WASHINGTON — Democrats are unfazed, even giddy about a possible 2024 rematch between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump. But the prospect of facing upstart Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is prompting whispers of angst within Democratic circles.
While Biden advisers and allies haven’t yet settled on a strategy to thwart DeSantis, the White House hasn’t missed an opportunity to knock him in an effort to weaken him before he can announce a presidential bid, according to conversations with Biden advisers and Democratic strategists.
Democrats worry that DeSantis, who presides over a large, diverse and former swing state, could appeal to possible Biden voters, those who would otherwise lean Republican, but were repelled by Trump’s baggage, the advisers and strategists said.
Biden allies privately worry that DeSantis’s record could appeal to the same set of independent, female or suburban voters who Biden needs to court to win. Although many also argue DeSantis is not tested nationally and could fumble in the GOP primary, with voters or on the debate stage against other Republicans.
At 44, DeSantis offers a more energetic and youthful alternative to Trump, 76, and Biden, 80.
“Right off the bat, you’ve got such a contrast on age. It’s one thing for Biden to stand side by side with Trump, because Trump’s not actually that young. The age difference between Biden and DeSantis is very noticeable,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy, a consulting business based in Jacksonville, Florida.
DeSantis is a near daily fixture in Democratic National Committee attack emails, slamming his positions and policy moves. Biden advisers and allies are seeking to call into question the governor’s leadership, putting the two camps on a collision course over hot-button issues like abortion, taxes and education.
Recently, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in an especially fiery statement, called the DeSantis administration’s rejection of a high school honors course in African American studies “incomprehensible.”
DeSantis is preparing to make the upcoming session of the Florida legislature, with its proposals on guns, abortion and education, a springboard for a potential presidential bid, along with the tour for a book that is coming out in late February. He is likely to announce once the Florida session ends in May — though he’s in no rush and could wait until the summer.
Longtime GOP operative and former executive director the Republican Governors Association, Phil Cox, is expected to help run the DeSantis campaign. Neither Cox nor DeSantis’s press secretary responded to a request for comment.
Other Republican governors, like Scott Walker or Jeb Bush, also were darlings of the GOP in the early stages of a presidential cycle only to fail to win the nomination.
Yet a huge part of Biden’s message for 2024 is his ability to govern successfully and normally, without the chaos and drama of Trump. DeSantis can argue he too can govern, drama-free. While Democrats view him as right wing and extreme politically, voters have not tagged him that way so far, pollsters say.
DeSantis has wielded his move to keep Florida mostly open during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic as a political cudgel against Trump and Democrats.
“The governor is not a fan at all of President Biden’s handling of the economy, which restricted businesses during COVID,” said Dane Eagle, former Secretary of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity under DeSantis. “We have pushed against that, and our economy speaks for itself with its 2.5 percent unemployment rate. It’s not just that we have different results, but we have different results from different actions.”
Part of the DeSantis strategy is to win over as many GOP donors as possible and dominate the race before he formally announces. He’s likely to center a presidential run around his gubernatorial response to the COVID-19 shutdowns, his handling of the Florida economy including its low unemployment rate, more stringent immigration laws and extolling the virtues of limited government. His wife, Casey, a former television reporter, remains his closest adviser.
Democrats are watching the governor closely. The DNC recently hired a Tallahassee-based staffer to respond to DeSantis in real time. That aide will start before the Florida legislature session begins in March.
They have reason to worry. Recent polling from Suffolk University/USA Today shows DeSantis beating Biden, 47 percent to 43 percent in a hypothetical match-up, whereas the same poll showed Biden handily beating Trump, 47 percent to 40 percent. A majority of voters in the same poll said they wanted neither Biden nor Trump to run again in 2024.
The Biden administration has also trolled him on abortion, sending Vice President Kamala Harris to Tallahassee to deliver a speech there on the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Biden is likely to announce his presidential bid following the State of the Union address on Feb. 7, with much of his political strategy coming from top White House advisers including Anita Dunn, Jen O’Malley Dillon and Mike Donilon. The DNC will run most of the organizing in states.
Democrats found abortion to be one of their most salient issues in the 2022 midterms and intend to lean on it again heavily in the upcoming presidential race. The Biden White House also plans to play up the president’s legislative and economic achievements in passing bills to boost investments in clean energy, CHIPS manufacturing and infrastructure, while continuing to paint Republicans broadly as extremists and the party as still defined by Trump.
Democratic advisers caution DeSantis will face much more scrutiny in Iowa, New Hampshire or Nevada than he has in Florida, and they like to say the same pundits who predicted a Republican wave before the midterms may be wrong again about voters’ appetite for GOP policies.
Trump has already announced his presidential campaign, while former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley will announce her candidacy on Feb. 15. Other Republicans like former vice president Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are also expected to run.
DeSantis allies, meanwhile, say he the governor is disciplined and energetic. He has taken jabs at the Biden team for its handling of inflation and for Democrats’ handling of curricula in schools on diversity and gender.
“These are opportunities to make a little news — stir the pot — without really getting into it with Trump. And Republican voters love it, and it helps him in his quest to win the nomination,” said Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy. “But I don’t think they’re message testing something to run in the general election against Joe Biden. This is a short term strategy. It’s not long game.”
Story by Nancy Cook and Christian Hall.