Last Friday night, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made a bold pitch for re-election to the voters of Pennsylvania. A couple hours later, he took the same stump to Ohio. Two days after that, on Sunday, he flew back to his home state – the only one in which he is currently running for election – to barnstorm for a slate of 30 different school board officials.
With Donald Trump just as likely to entertain a grand jury as a rally crowd, Republican interest groups are starting to entertain a new avatar for conservative might in the Florida governor. DeSantis’ tour ahead of the 2022 midterms indicates he’s more than happy to step up, raising his profile for a bid at, well, something big in 2024. MAGA diehards see DeSantis largely as an understudy to Trump, ready to fall into place as an easy VP pick if and when Trump mounts his 2024 campaign in earnest. But if Trump is indisposed – either due to legal troubles, health issues, or some other unforeseen fall from grace – DeSantis seems ready to take over the party himself. Both men seem to know this: In June, Rolling Stone reported that the former commander in chief has been so nervous about DeSantis stealing his thunder that he’s considering announcing his White House run in Florida just to stick it to him.
In Pittsburgh, DeSantis spoke for nearly an hour at a joint rally with far-right gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who caused a stir inside the party and out when he was nominated to challenge former Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro in November. Mastriano has repeatedly made headlines for his denial of the 2020 election results and his associations with even-further-right figures, but on Friday he did little more than serve as hype man for DeSantis. As Mastriano closed out his speech and introduced “the best governor in the United States of America,” the jumbotrons on either side of the stage blared a star-spangled sizzle reel of DeSantis’ greatest hits, including soundbites from Fox News, clips from his speeches, and even his anthem, “Sweet Florida,” a sluggish Southern rock ballad written for DeSantis by the Van Zant brothers (of Lynyrd Skynyrd fame). “Our Governor is red, white, and blue,” it proclaims.
The crowd ate it up, welcoming DeSantis onto the stage with a roar, as he strode toward the podium while winging a stack of “DeSantis for Governor” hats into the crowd sidearm. You can tell where he got the moves from, but DeSantis also carefully kept Trump’s name out of his mouth, even as he praised all things MAGA. For most of August, as Trump’s legal troubles have mounted, DeSantis has thread a delicate needle by stoking the right wing’s outrage without centering Trump in the narrative. He even pivoted the story of the Mar-a-Lago raid toward the GOP’s key talking points about Biden’s new IRS workforce and his son Hunter’s scandals. Thus far, it looks like it’s paying off.
Part of that is due to the fact that Trump has had a not-good-really-bad year. In July, a New York Times/Siena poll found that Trump was the first pick of just 49 percent of the GOP, more than half of whom would prefer someone else. Of those, DeSantis was the clear frontrunner. Meanwhile, both the party’s fringe figures and some of its core donors are hedging their bets. DeSantis has garnered the endorsement of everyone from Alex Jones to Elon Musk, while big-time GOP money men have been flooding the DeSantis campaign with cash in order to get in on the ground level of whatever national campaign arises in the wake of the 2022 midterms.
Several attendees in Pittsburgh told me they would love to see DeSantis as Trump’s vice president in 2024. At least two of them had shirts to prove it, recycled branding from the 2020 campaign that replaced Mike Pence’s name with DESANTIS in a familiar TRUMP-PENCE rectangular graphic. “What’s important is that they [politicians] make changes,” John, a 51-year-old who works in the energy industry said as rally goers trudged outside of the venue. “DeSantis has done that, and Mastriano will do that.”
This reputation as a “doer” is what DeSantis is running on. From his – and Mastriano’s – stump speeches, the most compelling nationwide pitch for an executive is bringing a swift end to any of the Covid-era “mandates,” be they mask, vaccine, or social distancing. Shortly after bringing down the house in Pittsburgh, DeSantis went to a second rally in Youngstown, Ohio, with Senate candidate J.D. Vance, who was in lockstep with this point as well, using it as his kicker right before ushering DeSantis onto stage.
“The reason I talk about that vaccine mandate,” Vance said, “Is because one of the few leaders in this country who stood against those vaccine mandates, and wouldn’t let that mandate prevent his citizens from earning a living, was our next guest: Governor Ron DeSantis.”
DeSantis’ speech a few hours earlier in Pennsylvania was all about Florida, painting a picture of what a state can look like under strong conservative leadership. His endorsement of Mastriano was implied: This is what your state could look like too. The other implication was what Ron DeSantis could do if put in charge of the entire country. DeSantis’ opponents in the 2022 Florida governor’s race – the Democratic primary is Tuesday – weren’t mentioned. Instead, he cast Joe Biden as his primary rival, even trying out a Trump-like impersonation bit where he pantomimed Biden’s “deer in the headlights” look during public appearances.
“He’s been a failed leader, he doesn’t have an aptitude to lead, but I’ll tell you this: He ran claiming he was going to be a uniter, and he has been the most divisive president of my lifetime,” DeSantis said. “I mean this is a guy who wanted people to be fired from their jobs based on a Covid shot!”
It’s a line that could just as easily have come in a presidential stump speech two summers from now, which may explain why Trump has been a little protective about his right to the GOP throne. He may have even been listening on Friday. The former president sent out an announcement about his own Pennsylvania rally next month while DeSantis’ turn in Pittsburgh was still in progress.
DeSantis himself has been extremely cagey about his intentions, but he is clearly considering a run. He’s also in an enviable position among the GOP’s prospective bench. There’s no reason for him to publicly break with Trump, which would surely relegate him to the doomed lane that Mike Pence finds himself in after contradicting Trump’s election claims. Instead, DeSantis can ride a wave of national name recognition into any post that’s open — the top spot or backup — even if he loses re-election to his current post this year. The latter scenario seems unlikely, as Florida Democrats appear to be, characteristically, in disarray. So why not go to Pennsylvania? Why not make your pitch to voters in Ohio? There’s plenty of campaigning to do, and the only election that matters for Ron DeSantis isn’t for two more years.
Some of this politicking may seem like jumping the gun, but there are plenty of signs that DeSantis may be seizing a moment, not least of which that the nation’s preeminent conservative media network may be amenable. Rolling Stone reported in July that Trump was worried he was already losing the “Fox News primary,” and that he’s fretted about how much airtime DeSantis receives on the network. (DeSantis appeared on Fox & Friends on Tuesday morning, where he addressed his new Top Gun-inspired campaign ad.)
Laura Ingraham, who fills a slot in the network’s megapopular primetime lineup, may have validated Trump’s concerns when she suggested recently that the party may be ready to “turn the page” on him. A blessing from Fox News is one thing — albeit an important one — but it’s clear that Donald Trump’s successor will also have to share the former president’s enthusiasm for getting out and rallying the base. Right now, that’s exactly what Ron DeSantis is doing.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism