Ron DeSantis may be done. But are the Meh-Trump Republicans who fueled and propped up his candidacy done with their mission to nudge Trump aside? That’s the topic of today’s Backchannel.
Will There Be a New GOP Presidential Memestock?
Originally Published: July 13, 2023 2:39 p.m.
I want to follow up on Nicole’s Where Things Stand from yesterday afternoon, where she notes that the Murdoch family seems to be wearying of Meatball Ron⁽™⁾ as his hapless campaign continues to stumble and the prospect of his ridding billionaire GOP donors of Donald Trump seems ever more remote.
At the moment, DeSantis’s zombie campaign rests on the support of an odd-couple mix of the incel-adjacent far right, the GOP donor class and the operatives who serve them. But if you accept that DeSantis won’t be the GOP nominee, which you should (trust me), who replaces him as the Great Hope of the GOP Donor Class? Or, to put it differently, who is the next non-Trump GOP memestock who will get all the investment and attention before plummeting back to the ground?
First, let me address those who think I’m counting DeSantis out too quickly. After all, what if Trump literally dies? Or what if the legal issues just become so crazy that his supporters abandon him? The problem for DeSantis is that while he has not consolidated any base of support within the GOP, he has consolidated a base of opposition: Trump loyalists. Diehard Trumpers really, really, really despise Ron DeSantis. That’s in addition to the skepticism he’s earned by being a weirdo who is by turns predatory and socially awkward. If Trump somehow leaves the field, there are probably two or three other candidates more able to consolidate Republican support. Put simply, the problem for DeSantis is that there are far more Never DeSantises in the GOP than Never Trumpers.
In normal circumstances what I have described wouldn’t require much further analysis: Trump is the nominee. Period. That remains the best analysis. But there’s a peculiar feature of the current GOP. It has actually become what many Democrats long claimed: a political party controlled — or, at least, funded — by a small coterie of billionaire oligarchs. Of course, “controlled” takes it too far. If it were really controlled by the oligarchs you likely wouldn’t have ever had Trump. You’d have had Rubio or Jeb or maybe even Ted Cruz or Scott Walker. So the GOP isn’t fully controlled by the oligarchs. But it is funded by them.
This is a quite remarkable development. The Democrats are now funded pretty decisively by small donors. The “small donor” title can be a bit misleading. It’s really a base of middle-class and especially upper-middle-class and affluent donors chipping in tens or hundreds of dollars at a time. There’s a clear class tilt. But it’s still a mass base of donors. No one takes your calls because of what you gave on ActBlue. The giving is aspirational and ideological rather than transactional. But while GOP small giving has atrophied in recent cycles, the balance has been more than made up by the Citizens United system of unlimited giving through SuperPACs and dark money outfits. The GOP really does rely on funding from a relatively small group of billionaires who chip in millions or tens of millions every cycle. They don’t control the GOP but they fund it. So their concerns can never be too far from the center of the conversation.
Which brings us back to the quest for the new GOP memestock candidate. While a number of GOP oligarchs have expressly foresworn supporting Trump again, you can rest assured almost all of them will end up supporting him as nominee. But it’s also true that most of them would really, really like to avoid that. That, after all, is the origin of the DeSantis campaign — why he raised and is still sitting on a huge amount of money even as his candidacy is flat-lining. He would rid the GOP of Trump while still owning the libs and delivering on tax cuts and low regulation. That didn’t work out. But the desire to get rid of Trump is still there. There is a vast osmotic pressure of cash and oligarch hopes looking for a candidate to absorb both.
For months the logical hope sponge was Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin. Youngkin is quite right wing but not at all Trumpy. He’s very much a neo-Marco, neo-Jebbite type figure with enough post-2020 culture warring to operate in today’s GOP. I’d been waiting through the Spring for him to jump into the race, rocket to the top of expectations and fundraising before plummeting like DeSantis because of a lack of any mass base of support. But that didn’t happen. Now it’s not clear to me it ever will, with Youngkin or anyone else.
We’re pretty late into the cycle for any real new candidate to get into the race. People talk about late entries. But in practice they don’t work. Or they haven’t worked. The only candidate whose pulling more than trivial support in the race is Mike Pence of all people. Soon we’re likely to see more evidence of DeSantis’s downfall and more evidence of the felony indictments Trump faces in multiple jurisdictions. Perhaps that will focus people’s attention or prompt a Youngkin or other Jebbite-type figure to come off the sidelines. But for the moment it looks like the centers of power in the GOP who aren’t all in for Trump have given up looking for an alternative and begun focusing on accepting that Trump is their guy once again.