Are FL Republicans ready for a Trump-DeSantis clash for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination?

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decisive reelection victory last week carried significant GOP coattails throughout the state, ending a debate for now about whether Florida is truly a red state.

But it also changed the narrative about the 2024 presidential race amongst the conservative intelligentsia – with DeSantis being hailed as the savior they have been yearning for and the vehicle to dump former President Donald Trump once and for all going into the next national election cycle.

“Trump is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser,” a Wall Street Journal lead editorial published the day after the Nov. 8 election.

“The man who stunned the world with his astonishing presidential win in 2016 has become a serial electoral turnoff, losing the White House, the Senate and the House in 2020, and now costing Republicans big-time in the midterms,” huffed Piers Morgan in a New York Post column titled, “It’s Time the GOP dumped Trump the Grump and ran with Ron DeSantis.”

But is Ron really ready to take on The Donald and all that entails?

“He kind of needs to,” says former Pinellas County Republican Congressman David Jolly, now a political independent and a consultant with Shumaker Advisors Florida. “Timing is everything and he’ll never have a hotter hand than he does now. You’ve got not just leading national Republicans, but there’s a heartbeat in the country that’s saying maybe now is the time to move on and DeSantis has to strike- he can’t wait on this.”

President Donald Trump, in October 2019. Credit: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

While the governor has remained relatively opaque about his future plans, focusing on Tropical Storm/Hurricane Nicole and basking in national glory over his election knockout, Trump has indicated for weeks that he’s ready to declare his candidacy for president in 2024, presumably on Tuesday at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.

“This announcement will perhaps be the most important speech given in the history of the United States of America,” the former president wrote in an email fundraising pitch to supporters last week, where he asked for a $45 contribution to be “automatically entered to win a trip to join me in Mar-a-Lago on November 15.”

And after reports surfaced for months that Trump believed DeSantis has shown insufficient gratitude for his extremely important endorsement for governor in 2018, the former president began lashing out indiscriminately towards the newly-minted star last week, according to several media outlets.

“I don’t know if he is running. I think if he runs, he could hurt himself very badly. I really believe he could hurt himself badly,” Trump said, according to Fox News. “I think he would be making a mistake, I think the base would not like it — I don’t think it would be good for the party.”

Also from Fox News, Trump said that if DeSantis does run for president, “I would tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering — I know more about him than anybody — other than, perhaps, his wife.”

And then there was the full-on meltdown on “Governor Ron DeSanctimonious” that came in a written statement late last week, where Trump labeled DeSantis “an average REPUBLICAN Governor with great Public Relations.”

Presidential scholar George C. Edwards III, who penned a book critical of the Trump presidency, told the Phoenix, “You can already see Trump being critical of DeSantis and you can be sure that there will be a great deal more of that.” In addition, “he’s quite bitter about opposition, especially from people who he thinks owe him a lot. And he thinks Ron DeSantis owes him his election as governor.”

What do the polls say?

Prior to the Nov. 8 election, the most recent national public opinion surveys of Republican voters showed that Trump had remained the overwhelming choice for president. That includes a Morning Consult poll released last week that showed Trump at 48% and DeSantis at 26%, based on the “share of voters who would support the following if the 2024 Republican primary were held today.” However, that analysis also showed that Trump has been dipping in 2024 support in recent months.

A YouGov poll of 413 Republicans — a segment of the 1,500 survey — taken in the days immediately after last week’s election showed DeSantis with 41 percent compared to 39 percent for Trump. The question was: Who would you rather see as the Republican nominee for president in 2024. The other categories were “neither” or “not sure.”

The White House. Credit: Wikipedia

In addition, a Data for Progress poll of 777 likely Republican primary voters taken in early October showed DeSantis edging Trump, 44%-42%, related to the GOP primary for president in 2024 if the election were held tomorrow.

And a Florida exit poll conducted by Edison Research for CNN and other news networks last week showed 45% of Florida voters said they want DeSantis to run for president in 2024, compared to 33% preferring Trump to run for president again. The data is preliminary.

That said, “(DeSantis) wouldn’t run against Trump and if he did, he would be destroyed,” says former Central Florida House Republican Anthony Sabatini, an attorney who left the Florida Legislature for an unsuccessful run for Congress earlier this year. He believes that the governor won’t reveal his intentions anytime soon because he says that he would lose leverage and national attention by doing so.

Emotionally torn

The Phoenix spoke with several Florida Republicans last week, many at the DeSantis Nov. 8 election night event. They said they were emotionally torn about having to declare a preference for the president, saying that they would prefer it didn’t come down to the two Alpha Florida men battling against each other for the nomination.

“The worst thing that they could do is run against each other. It would break up the two superstars, right? They need to work it out between them,” says Jake Hoffman, a businessman and executive director of the Tampa Bay Young Republicans who ran for a House seat in Hillsborough County earlier this year but lost in the Republican primary. “I want DeSantis to be our president, but we’re also going to be very happy if he’s here in Florida as our governor the next four years.”

John Melendez is a Tampa-based transportation consultant who was appointed by then-Gov. Rick Scott to serve on the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority but is no longer on the board. He said at DeSantis’ election night party last week that, “I’d like to see some cooperation between the two leaders. Some strategy.” But when asked if he was forced to choose, he said he’d pick DeSantis.

And then there is the age factor. Noting that so many of the country’s political leaders are in their 70s or 80s, Republican political consultant Anthony Pedicini says it’s time for a new generation of leadership to take over. Trump is 76. DeSantis is 44.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley won election to his eighth term in the Senate on Tuesday, defeating Democratic challenger Mike Franken. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch). Courtesy of the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

“Do we really need this Greatest Generation of people running the government anymore?” he asks, mentioning Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (80), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (82) and just re-elected Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley (89) as examples of leaders he says have stayed on too long in our national governance.

“These guys have been running the government for 50 years, and we’re getting more of the same crap. Let’s give somebody else, like Ron DeSantis a try,” Pedicini adds. (In fact, Pelosi has served in Congress for 35 years; McConnell, 38 years, and Grassley, 42 years.)

DeSantis has been serving for a decade in government — he has had three two-year terms in Congress and is completing his first term as a governor. DeSantis’ credentials include a Yale University undergraduate degree and a Harvard Law School degree, both from Ivy League schools, as well as a Navy career.

Edwards, a distinguished professor of political science in Presidential Studies Emeritus at Texas A&M University, says, “His (Trump) base as he calls it represents a minority of the country. And that’s not enough to get reelected. So yes, they’re enthusiastic about him, but unfortunately from his perspective, many other people are not enthusiastic and indeed are adamantly opposed to him.”

Meanwhile, DeSantis appears to have momentum as a national figure, though he’s been chided by observers for lacking the charisma gene required to win the White House.

Rock star flair

However, Travis Horn, a Tampa-based communications executive, says that the governor’s aggressive stances on culture war issues and on COVID-19 gained him fans who are literally citing him as their motivation to move to Florida.

Horn says that he was shooting video with DeSantis for a campaign ad in Ybor City in Tampa in October when a woman approached him and said, “Is that DeSantis? I moved here from New York because of that guy.” Horn said he then brought her over to meet the governor.

“The way that people were interacting with him very much had a rock star flair to it, and you’re talking about Ybor City, right?” Horn says, referring to the historic entertainment district. “Going through my mental rolodex, you never saw that with Jeb (Bush) or (Charlie) Crist – you didn’t see a lot of that when Rick Scott was governor.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis and family on election night Nov. 8, 2022. Credit: DeSantis Twitter page.

Horn also notes “a very Camelot feel” to the pictures capturing DeSantis with wife Casey in her golden dress and their three children on stage at the Tampa Convention Center last week. “He’s got a beautiful wife and cute kids and I can just see them running around on the White House lawn and you know, that gets moms and dads jazzed up across America,” he says.

But there’s a long way to go before that scene might ever happen.

Former Congressman Jolly, who briefly opposed DeSantis in 2016 when both were running for the U.S. Senate, says that DeSantis has only gotten a brief taste of what Trump is prepared to bring in a contest for the Republican nomination, and says he won’t be able to control the narrative like he has in Tallahassee over the past four years.

“It would be wrong to assume that an environment where DeSantis directly challenges Donald Trump is a safe environment for Ron DeSantis. It’s not. It comes with a lot of peril,” Jolly said last week.

Jolly also notes that DeSantis has yet to directly challenge Trump.

“Ron DeSantis lives a very well protected disciplined life politically,” he says, saying that press criticism doesn’t register because Republicans dismiss that as “Deep State conspiracy” and Democrats “don’t have the heft.”

“Donald Trump’s the only person who could ding him and ding him hard.”

It’s still extremely early to predict if both men end up battling each other for the nomination, and there could be several others who get into the race. Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have all been floated as potential 2024 candidates, according to media outlets.

Despite all of the chatter, there are some Republicans who are hoping that all of this campaign talk can abate, if just for a little while.

“It’s just too far ahead,” says Mark Phillips, a Pinellas County Republican Committeeman. “I welcome a few bits of air just to relax.”

But with Trump’s possible presidential announcement to come Tuesday night in Mar-a-Lago, that may not be an option before the holiday season commences.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Dems blast 'toxic agenda' as Republicans rally the MAGA base in Florida

With Republicans a handful of seats away from winning the U.S. House and potentially the Senate, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chair Ronna McDaniel and Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott appeared at a get-out-the-vote-rally outside of Tampa on Tuesday, just three weeks from Election Day.

“We are going to fire (U.S. House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi,” McDaniel said to cheers inside the RNC Hispanic Community Center packed with local Republicans located inside a strip mall in Carrollwood, an unincorporated area of Hillsborough County. The RNC has designed 21 such community centers around the country this year as part of their effort to cultivate the Latino vote.

“(Senate Majority Leader) Chuck Schumer’s gotta go,” added Scott, who is the chairman this year of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, charged with getting a majority of Senate Republicans elected next month.

Scott and McDaniel are part of a team of Republicans traveling around the country to rally the GOP base. And because the balance of Congress is already close, Republicans don’t need to win that many seats to take outright control of the U.S. House and potentially the Senate next year.

And the national trends that traditionally favor the party out of power in a midterm elections — with the possible exception of the abortion issue — are moving their way as early voting and vote-by-mail is already taking place in parts of the country, including in Florida.

Inflation continues to rise, according to the latest Consumer Price Index report released last week, and President Joe Biden’s average approval rating is only at 43% currently, according to the Real Clear Politics average. That’s lower going into this midterm than Bill Clinton’s 46% approval ratings by Gallup in 1994, when Republicans won 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate.

McDaniel said the GOP needs to take just five seats to win back the House from Democrats, and after Gov. Ron DeSantis had his redistricting map approved by the Florida Legislature this spring, several of those seats could be in Florida. (That map is now being challenged in state court by a number of voting rights groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida.)

Among those appearing at the press conference were Tampa Bay area congressional candidates Anna Paulina Luna, Laurel Lee and James Judge.

Luna is running in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, which has been dramatically reconfigured this year from a Democratic-leaning seat to one that strongly favors Republicans. According to redistricting analyst MCI Maps, CD 13 went from a Biden + 4 district in 2020, to a Trump + 7, using voting records from the 2020 election.

Luna said that as an Air Force veteran and a Mexican-American, she’s “everything” that the Democrats and the media “don’t want us to be.”

“I’m smart. I’m a veteran. But more importantly, I represent one of the largest voting minorities in the country, which is Hispanic Americans who will be voting Republican this November,” she said.

Lee, the former Secretary of State in Florida, is running in Florida’s 15th Congressional District (which encompasses parts of Pasco, Hillsborough and Polk counties) against Democrat Alan Cohn.

James Judge, a Coast Guard veteran and Tampa businessman, is facing Democrat Kathy Castor in Florida’s 14th Congressional District, which includes Hillsborough and now a part of eastern Pinellas County.

Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters spoke confidently that Florida Republicans are going to have a big win at the ballot box next month, and predicted that for the first time ever, the GOP will have a supermajority of members in the state Senate. Republicans currently have a 23-16 lead with one vacancy currently; 27 members would make for a supermajority, which would allow them to override vetoes from the governor.

And Gruters noted how when DeSantis narrowly defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum in a 2018 race so close it required an automatic machine recount, there were 260,000 more Democrats than Florida Republicans registered in the state. Gruters said that by Election Day, the GOP advantage over the Democrats will be at 300,000. The Florida Division of Elections reported that there are more than 292,000 registered Republicans than Democrats, as of Sept.30.

The Democratic National Committee released a statement labeled “Republicans Take Their Extreme Agenda on the Road,” and referred to Scott’s controversial blueprint for Republicans called “Rescue America” that he unveiled earlier this year. That plan includes potentially sunsetting Medicare and Social Security.

“We’re thankful voters across the country will hear directly from Republican leadership about their party’s plans to jeopardize Social Security and Medicare, threaten doctors with jail time, and raise prescription drug prices,” said DNC spokesperson Ammar Moussa. “Every Republican campaigning with McDaniel, Scott, and (National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom) Emmer is going to have to do some explaining about their support for this toxic agenda.”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

FL watchdog group sues governor’s office for failing to produce records related to migrant flights

Gov. Ron DeSantis and his office are now being sued by a government accountability group for failing to produce specific documents related to the state flying nearly 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., last month.

It’s the latest court action that has resulted since the state moved the mostly Venezuelan group of migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Massachusetts on Sept. 14, although they never actually set foot in Florida.

The Florida Center for Government Accountability filed the lawsuit on Monday in the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County. The suit says that on two occasions last month it filed public information requests for public records regarding the migrant relocation program but has yet to receive anything from the governor’s office.

Their first request asked for any records related to the program from James Uthmeier, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ chief of staff, as well as records sent or received from Vertol Systems, the charter airline company the state paid $615,000 to send the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. It also requested any records sent or received from Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott regarding the migrant relocation program.

A second public information request called for the governor’s office to release any records “purporting to be a waiver” signed by immigrants in San Antonio or from their connecting flights to North Carolina or Florida before arriving at Martha’s Vineyard.

The organization is calling on the court to hold an immediate hearing to compel the governor’s office to release the records. The governor’s office had no immediate reply to a request for comment.

The state paid the company another $950,000 to fly migrants to President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware but apparently scrubbed that trip.

The Florida Phoenix was able to receive some records related to the flights to Martha’s Vineyard over the weekend from the Florida Dept. of Transportation (FDOT).

Among those records are an email written by Vertol Systems Company CEO James Montgomery on Sept. 6 providing FDOT with a list of three options for how much a flight transporting passengers would cost, specifically noting that the “first project (hereafter “Project 1”) shall involve the facilitation of the relocation of up to fifty (50) individuals to the state of Massachusetts or other, proximate northeastern state designated by FDOT based upon the extant conditions. The total price for all services related to Project 1 is $615,000, subject to FDOT approval.”

Montgomery also wrote that the project would continue for months, writing that “this proposal contemplates the ongoing delivery of these services to FDOT on an ongoing, month-to-month basis, in the form of separate relocation projects.”

Stephanie D. Iliff, director of Office of Administration at FDOT , wrote in a memo dated Sept. 7 that the “transportation services shall be ongoing, on a month-to-month basis. Services include project management, aircraft, crew, maintenance logistics, fuel, coordination and planning, route preparation, route services, landing fees, ground handling and logistics, and other project-related expenses.”

There have been two previous lawsuits filed against the state regarding the flying of migrants from Texas to Massachusetts.

Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a civil lawsuit against Gov. DeSantis, FDOT Sec. Jared Perdue, the state of Florida, and FDOT on behalf of the migrants who were transported to Martha’s Vineyard.

Miami-based Democratic state Sen. Jason Pizzo has also filed a lawsuit against the governor and other state officials as a private citizen. Pizzo’s suit charges that the state violated the law creating the $12 million fund to transport “unauthorized” aliens away from Florida.

As asylum seekers with pending immigration court hearings, they were not in the country unlawfully, Pizzo argues. Moreover, their flight originated in Texas, not Florida, meaning that they were not “from this state,” he adds.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

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Biden plans to stump in Florida as potential major hurricane approaches

Boosted by a mild surge in national public opinion polls, Joe Biden is scheduled to make appearances in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando on Tuesday, his first time in the Sunshine State in more than a year.

While details about the events have been sparse, the White House says the president will discuss Social Security and Medicare in Fort Lauderdale, and that he’ll headline a Democratic National Committee rally for Florida Democratic candidates in Orlando.

The scheduled visits come as midterm elections loom, with the Nov. 8 election day about six weeks away.

What is known is that Biden will be joined in Orlando by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, but not with Congresswoman and U.S. Senate candidate Val Demings, whose congressional district includes parts of Orlando.

“Florida is on the front lines in the fight to protect women’s freedoms and preserve our democracy,” Crist told the Phoenix in a written statement. “President Biden knows that, which is why he is coming and why I’m proud to welcome him.”

A spokesperson for the Demings campaign told the Phoenix that she will be in Washington D.C. next week.

As is often the case when a president is struggling in his approval ratings, there has been a flood of published reports about other Democrats blowing off campaigning with Biden going into the November midterm election. “We have not asked President Biden or VP Harris to campaign in Ohio and have no plans to do so, a spokeswoman for Ohio Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan told the Washington Post last month.

“Demings laser focus on the statewide race appears to not want outside surrogates to interfere with her message and her advancement in the polls,” says Tara Newsom, a political science professor at St. Petersburg College. A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released this week shows Demings down four points to GOP incumbent Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate race, 45%-41%.

The Marco Rubio campaign issued a statement claiming that Demings is “hiding” from the president.

“Val Demings refuses to accept responsibility for the harm she’s caused Florida. Demings’ blind support of Joe Biden and the Democrats’ far left agenda 100% of the time has consistently made Floridians’ lives worse, and no hiding out in Washington is going to change that,” said Elizabeth Gregory, communications director for Marco Rubio for Senate.

The Republican Party of Florida and the Republican National Committee have seized on Crist’s stated public admiration for the president. The Republican Party of Florida flooded the airwaves immediately after Crist’s victory over Nikki Fried in the Democratic race for governor last month with an ad showing Crist saying, “Thank God for Joe Biden.”

“Charlie Crist’s priority is not Floridians. It’s getting a failed president, who can’t even find Florida on a map, to notice him,” said RNC spokeswoman Julia Friedland, linking to a tweet showing Biden misidentifying Senator Rick Scott as being from Wisconsin.

Biden’s public approval ratings nationally is at 43%, according to an average from RealClearPolitics. While still underwater, that’s up from a 37.7% RCP average that the president was at back in July.

That Suffolk University/USA Today poll released earlier this week showed Biden’s favorable numbers in Florida only at 40%, with 54% opposing him.

Biden has had to cancel his last two scheduled appearances in Florida this year, the last time back in July when he contracted COVID-19. One Democrat says he’s concerned that the weather could potentially affect next week’s events.

“I’m worried this hurricane will hit us Wednesday and that will affect the DNC meeting,” says Hillsborough County Democratic Party strategist Vic DiMaio.

Tropical Depression Nine formed in the Caribbean on Friday with a path that could bring it to Florida as a major hurricane sometime next week.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.