early and often

DeSantis Steers Sharply to Trump’s Right

Hey, I’m still as radical as ever! Photo: CRISTOBAL HERRERA-ULASHKEVICH/EP/Shuttershock

After a long warm-up, it looks like Ron DeSantis will finally announce his presidential candidacy next week. And as his campaign goes live, his strategy is beginning to emerge from the shadows. The Florida governor, it seems, is going to steer sharply to Donald Trump’s right in hopes of an early momentum-creating victory in Iowa, where culture wars are in season year-round.

The twin strategic decision to go big in Iowa and go right in messaging was explained by CNN after DeSantis began publicly defending his decision to sign Florida’s six-week abortion ban after not mentioning it for weeks:

Abortion is not the only issue where DeSantis has found space to the right of the former president. As he readies a campaign for the White House, DeSantis has staked out positions on guns, immigration and the Covid-19 vaccine that appeal to the most conservative voters in the party.

And it isn’t simply rhetoric. DeSantis has championed consequential new laws that will turn Florida into a state where it’s incredibly difficult to get an abortion and easy to carry a gun in public, where undocumented migrants are not welcome and doctors with fringe views are free to practice medicine.

Those new laws, pushed through with the help of Republican supermajorities in the state legislature, are part of a larger effort by DeSantis to leverage his political power into policy victories that could outshine any other potential rival in a presidential primary.

And there’s no question DeSantis will be touting his more-reactionary-than-Trump views in Iowa, where the last three winners of competitive GOP presidential caucuses enjoyed support from the state’s powerful Christian conservative lobby, CNN notes:

DeSantis was well-received during an appearance Saturday in Sioux County, Iowa, a deeply red part of the state’s northwest corner where Trump won 82% of the vote and evangelical influences run through its politics. Before DeSantis spoke, the invocation included a call to protect children from conception on.

Perhaps even more impressive, Bob Vander Plaats, founder and CEO of the powerful Christian-right organization the Family Leader, has practically turned into a DeSantis cheerleader lately, as Rolling Stone reports:

A top evangelical leader in Iowa is calling on Republicans to “turn the page” on Donald Trump, and insists that the former president’s recent efforts to soften his politics on abortion have “flung” the doors of 2024 Iowa caucus contest “wide open” for likely competitors like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis …

Vander Plaats centered his criticism of Trump on what he characterized as the former president’s exhausting quest for “vengeance” for his loss in the 2020 election, and in his failure to back the anti-abortion agenda to the hilt.

Vander Plaats’s power over Iowa Republicans may be a bit exaggerated, but at a minimum he’s good at spotting parades to place himself ahead of, having endorsed caucus winners Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012, and Ted Cruz in 2016. To be clear, he hasn’t endorsed DeSantis and will undoubtedly play patty-cake with culture-war ultras Mike Pence, Tim Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy, and the endlessly slippery Nikki Haley. But there’s no question that DeSantis has the money, the organization, and now the right-wing street cred to outflank all these people in Iowa and put at least a scare into Trump.

From a geographical point of view, DeSantis is spending nearly as much time in New Hampshire (which will hold its primary eight days after Iowa’s caucuses, likely in mid-January) as in Iowa. His team is almost certainly aware that the last three Iowa GOP winners lost in the Granite State; his grand strategy is to upset Trump in both of those early states (no Republican candidate who has won Iowa and New Hampshire has gone on to lose the nomination). If DeSantis can stay in the race that long, the primary in his home state of Florida on March 19, 2024, could be the deal-sealer (or deal-breaker: Even though he still lived in New York at this point, Trump beat Marco Rubio easily in the Sunshine State in 2016; he had already run Jeb Bush out of the contest).

There are some problems with DeSantis’s hard-right strategy for winning the nomination. He could begin losing the more moderate voters who might otherwise be attracted to him as an alternative to Trump. And just as important, the sort of savage culture-war crusade the Florida governor seems to be planning could affect his general-election standing. Up until now, electability has been a big part of his rationale for running for president. At the moment, general-election trial heats versus Biden show DeSantis running a bit behind Trump as a potential head of the ticket. Running in the 2024 primaries as the champion of hard-core anti-abortion activists, Second Amendment absolutists, anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists, and persecutors of LGBTQ+ folk isn’t going to help with swing voters. But I guess he and his team figure that so long as Trump is kicking his ass in the primary polls, none of that matters; DeSantis can think about “pivoting to the center” if he’s the nominee.

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DeSantis Steers Sharply to Trump’s Right