The fight between Trump and DeSantis could spill far beyond 2024

Should Ron DeSantis fall short in the 2024 presidential primary campaign, there are two paths that could lay before him. 

In one, he could become the “MAGA heir apparent.”

In the other, he could become Donald Trump’s permanent political punching bag. 

And allies of both men see the second one as a distinct possibility.

Trump has gone out of his way to belittle DeSantis far more than anyone else in the field. He has mocked him as having “no personality,” said his touted successes as governor were “a mirage” and labeled him a “RINO GLOBALIST.” He also blasted DeSantis’ “bad lobbying effort” as the reason why Florida State’s undefeated football team was left out of the College Football Playoff and even appeared to be rooting for California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in his debate against the Florida governor.

“My people said, ‘Sir, don’t hit him,’” Trump said of DeSantis at last month’s Florida GOP summit. “‘He’s a Republican.’ I said, ‘I don’t care if he’s a Republican.’ And we hit him hard, and now he’s like a wounded falling bird from the skies.”

The attacks started when it seemed that DeSantis could pose a strong challenge to Trump’s return to the White House, but they’ve kept up even as DeSantis’ campaign has floundered.

The rivalry can come across as intensely personal. Trump’s endorsement of DeSantis in 2018 played an outsize role in helping him become governor, and for years DeSantis tried to model his public persona in Trump’s image. The intensity of the attacks has left many positing that for Trump, it’s as much about settling personal scores as it is about politics.

In short, Trump doesn’t want to just beat DeSantis; he wants to end his — and perhaps his family’s — political career for good.

“If somebody is against him and has any serious capability, he just wants to destroy, and he’s got plenty of people who will do it for him,” former Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers said.

Bowers, a Republican, knows firsthand what it’s like to face Trump’s wrath. After he resisted overturning the 2020 election and then testified before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, he lost his primary bid for a state Senate seat to a Trump-endorsed candidate. 

“With DeSantis, I don’t think [Trump] is super interested in saying: ‘Hey, the guy does a great job. He’s competent; I’m better. And here’s why. And I’d like to keep him around and use him in an administration,’” Bowers said. “I don’t think that’s in his calculus.” 

Throughout the 2022 midterms, Trump was brooding behind the scenes about DeSantis’ national rise. The feud has long since spilled out into public view, and the Trump campaign now sends out, on a daily basis, “kiss of death” emails with the sole aim of promoting new anti-DeSantis attacks.

“Tomorrow is the last day for Ron to take his name off the ballot in Florida, or he runs the risk of getting crushed into oblivion by President Trump,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said in Monday’s edition of the email. “Ron can either save whatever face he has left or he can face embarrassment unlike any other politician has faced before.”

The personal nature of the political fight has some surmising that Trump won’t stop attacking DeSantis even after the Republican primary campaign is over but will rather continue to make sport of him unless DeSantis does one thing: endorse him.

“If DeSantis endorses Trump in the next few months, then their relationship will go back to normal,” said Republican former Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a vocal Trump supporter who is running for Congress in 2024. “If DeSantis chooses not to endorse, then I think there will be a permanent vendetta against him.” 

DeSantis has signed a pledge to support whoever the Republican nominee is, a requirement the Republican National Committee put forward in order to participate in sanctioned debates. But it’s unclear whether the tension between the two would prevent DeSantis from being the sort of full-throated supporter Trump has long required. 

Asked in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last month, DeSantis said of supporting Trump: “I signed a pledge, and that pledge is what it is.” He added, however, that should Trump be convicted in any one of his criminal trials, it “would be fatal in a general election” and the party shouldn’t nominate him in that scenario.

For his part, DeSantis has increasingly hit Trump harder. During a CNN town hall on Tuesday, DeSantis accused Trump of “flip-flopping” on abortion, botching the pandemic response and failing to complete a border wall.

The DeSantis and Trump campaigns didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Dan Eberhart, a pro-DeSantis donor, disagreed that the battle between the onetime allies was becoming personal, adding Trump wasn’t trying to permanently tarnish DeSantis’ reputation. Instead, should DeSantis’ efforts fall short this cycle, Eberhart said, he will be in prime position to be “the MAGA heir apparent” in 2028.

Polling backs that up. A national NBC News survey from November found that DeSantis was far and away the leading second choice for Republican voters, holding a 21-point edge over former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, suggesting he’d be in the best position to capitalize in a Trump-less primary. (Yet DeSantis finds himself trailing Haley in New Hampshire and South Carolina and locked in a virtual tie in Iowa.) 

“Trump thinks he’s going to win and might eventually have to work with Ron DeSantis,” Eberhart said. “And I think that Trump doesn’t want to see the field consolidate any more. And if he pushes on DeSantis too much, he could end up with a one-on-one with Haley, which I think he doesn’t want. I don’t think he wants a one-on-one with DeSantis or Haley.”

Eberhart added that Trump has previously launched deeply personal attacks against presidential campaign rivals, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, only to move on after the campaign.

That included Trump’s branding Cruz — his top rival in 2016 — a liar, while threatening to “spill the beans” about his wife and suggesting his father was connected to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The two made amends ahead of the general election.

“He seems to have dropped Jeb Bush and a lot of these grudges when he no longer needed the grudge,” Eberhart said. “Remember when Lindsey Graham and Trump hated each other?”

But Eberhart did say that complicating Trump and DeSantis’ interpersonal relationship and the campaign is Trump’s co-campaign manager Susie Wiles, who joined Trump’s operation after DeSantis sought to banish her from his.

“To the extent it’s personal, I would say that it’s really personal with Susie Wiles, not with Donald Trump,” he said.

Trump’s campaign has also recently gone after DeSantis’ wife, Casey, who is a mainstay on the campaign trail with her husband. She has been discussed as a potential candidate for governor in 2026, when her husband will be termed out, and she led a University of North Florida poll of potential Republican Florida gubernatorial candidates, with 22% of those surveyed saying they wanted her to run for governor. 

Over the weekend, Casey DeSantis encouraged women who live outside Iowa “to descend upon the state of Iowa to be a part of the caucus” — a comment that received swift pushback from Trump’s campaign. (She clarified the remarks, saying voting is limited to Iowa residents, though outsiders can volunteer to boost her husband.)

As part of the Monday “kiss of death” email, Cheung accused Casey DeSantis of “peddling fake news,” adding, “If these are the people who are in charge of Ron’s messaging and political game, he has nobody to blame but himself.” Meanwhile, the Trump-aligned Make America Great Again PAC weighed in, too, with spokesperson Karoline Leavitt lambasting Casey DeSantis’ “embrace of voter fraud to salvage her husband’s failing campaign.”

What’s more, before Ron DeSantis’ campaign launch, the Trump campaign warned that any potential DeSantis staffers would be blacklisted from working for Trump in the future — a move that could have serious career impacts on operatives who may soon be looking for new work within the Trump-dominated GOP after the primary season. 

A person who used to work on a pro-DeSantis operation in an early state spoke of getting the sense Trump hopes to kill DeSantis’ political prospects after 2024 and of believing the constant battling online between DeSantis staffers and allies and those in Trump’s orbit will actively harm DeSantis’ career prospects.

“It started as a legitimate competition,” this person said. “I think it’s now just actual disdain between those two parties. Any of the DeSantis folks are going to have a tough time finding work in the Republican Party, because Trump is the de facto leader of the party. And every day he wakes up, he has a new list of enemies and a new list of friends.”

Loyalty, though, is what Trump has long pointed to when he has been asked about the intensification of his fight with DeSantis.

“He was dead politically,” Trump told Fox News in April. “I endorsed him and saved him. He was losing by, like, 25, 30 points very shortly before the election. When I endorsed him, he went like a rocket ship. I should call him rocket man, but now he’s rocket man that’s crashing.” 

“When you help somebody, I believe in loyalty,” he added. “You just don’t do what he did.”

It’s that loyalty factor that some Trump allies see as the biggest motivating factor. 

“It is personal for him, to some degree. It’s the loyalty stuff,” a Trump ally said. “He’s long thought [DeSantis] was disloyal after he endorsed him and DeSantis still ran against him. That’s what a lot of this boils down to.”

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