The 2022 midterm results Tuesday helped set the stage for the 2024 Republican nomination, further elevating Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the chief rival to former President Donald Trump, should both men formally enter the race.
But it also injected new uncertainty into a presidential race that, until Tuesday, had been viewed as Trump’s to lose, according to interviews with more than a dozen Republican operatives and others keeping tabs on the nascent 2024 battle.
DeSantis, they said, clearly saw his stock rise in a party that has grown increasingly tired of being dragged down at the ballot box by Trump. But Trump’s grip on a strong plurality of Republican voters appears firm, despite a string of losses on Tuesday by his acolytes, and Republicans are still trying to determine if DeSantis could unseat the long-reigning king of the GOP.
The buzz around the Florida governor isn’t lost on Trump, who recently warned DeSantis not to run in 2024, though he supported his bid for reelection. In a message posted Wednesday on Trump’s social media platform, Truth Social, the former president indicated that he was more popular in Florida than DeSantis, who beat Democratic gubernatorial opponent Charlie Crist by a wide margin on Tuesday.
Conservatives who extracted big wins from Trump during his time in office but have long expressed frustration with his conduct said it was time for the party to move on from him.
Longtime conservative radio host and blogger Erick Erickson wrote in his newsletter that DeSantis’s performance Tuesday night reminded him of another governor who beat expectations in a strong year for Democrats and later went on to serve two terms in the White House: George W. Bush.
Former Trump White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany urged Trump to skip campaigning for Herschel Walker in the upcoming Georgia Senate runoff, lest he cost Republicans control of the Senate a second time in a row.
The New York Post, a tabloid that’s long been one of Trump’s favorite reads, declared DeSantis “DeFUTURE” of the Republican Party in a splashy front page on Wednesday celebrating his win. And other conservative news outlets continued drifting away from Trump.
“Trump is done,” said a veteran Republican operative.
But some observers warned that Trump is not the kind of politician who just walks away after losses, and will likely try to maintain his hold on the party through at least the 2024 election, possibly longer.
“Republican primary voters in the 2024 election may well still pick Trump to lead their party in 2024,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor at Texas A&M University and expert on political communication. “Trump will continue to attack the [party] leadership and wield his followers like a cudgel. I suspect that he’ll run and get the nomination and lose again in 2024. And I believe that the Republican Party is stuck with that outcome.”
Tuesday’s surprise losses by Republicans who ran under the banner of refusing to accept Trump's 2020 election loss, and wins by Republicans like DeSantis and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, only seemed to scramble the 2024 calculus for Republicans even further.
Trump’s persistent trolling of DeSantis, his teasing of a formal campaign launch and his promises to take credit for Republican victories that never materialized spurred talk that Trump should consider not formally entering the race until after the Georgia runoff in December.
One Republican operative said DeSantis now has the option to wait until next spring to announce his presidential intentions.
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