The current storyline on the 2024 GOP presidential primary goes something like this: Former President Donald Trump is the prohibitive favorite; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had a chance but blew it, and everyone else in the race is an also-ran — former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
There are other candidates in the mix, of course, like well-spoken tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — this cycle’s Andrew Yang — but the names above, including Ramaswamy’s, are the ones that have qualified for the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee so far, the first of the 2024 GOP primary.
Political narratives aren’t worth much this far out from an election, but two things strike this observer as particularly true. Donald Trump is, indeed, the overwhelming primary favorite. Poll after poll makes that obvious. And Ron DeSantis has effectively blown it.
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The Titan of Tallahassee looked beautiful on paper — Yale, Harvard Law, lieutenant commander U.S. Navy (JAG), stint in Congress, governor of the third most populous state in the union, one growing by leaps and bounds at that — but his personality got in the way. DeSantis mimicked Trump’s populist brashness, but without the hints of humor that make Trump palatable to around three quarters of Republicans.
DeSantis’s super-public war with Disney, the largest private employer in the Sunshine State, refusal to speak with mainstream reporters, and ham-handed attacks on legitimate woke targets left him looking a bit jerky, even to voters sympathetic to his goals. DeSantis’ habit of using government to punish political enemies has also hurt him with small-government conservatives. It’s tough to come back from that.
None of this would be a problem if Republicans didn’t want to win the White House, hold their majority in Congress and recapture the Senate. But they very much do, and that’s where uncertainty about Trump takes hold. Three quarters of Republicans like him because Democrats hate him, but that’s not a recipe for a general election victory.
With Trump as the GOP standard bearer, Republicans lost all three legislative branches as well as hundreds of state and local races across America. That’s hardly a confidence booster, despite a struggling and deeply unpopular President Joe Biden in the Oval Office. Myriad state and federal indictments against Trump won’t help in a general election, even as they’re insistently labeled by Trump acolytes as fruit of a poisoned government tree.
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Trump’s 2016 primary win demonstrated the power of the plurality in multi-candidate races, and that’s what realist Republicans are noodling on about now. How do we shrink this field and avoid a 2016 repeat? (Read: How do we stop The Donald?)
A graceful exit by DeSantis would be a good start. DeSantis, who currently holds 18% of the primary vote, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average, appears to be in a virtual freefall. He had double that support just a few months ago, and seems incapable of changing direction.
By freeing up DeSantis’s share of the non-Trump vote, other candidates, like, say, Tim Scott, who should have broad general election appeal, would have a chance to pick up a chunk of GOP voters, and possibly momentum over time.
Trump supporters will tell the rest of us that we’re dreaming, and they’re probably right. Trump is a political locomotive that blows through all obstacles on the track. Even handcuffs might not stop him from moving forward.
But as he advances, Republican hopes for the House and Senate are retreating.
This all feels very familiar.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican strategist from New York.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Tampa Free Press.
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