Many Republicans liked the fighting, anti-establishment mentality that Trump brought to the White House. But DeSantis has an aggressive posture to match, and his governing style meshes well with the combative attitude of the Republican electorate.
So what might give DeSantis an edge over Trump among Republican voters?
If DeSantis runs, he will do so with much more government experience under his belt than Trump had in 2016. After serving as governor, as well as a US House Representative, DeSantis will give Republican voters an opportunity to support a candidate who is red to the core, with decorum and experience to boot. It also helps that as a governor, he can still position himself as an outsider to Washington. And if DeSantis faces off against Trump in the Republican primary, the Florida governor will inevitably paint the former President as part of the establishment.
Trump, of course, is weighed down by his own baggage. The devastating findings of the House select committee on January 6 could help DeSantis. While there are certainly Republicans who will see the committee’s investigation as a witch-hunt, others in the party who recognize the ugliness of the US Capitol attack might prefer a candidate who isn’t, as far as we know, directly associated with the attempt to overturn the election.
And his timing might be just right. Although DeSantis was pilloried by the national press for rejecting vaccine mandates, lockdowns, and school closures, the nation has now entered a period of the pandemic where more and more Americans are willing to live with the risks of the virus. In this context, some of the governor’s more radical decisions — which came before the vaccines were widely available — could now appear less so.
Of course, Trump could burst the DeSantis bubble if he officially announces his reelection bid. Trump is likely to command so much media attention and generate such electoral fervor that DeSantis might quickly find himself sitting on the sidelines. Recent SCOTUS decisions, including the one knocking down New York state’s gun regulation law, will remind Republican voters of what Trump delivered while in office.
Many up-and-coming governors — like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012, for example — are discussed as exciting presidential prospects, only to completely fizzle out as the race unfolds and their vulnerabilities become painfully clear under the national spotlight.
For now, Trump likely understands that the governor of Florida is a major political threat. DeSantis might just be the Republican who can present a cleaned-up version of Trumpism and mount a strong challenge in 2024.