Former President Donald Trump’s indictment is throwing a wrench into Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign-in-waiting.
After spending weeks under fire from Trump and his allies, DeSantis rushed to the former president’s defense on Thursday, calling his indictment in an alleged hush-money scheme “un-American” and insisting that he would not assist in any efforts to extradite Trump to New York.
The response was lauded by Trump’s allies, yet it underscores the precarious position DeSantis finds himself in as he looks to challenge Trump for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nod while remaining in the good graces of a conservative Republican voter base that remains deeply loyal to the former president.
“This is freezing the race right now. It’s all we’re talking about,” said Matt Terrill, a Republican strategist and former aide to ex-Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus. “This just highlights what we’ve seen for years and that is Donald Trump is the dominating force in the Republican Party. You’re seeing GOP base voters who ultimately decide the nomination — they’re in lockstep right now with the former president.”
DeSantis hasn’t announced a White House campaign yet, though he’s expected to in the coming months, most likely in the late spring once the Florida state legislature wraps up its annual session.
Still, Trump’s indictment in New York has created a political minefield for DeSantis to navigate as he prepares to launch his campaign. He’s already been under attack from Trump and his allies for weeks, and there are signs that he’s slipping in the polls. With Trump once again dominating the news cycle, some Republicans say it could prove difficult for DeSantis to remain in the spotlight as he has for the past several months.
“Trump found a way to make people stop talking about DeSantis,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor.
But others said that Trump’s indictment could offer DeSantis a unique opportunity. Kevin Madden, a longtime Republican strategist who worked as a senior adviser for Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential run, said that DeSantis should use the indictment as a way to sharpen the contrast between himself and Trump.
“You have to make the case that you’re the better candidate,” Madden said. “If your opponent is under indictment and you can’t use that to your advantage, then I don’t know what that says about your candidacy. They have to take him on at some point. Why not do it on their terms?”
One DeSantis ally said that the Florida governor can do two things at once: condemn the charges against Trump, while still casting himself as a low-drama alternative to the former president.
“He’s been smart about making the case that he’s Trump without the baggage,” the ally said.
Trump’s indictment was historic, making him the first former president in U.S. history to face criminal charges, yet it wasn’t entirely unexpected.
After news broke last month that law enforcement officials in New York had offered Trump the chance to testify before the grand jury hearing evidence in the hush money case, DeSantis condemned the “Soros-backed prosecutors” behind the investigation, but also went to pains to rehash the allegations against Trump, noting that the former president had been accused of paying a porn star during his 2016 presidential campaign to cover up an alleged affair.
Martin Sweet, a professor of political science at Purdue University, said he was “surprised” by the line DeSantis used against Trump earlier this month.
“There isn’t a ton of payoff in terms of rehashing all the unseemly things Trump has done,” Sweet said. “It doesn’t move the needle but can result in some increased media exposure.”
Sweet said the more promising strategy for DeSantis may be to simply raise questions about Trump’s electoral viability. Since winning the White House in 2016, Trump has presided over his party through three lackluster election cycles: The 2018 midterms saw the GOP lose control of the House, Trump lost his own reelection bid in 2020 and 2022 ended with a failed Republican effort to recapture the Senate.
That same year, DeSantis won his own reelection bid by a staggering 19-point margin, the largest in a Florida gubernatorial race in four decades.
“I expect DeSantis to go after Trump’s consistent electoral losses more than anything,” Sweet said. “That is the cleavage point that exposes whether Trump’s followers care at all about ideas that require a winner, or simply want to fawn after yesterday’s news.”
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist and former congressional candidate, said that DeSantis’s refusal to assist in any extradition proceedings was a tacit acknowledgement of just how politically precarious the Trump indictment is for him.
DeSantis had previously said that he had no plans to get involved in the case, irritating Trump’s allies, who had urged him to try to stop or delay any potential extradition. He does not have the power to prevent an extradition and Trump’s attorneys have indicated that he will turn himself in.
“The fact that DeSantis said Florida won’t participate in extradition speaks volumes politically,” O’Connell said.
Trump remains the ostensible frontrunner in the 2024 Republican primary. And despite signs earlier this year that his support was slipping, recent polls show him widening his lead over DeSantis. One Fox News survey released on Wednesday found Trump surging to 54 percent support in a hypothetical primary matchup, while DeSantis sank to just 24 percent.
That poll came on the heels of a Monmouth University poll that also showed DeSantis continuing a downward slide in the race, sinking to 27 percent after polling at 33 percent in February. Trump held 41 percent support in the latest poll.
And while multiple Republicans say that the indictment may end up benefiting Trump in the short term, he could eventually find himself vulnerable to attacks from within his own party.
One Republican strategist predicted that DeSantis will “play nice” when it comes to Trump for a few months before he jumps into the race.
“But then I think you’ll see the gloves come off,” the strategist said. “He’s going to portray Trump as the circus ringmaster and that he’s the one who can carry the torch and not bring the circus along with him.”
“You can count on it,” the strategist added. “But now isn’t the right time for that.”