FILE PHOTO: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the 2023 NHGOP Amos Tuck Dinner in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., April 14, 2023. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo
By Tim Reid, Alexandra Ulmer and Nathan Layne
(Reuters) – Current and former Republican Party operatives who have spent years trying to banish Donald Trump from American political life say the former president’s 2024 campaign has begun to gain so much steam that they fear he is by far the favorite to become the party’s presidential nominee again.
While the party’s nomination race is still in its early days, the angst among “Never Trumpers” — a small group of Republicans who have publicly opposed Trump since he was first elected in 2016 — is a sign that the former president could be gaining momentum over his top potential rival Ron DeSantis.
Seemingly entrenched in culture wars, Florida governor DeSantis risks being overshadowed by Trump’s fundraising, improving polling numbers and endorsements by lawmakers, anti-Trump donors say.
Trump had a huge lead over DeSantis among Republican and independent voters nationally of 58% to 21% in a Reuters/Ipsos poll in early April. Other polls of Republicans alone show Trump has surged into a commanding lead over DeSantis in recent weeks.
The “Never Trumpers,” some of whom have left the Republican Party but still vocally oppose Trump and work to undermine him with voters, say their hopes for DeSantis are waning.
Some have effectively given up.
“If we could stop Trump becoming the nominee, we would do that. But he’s going to be the nominee,” said Reed Galen, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, a prominent anti-Trump group of current and former Republicans.
The Lincoln Project spent millions of dollars on anti-Trump ads on social media, TV and in newspapers in 2020. It is already looking beyond the 2024 Republican nomination fight, Galen said.
The group will still raise money for ads to attack Trump in presidential swing states, Galen said, not with a view to stopping him becoming the nominee but to damage him ahead of the general election in 2024 against likely Democratic candidate President Joe Biden.
DeSantis’s mixed messaging on U.S. support for Ukraine, his reluctance to respond forcefully to Trump’s attacks on him, and his poorer showing in some national and key state polls have unnerved allies and donors.
Political strategists stress that while the shine has come off DeSantis’ nascent bid in recent weeks it is still early in the nominating process and DeSantis is not yet even a candidate.
“DeSantis has a lot of time to course correct,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist.
Still, both Trump and DeSantis have experienced a reversal of political fortunes since a number of candidates endorsed by Trump in the November midterm elections were defeated by Democrats. Republican lawmakers, party officials and voters saw him as weakened and wondered if it was time for someone new.
DeSantis, fresh off a resounding second-term win in the election and with a growing list of conservative legislative accomplishments to boast about, appeared to be that person.
However, many Republicans have rallied around Trump since his indictment by a New York district attorney on April 4 over hush money payments to a porn star. He has received a surge in endorsements by elected Republicans in the U.S. Congress and in Florida, home to both Trump and DeSantis.
Trump has so far collected 66 endorsements for the Republican nomination, including from 56 members of Congress, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, a website that tracks opinion polls and politics. DeSantis has four.
History shows that early endorsements by elected party officials give candidates momentum and can be predictive of who wins a presidential nomination.
Trump picked up endorsements from five congressmen in Florida this week alone, deals sealed with an invite to a “thank you” dinner at his Mar-a-Lago home on Thursday night.
In the early nominating state of New Hampshire, a University of New Hampshire poll found DeSantis leading Trump by 12 points in January. This week, a poll showed Trump had leaped to a 20-point lead.
Trump’s fundraising has also surged. He raised nearly $19 million in the first quarter this year, through his joint fundraising committee and his campaign, his aides say. Much of that came after his indictment, which many Republicans view as politically motivated.
Trump has also intensified his attacks on DeSantis, at a time when DeSantis is forbidding classroom instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation, taking on gun control groups, and attacking the Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) Co.. These culture war appeals to Trump’s Republican base so far do not appear to be working.
Trump has sent out email blasts this week attacking DeSantis, calling him a “loser” in his battle with Disney. The Florida governor has not only failed to push back, but ended up defending Trump over the criminal charges.
“By defending him on the indictment, DeSantis becomes a supporting cast member in the central drama of Donald Trump. That makes him look weaker, not stronger,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and longtime Trump critic.
Longwell cautioned that Trump’s current dominance could fade, but added: “It could be that DeSantis just doesn’t have it, that he doesn’t have the political talent.”
A spokesman for Trump did not respond to a request for comment. DeSantis aides say he is still going to run and view Trump’s attacks as predictable efforts to convince people the race is over before the Florida governor announces his candidacy.
DeSantis’ recent signing of a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy in Florida, his focus on book bans, and his tussle with Disney have caused some major donors to pause, according to several who spoke to Reuters.
“If it wasn’t for abortion and the book-banning, there would be no question I would support him,” metals magnate Andy Sabin told Reuters.
However, many in the Republican donor class are largely fed up with Trump. Many deem him chaotic and unelectable, according to Reuters interviews with nearly two dozen donors and their aides.
While many donors have been putting their faith in DeSantis as the best candidate to beat Trump, they acknowledge there is no concerted effort by them to weaken the former president. Some say they want to support DeSantis but are not yet willing to back him.
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide who broke with the former president years ago and now backs DeSantis, said that while the Florida governor appeared to be on his back foot this week none of the damage would be permanent.