Tensions between former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) are simmering, with considerations about the 2024 presidential election creeping into view as Republicans hope for big wins in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
Trump over the weekend took his most direct swipe at DeSantis to date during a rally in Pennsylvania, when he dubbed the governor and potential GOP primary opponent “Ron DeSanctimonious.”
But the former president dialed back the rhetoric after it received a lukewarm reception, urging Floridians on Sunday to vote for DeSantis on Tuesday.
The timing of Trump’s attack on DeSantis raised eyebrows from a number of conservatives, including some who are traditionally Trump allies, who felt it was counterproductive to go after a GOP governor who is on the ballot this week.
“Trump is getting what he wanted out of it with coverage, but it is also a weak attack,” said one former Trump campaign adviser, who called it “petty” to do it so close to Election Day.
One Florida-based GOP strategist said the attack showed Trump is aware of the momentum around a possible DeSantis presidential bid and was seeking to address it head on.
The former president appeared to be firing a warning shot to any would-be challengers in a 2024 GOP presidential primary during the Saturday rally, which was intended to boost Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz and gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano.
As a screen in the background displayed polling numbers Trump had picked out that showed him leading among voters over potential primary challengers, Trump noted he had 71 percent in one poll, while “Ron DeSanctimonious” was at 10 percent.
The budding Trump-DeSantis rivalry was already being discussed after Trump announced a rally in Miami on Sunday for GOP candidates that did not include the governor, who is seeking a second term and who earned Trump’s backing in 2018.
But the rivalry did not escalate on Sunday. DeSantis held a separate event in Sun City Center, Fla., where he did not directly mention the former president as he touted his record on the coronavirus pandemic and the economy.
Trump, for his part, directly encouraged voters to back DeSantis.
“You’re going to reelect the wonderful, the great friend of mine Marco Rubio to the United States Senate, and you are going to reelect Ron DeSantis as your governor,” Trump told supporters.
Friction between Trump and DeSantis had reportedly been growing in recent months, as the Florida governor saw his star rise as he fought the Biden administration on the use of masks in schools, immigration and other culture war issues.
Trump has prodded at DeSantis in the past, but not as directly or in front of a crowd of supporters like he did on Saturday. And the Florida governor has previously shrugged off talk of a rift between the two men as a media creation.
“I think this is what the media does,” DeSantis said in January when asked about his relationship with Trump. “You cannot fall for the bait . . . you know what they’re trying to do, so just don’t take it. Just keep on keeping on. We need everybody united for a big red wave in 2022.”
But the two men appear to be on a collision course.
Trump is likely to announce a 2024 presidential bid before the end of the month, according to sources in his orbit, and DeSantis has the backing of a number of conservatives who are eager to move on from Trump out of concern he is the one candidate who could lose the general election.
One former Trump White House official argued DeSantis’ weak spot is that he would eventually have to go after the former president, who in many ways helped fuel DeSantis’ political rise in Florida.
“Once that happens, the Trump base will turn on him,” the former official said.
But many Republicans are hoping any looming Trump-DeSantis battle will remain on hold at least until after Tuesday.
Both men have a lot riding on the midterm results. For Trump, wins for his hand-picked Senate candidates in Arizona, Ohio, Georgia and Pennsylvania could strengthen his grip on the GOP and give him momentum to ride into a potential 2024 announcement.
DeSantis, meanwhile, could win his re-election contest handily and tout GOP gains in Congress in Florida as a result of his leadership of the state, bolstering his own case to be the next face of the party.
“The reality is, regardless of if Blake Masters wins [in Arizona], regardless of if Oz wins [in Pennsylvania], Ron DeSantis is winning by a record amount,” said Sam Nunberg, a former adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign. “And that’s going to continue his upward trajectory toward being able to win the nomination in 2024. Donald Trump is the front-runner, but he’s not a formidable front-runner.”