The Jebification of Ron DeSantis

Republican donors hoped Ron DeSantis could replace Donald Trump as a right-wing populist without the chaos and ineptitude. Instead, DeSantis is looking more and more like Jeb Bush.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis gives remarks at the Heritage Foundation's 50th Anniversary Leadership Summit at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on April 21, 2023 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Last November, things momentarily looked auspicious for Florida governor Ron DeSantis and his allies in the Republican Party. Having barely eked out a win in 2018 over Democratic rival Andrew Gillum, DeSantis’s reelection bid was a double-digit blowout. As the most prominent face in the GOP, moreover, Donald Trump could be made to wear its lackluster midterm results and, perhaps, finally be cast off for good. To many apparatchiks and big donors, it looked like a perfect opportunity.

For one thing, DeSantis’s electoral track record proved that he was a winner: in just a few years, he had dyed an erstwhile purple state deep red and could pitch himself as a candidate who could replicate the same result elsewhere. His political antennae also seemed well attuned to the desires of conservative voters. As Florida’s governor, DeSantis’s strategy has been to stimulate the pleasure centers of the Republican base as much as he possibly can: by dispensing with vaccine precautions; by attacking Disney over “wokeness”; by declaring war on “woke capitalism” and “gender ideology.”

It did not seem unreasonable, therefore, to think he might be offered to the GOP primary electorate as a kind of compromise candidate — someone who could provide an ersatz simulation of Trumpism while, at the same time, severing it from the actual personality of Donald Trump. To this end, the spin doctors went into high gear and the big donors duly opened their wallets. No less than Rupert Murdoch publicly warned Donald Trump that it was time to move on.

Less than six months later, the Republican establishment doesn’t have much to show for its DeSantis efforts. As it stands, Trump leads the GOP primary field by an average of twenty-nine points and enjoyed a 15 percent lead on DeSantis in a recent survey commissioned by NBC News. While the governor’s poll numbers have plummeted, the former president has opened up a big lead in endorsements from elected Republican officials and currently enjoys a considerable edge in no less than DeSantis’s home state. Trump, in characteristic form, has gleefully taken to narrating the whole thing: “Ron’s poll numbers are dropping so fast and furious that many people are speculating he’s not going to run. . . . because I’m leading in Texas by forty-two points, in Iowa and New Hampshire by a lot — overall by close to forty.”

DeSantis has yet to even enter the race, but the rivalry already has obvious parallels with an earlier feud between Trump and another Florida governor, whose ham-fisted 2016 campaign proved that there really are limits to what money can buy.

Seven years ago, with a cavalcade of donors and a windfall of endorsements at his back, Jeb Bush secured a grand total of three delegates at a price tag of about $50 million each. Despite unprecedented opposition from the Republican establishment, meanwhile, Trump arrived at the Republican National Convention with some 1,725 pledged, his own per-delegate spending coming in at just $39,000.

That disjuncture owed much to Bush’s laughable ineptitude as a candidate. But it was also the product of a failed strategy that sought to meet Trump’s insults and bombast by taking the high road. It’s therefore difficult to watch DeSantis pitch himself to crowds of donors with bloodless statements like “Florida shows that leadership really matters. Results matter. And I think if you look at our results they are second to none” and not immediately think of Jeb Bush.

In interactions with the media and public, meanwhile, he radiates the distinctly Jeb-ish air of a diffident man easily knocked off his game by an opponent who refuses to play according to the standard rules of political etiquette.

DeSantis, like Bush, also seems distinctly vulnerable to Trump’s heterodox rhetoric around entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. As Jamelle Bouie observed in January, the Florida governor’s “radical and unpopular views on social insurance and the welfare state” represent an obvious chink in his armor — a fact that Trump (who, if nothing else, has a talent for sensing political weakness) visibly understands. Even DeSantis’s allies and backers are beginning to sound anxious.

These developments suggest that Trump’s opponents on the Right continue to misunderstand the sources of his appeal and underestimate the firmness of his grip on the Republican base. In 2016, such myopia was at least partly understandable. Trump, after all, was an outsider with little real political experience and seemed to be violating every established rule about how to win a presidential nomination. Some seven years later, however, they appear to have learned so little that their chosen anti-Trump figure is already flailing in a race he has yet to even join. Let the Jebification commence.