Some Republicans think Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the party’s best hope at dethroning Donald Trump. DeSantis keeps disappointing them.
With his polling numbers stuck far below Trump’s, DeSantis has been facing blowback from big donors who think maybe he’s not the GOP’s savior, after all. The latest contributor to get the jitters is Las Vegas hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, who has been DeSantis’s biggest donor so far, giving $20 million to the candidate’s super PAC.
Bigelow recently told Reuters he would hold off giving DeSantis any more money for the time being. DeSantis needs to “shift to get more moderates,” Bigelow told Reuters. “Extremism doesn’t get you elected.” He cited just one policy: a bill DeSantis signed in April that would ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. That law is not yet in effect, pending a review by the Florida Supreme Court. Current law in Florida bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Billionaire Ken Griffin, founder of the Citadel hedge fund, is reportedly reassessing his prior support for DeSantis, given the candidate’s weak traction with voters so far. Politico recently reported that billionaire businessman Ronald Lauder and other wealthy funders may be shifting their support from DeSantis to the more affable South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.
Both parties have rich donors, and multimillion-dollar political contributions don’t always win national elections. But big donors are crucial to funding the super PACs that can accept unlimited amounts of money and often do a lot of the advertising for a given candidate, including negative ads against the opposition. Regular political-action committees, such as those that fund routine campaign operations, have limits on donations and rely heavily on large numbers of donors giving relatively small amounts.
DeSantis seems like he ought to be a solid presidential contender. He’s the governor of a large state that’s outperforming the country economically. He won reelection last year in a landslide, indicating broad popularity in a former swing state that now leans Republican. His sterling résumé includes a degree from Yale, where he was captain of the baseball team, and a Harvard law degree. He joined the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) after Harvard and served in combat zones in Iraq. It’s possible no other 2024 candidate will have such all-American branding.
Yet DeSantis is languishing. Early this year, before DeSantis formally announced his presidential bid, polls showed him 13 points behind Trump. The latest numbers show him 38 points behind Trump. No wonder donors are bailing. The idea of DeSantis as a presidential candidate is turning out way better than the reality.
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DeSantis has deficiencies. His personality can be abrasive. Sometimes he seems like a bully. He lacks Trump’s dark genius for self-promotion (as do most other candidates). Then there’s DeSantis’s decision to stake his political future on an “anti-woke” crusade that decries liberal influence over policies at corporations, universities, and other influential organizations.
Ground zero for DeSantis’s anti-woke war is a legal battle against the Disney Corp. over cultural values. The fight erupted after Disney opposed a law DeSantis signed last year governing sex and gender education for young children in Florida. Disney opposed the law, and DeSantis retaliated against Disney by challenging its long-held municipal autonomy at its Florida theme park. The matter is now mired in litigation. Disney CEO Bob Iger has called DeSantis “anti-business.”
In his memoir, published earlier this year, DeSantis bragged about taking on Disney. But in an important speech outlining his economic priorities on July 31, DeSantis didn’t mention Disney once. Nor did he mention wokeism or anti-wokeism or whatever it’s called.
As a presidential candidate, DeSantis leaves the impression he’s trying on personas to see which might catch on with voters, then ditching them for something new if they don’t work. That mirrors what is turning into a fair amount of campaign turmoil. DeSantis replaced his campaign manager on August 8, shortly after the campaign laid off a third of its staff. DeSantis’s fundraising has been decent, but he’s also spent a lot of money and he may have a weakness among the small donors that are the lifeblood of basic campaign operations.
DeSantis’s biggest problem, though, is Trump’s lock on the Republican Party. Despite indictments in three criminal cases this year, two-thirds of Republicans have a favorable view of Trump. That forces his challengers within the party to contort themselves into Trumpy candidates who can appeal to Trump backers while trying to distinguish themselves from the former president without alienating his base. If there’s a workable formula, none of the 2024 presidential candidates has yet discovered it.
Big Republican donors are more practical than many of the rank-and-file Republicans who will stand with Trump even if he goes to jail. The big money wants a candidate who can win in the 2024 general election and institute conservative policies. Trump isn’t their guy, and now it looks like DeSantis isn’t, either. Maybe they’ll need to wait until 2028.
Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman.
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