As the 2024 presidential race kicks off, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has begun to soft launch his own campaign. And he appears to be testing the waters of a tempestuous Red sea to see if he can catch the big fish: each faction of former president Donald Trump’s fanbase.
The archconservative has spent nearly a year generating outrage-inducing headlines to bait the farthest-right Trumpers with legislative moves like (but not limited to): rejecting an African American Studies course from the College Board; fueling “groomer” conspiracy theories in public schools; getting into a scrap with Disney; threatening to roll back press freedom; and launching an election police force to uncover supposed widespread voter fraud that largely doesn’t exist.
But lately, he also seems to be courting another type of Trump supporter – those who gravitated towards the former president’s performative “law and order” platform. DeSantis spent this past President’s Day meeting with police groups and community members in New York City and the surrounding suburbs of Philadelphia and Chicago, making stump speeches focused on policing.
At a “Back the Blue” event in Elmhurst, Illinois, he gave a speech touching on expanding police ranks, supporting law enforcement and touting his own record on public safety.
“You’re not going to have a good economy if the streets aren’t safe,” he said. “You’re not going to [have] good education if people don’t feel safe. None of it works unless you have the foundation.”
He was reportedly trying to curry favor with the Chicago Fraternal of Police, several members of which he invited to the event. The national police union is a highly coveted endorsement for right-wing candidates, and they endorsed Trump in both 2016 and 2020. Now, it appears DeSantis wants to get their attention.
“President Trump enjoys unquestionably strong loyalty among law enforcement groups,” Carrie Sheffield, a policy analyst and senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Voice, told TPM. “Governor DeSantis will face headwinds on that front, although he might be able to question President Trump’s handling of the aftermath of the 2020 George Floyd-related riots.”
There’s been some uptick in violent crime since 2020, but experts have attributed it to the isolating, destabilizing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The right-wing media also seized upon unrest in response to Floyd’s murder to create and stoke fears about violence in American cities. Nevertheless, trust in Trump’s ability to handle public safety dipped by the end of his presidency, especially among suburbanites.
That’s where DeSantis seems to be nudging his way in. His focus on Trump-ish policy at the local level alongside culture wars on the national level hint at what pundits have been speculating for some time—that the governor may want to color himself as the New Trump, Diet Trump, or Trump 2.0.
A recent poll from the Washington Post found that some Trump supporters haven’t been convinced to vote for him a third time. Out of 14 “persuadable” voters from New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa and South Carolina, most of the group also used words like “anxious,” “overwhelmed,” “fatigue,” and “embarrassed” to describe their feelings towards Trump today.
Half of those surveyed by the Post said they would vote for DeSantis in the next election.
“People are giddy that there’s somebody that could hold a candle to Trump,” Rina Shah, a longtime GOP strategist, told TPM.
Another poll released on Wednesday found that DeSantis is closely following behind Trump for the GOP ticket.
She compared DeSantis’s strategy—particularly his stance on school curricula—to Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, who won on an anti-woke platform packaged as education reform.
“Canceling AP classes in African American Studies was a horrible look for DeSantis,” Shah said, “but it’s a move that reflects his desire to test the waters and see how far he can go with certain actions intended to shore up support from Republicans who’ve remained Trump loyalists thus far.”
Will Franklin, a Texas-based Republican strategist and president of the communications firm Franklin Strategy Group, note that DeSantis’s “anti-woke” educational agenda could help him seize support from demographics within the party who otherwise don’t love Trump.
“Suburban [GOP] voters, a weak spot for Donald Trump, also oppose Critical Race Theory, according to various surveys,” he told TPM.
The governor’s moves so far, Shah said, are meant to shore up an appetite for him from all corners of a deeply fractured GOP—a state which Trump himself, by stoking division between his loyalists and moderate Republicans, helped create.
“The 2022 midterms revealed just how fractured the GOP is,” she explained. “The longtime chokehold that the MAGA faction had simply no longer exists.”