him to run for president. But that momentum has rapidly cooled, confronting DeSantis with a considerably more difficult political outlook for the campaign he is expected to launch after the Florida legislative session ends in May.

Donors, activists and other supporters are increasingly voicing worries that DeSantis has made unforced errors or embraced extreme positions that could hurt him in a general election, including the abortion ban he signed last week. He’s had to clarify comments on Ukraine that prompted some criticism in the party. He has struck some Republicans as distant in personal interactions. And Trump has relentlessly attacked DeSantis and expanded his lead over the governor in national polls, while accruing a string of influential endorsements in Florida and beyond.

But even as he faces head winds, DeSantis remains in a clear second place to Trump, with a cluster of other current and prospective candidates mired in single digits and showing no signs of gaining traction — and the only candidate that Trump and his team regularly focus on. He has continued to draw enthusiastic crowds in early state visits, as he did in South Carolina on Wednesday, rounding out a weeks-long circuit through the first four states in the GOP nomination fight.

“I can see why Trump’s nervous about him,” said Jim Morris, a retiree who came out to see DeSantis in the Charleston area Wednesday and also went to see Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who has launched a presidential exploratory committee, at a restaurant last week. Morris is a Trump fan but called his attacks on DeSantis “ridiculous” and said of the Florida governor, “Everything he said, I agree.”

Representatives for DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) on Wednesday became the eighth member of Florida’s congressional delegation to endorse Trump for president. Trump personally called Buchanan about an endorsement — and invited him to have dinner Thursday night at Mar-a-Lago — while DeSantis’s outreach came through a pollster who advises him, Ryan Tyson, according to a person close to Buchanan, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions.

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), a rising star who introduced DeSantis at the governor’s election-night celebration last fall, said he decided to endorse Trump because he’s already done the job and deserves the chance for a second term. An additional factor, he said, was the need to unite behind Trump in the face of the criminal charges Trump is facing in New York. He is scheduled to appear with Trump on Friday at an event in Fort Myers, Fla.

Donalds said he speaks with Trump but wasn’t asked directly for his endorsement, and he wasn’t lobbied by DeSantis’s team. The conversations with Trump’s team included talk of a possible Cabinet post for Donalds, though no specific position was offered, according to a person briefed on the discussions.

“I don’t get that far,” Donalds said when asked about the possibility of a Cabinet position during an interview in the Capitol on Wednesday. “You rule nothing out in this place.”

Rep. Greg Steube, another Florida Republican, told Politico he endorsed Trump after DeSantis regularly left him out of events in Florida and didn’t call when he was hurt earlier this year, even though Trump called immediately to check on him.

Some Republicans traced DeSantis’s struggle to lock down endorsements in part to his insularity and said he should have done more to cultivate relationships. One person in DeSantis’s orbit said a dearth of warm interactions — even with staff and traditional allies — has hurt him with endorsements, lawmakers and donors. “He doesn’t like talking to people, and it’s showing,” said this person, who is a vocal supporter of DeSantis.

Endorsements might not directly move that many voters, but they can help generate publicity, campaign surrogates and fundraising.

DeSantis has made an effort recently to engage in the glad-handing and chitchat that has become a prerequisite for running a national campaign. After speaking Tuesday in Washington at an office for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative organization, the governor made a point of speaking directly with every person present, attendees said — a contrast, by many accounts, to DeSantis’s time as a U.S. House member, when he was known for skipping small talk, sleeping on a couch and zipping home for the weekends.

But he ended the night with one more blow: Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas) — who shares a pro-Trump adviser, Alex Bruesewitz, with some Florida lawmakers backing Trump — announced immediately upon leaving the event that, after “careful consideration and a positive meeting” with DeSantis, he was endorsing Trump.

In an interview, Gooden said his brief conversation with DeSantis on Tuesday was not what swayed him to endorse Trump, but he decided afterward there was no point in dragging it out. “It was not a spur-of-the-moment decision,” he said.

Attendees on Tuesday ranged widely in ideology and included the three members of Congress who have endorsed DeSantis: Chip Roy of Texas and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who served with DeSantis and were fellow members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus, as well as freshman Rep. Laurel M. Lee, whom DeSantis appointed as Florida secretary of state. Lee received outreach from DeSantis’s team, according to a Republican consultant to a Florida delegation member, and announced her support of DeSantis on Tuesday.

The only hint of DeSantis’s presidential ambitions came toward the end of the talk, when DeSantis finished discussing his plans for the state budget and said, in one attendee’s recollection, that “once we’re done with that, things are going to get interesting.” The audience laughed.

Other Florida House members were there, too — but not Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who said DeSantis’s team didn’t reach out to him ahead of the visit. “I wasn’t even aware of it,” he said. “I’m far from making any decisions on the presidential race for a while.”

© Travis Dove/For The Washington Post
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to residents as he stops at Coastal Coffee Roasters in Summerville, S.C., on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (Photo by Travis Dove/For The Washington Post)

‘Not ready for the bright lights’

Conservative media and GOP donors rallied around DeSantis last year as a promising new standard-bearer for the party. He won reelection in Florida, a onetime swing state, by nearly 20 points, and 2024 polling from early primary states and nationally began to show DeSantis jockeying with Trump for primacy. The governor planned for a state legislative session that would deliver one victory after another, boosting his conservative bona fides and outflanking Trump from the right on some issues.

Since then, however, DeSantis has faced heightened scrutiny and a barrage of disparaging nicknames and policy attacks from Trump and his allies. A pro-Trump super PAC has already spent almost $4 million attacking DeSantis on cable TV, according to data from the media tracking firm AdImpact. The spots focus on DeSantis’s past support for overhauling Social Security benefits.

In turn, a pro-DeSantis super PAC responded with more than $3.6 million on broadcast, cable and online, AdImpact’s data shows, and started to take aim at Trump, airing a Fox News ad criticizing Trump for going after a fellow Republican. But part of that ad was devoted to defending DeSantis against Trump’s Social Security attacks, and much of the PAC’s resources have gone toward a positive ad highlighting DeSantis’s record in Florida.

DeSantis himself has been reluctant to hit back at Trump. After taking a veiled swipe at Trump’s alleged affair with an adult film actress, he returned to his old strategy of mostly ignoring Trump after facing a blowback from the ex-president and his allies. (Trump has denied the alleged affair.) People close to DeSantis say he is trying to calibrate how to attack Trump but not lose supporters who like Trump.

Trump and his advisers have been taken aback by how DeSantis has let some of the most scorching attacks go unchallenged. “He’s not ready for the bright lights,” Trump has repeatedly said, according to a close adviser.

In recent weeks, the inherent challenges of DeSantis’s efforts to appeal to different wings of his party have come into sharper focus. Donors and other Republican officials balked at his written statement dismissing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” unimportant to American interests, a phrase he walked away from in a subsequent interview. And some top donors such as Langone have vocally opposed a statewide ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy that DeSantis signed quietly this month and has not touted in recent speeches around the country.

“I have put myself on hold,” one Florida-based megadonor, Thomas Peterffy, said in an interview published last week in the Financial Times. Once effusive about DeSantis, Peterffy told the publication that “myself, and a bunch of friends, are holding our powder dry” because of DeSantis’s handling of abortion and support for removing some books from schools.

Other donors are still enthusiastic. In an interview last month, Doug Deason, a prominent Texas donor, said a DeSantis event in Texas earlier this year was one of the biggest draws for the party in some time — with more than 500 paying at least $500 for tickets.

In New Hampshire last week, an official said DeSantis was the biggest financial draw of the year so far. When he arrived to deliver the keynote address to the state GOP’s spring dinner last Friday, DeSantis handed over an envelope filled with $122,000 in additional checks that he had gathered to help the party — topping off the quarter of a million dollars he helped raise by speaking at their dinner.

Just as the waitstaff was serving his dinner after his remarks, the Florida governor told New Hampshire GOP Chairman Chris Ager he wanted to work the room. He proceeded to visit with attendees at nearly all of the 52 tables inside the brick-walled armory, chatting with voters and activists about Florida’s real estate market, the recent hurricane season and how he had brought the sunshine and 80-degree weather with him during an unseasonably warm week in New England.

“Once he started, it was invigorating and enjoyable and he said ‘Let’s just do the whole room.’ He said ‘Lead the way,’” Ager recalled. “I was impressed with his ability to spontaneously do a really bang-up job in a retail environment that he created just by walking through the tables.”

The next day, DeSantis gathered some two dozen Granite State activists and local elected officials for lunch at Manchester’s Airport Diner to take his measure in a private setting.

After the back-and-forth with activists for about an hour, DeSantis looked to his aides for guidance about the schedule, asking aloud: “Can we mingle now?” and proceeded to chat with attendees-one-on-one and take pictures, according to several people in the room.

“He relates well to people,” said J.P. Marzullo, a former member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives who attended the private gathering and has still not made a decision about whom he will support. “He gave people time. He didn’t rush anybody. He looked them in the face and, for me, that’s really important.”

© Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump delivers remarks during the National Rifle Association annual convention leadership forum in Indianapolis on April 14. (Photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Trump campaign pounces

While DeSantis steps up his efforts on the retail circuit, Trump’s team has tried to exploit DeSantis’s reputation for standoffishness. Although Trump advisers have been calling around to prospective endorsees to feel them out, Trump has secured the deals and often gets on the phone once it is clear there is interest.

On Friday, Trump hosted a three-hour dinner at a Four Seasons hotel in Nashville with six members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation. Polling packets, detailing both Trump’s primary strength and hypothetical general election matchups, were circulated. Brian Jack, a top campaign aide who managed Trump’s congressional relationships as White House political director, spoke with the members about the help Trump had provided to each of them individually.

Soon after, Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, who were both at the dinner, gave Trump their endorsements.

Before taking the stage at the Republican National Committee donor retreat in Nashville, Trump huddled with longtime pollster Kellyanne Conway. Onstage, he rattled off more than a dozen polls that showed him ahead of DeSantis that were meant to send a message to donors, according to advisers: I’m not going away, and I’m going to be the nominee. While Trump and his team have worked donors and committee members at the last two RNC meetings, DeSantis did not establish a similar presence.

Members of Trump’s team have reveled in DeSantis’s deflation, taking particular joy in sending one another links to articles about his fight with Disney, a corporate giant in Florida that the governor sought to punish for criticizing his policies. Earlier his year, DeSantis took control of a board overseeing a special district for Walt Disney World, discovering too late that outgoing members had quietly stripped his new board of much of its power.

DeSantis this week announced he would work with the state legislature to override that maneuver — and mused about punishing Disney further by developing the land nearby. “Maybe try to do more amusement parks — someone even said, like, maybe you need another state prison,” he said at a news conference.

But some Republicans wish DeSantis would move on from the feud, and to critics, it was an example of being caught on his back foot — uncomfortable new territory for a governor who generally gets his way in Tallahassee.

“He’s not practiced in dealing with real opposition,” said Mac Stipanovich, a former lobbyist and Republican operative in Florida who has backed Democrats in recent years and criticized both DeSantis and Trump.

One prominent Republican who does not support Trump was highly critical of the prison comment, noting that suburban moms and others from Middle America whose support is important in elections go to Disney World. “What is wrong with you?” said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid.

Michael Scherer contributed to this report.