Trump v DeSantis: Ex-president could turn on the rising GOP star

Ron DeSantis risks the wrath of Donald Trump as his political star rises.

Even as he runs for a second term as governor of Florida, DeSantis is being mentioned as a top White House contender. Trump has not ruled out another run at the Oval Office in 2024.

And DeSantis is already taking baby steps to split with Trump even as he courts MAGA supporters and talks with GOP donors during visits to Mar-a-Lago. 

In the wake of the Surfside building collapse, DeSantis, who built his reputation as a partisan governor willing to defy COVID restrictions to keep his state open, has turned the other cheek. 

He’s stood with local officials, including Democrats, as they assessed the damage. And he sat next to Joe Biden when the president came down for a briefing and to meet with rescue officials, nodding along as Biden patted his hand in solidarity. 

But most telling could be his absence. DeSantis skipped Trump’s campaign Sarasota last weekend, citing his duty to the Surfside community, where at least 64 people have died in the condo collapse and more than 70 are still missing.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey, visit a memorial to those missing outside the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside, Florida

President Joe Biden and Gov. Ron DeSantis at a July 1 briefing on the condo collapse

President Joe Biden and Gov. Ron DeSantis at a July 1 briefing on the condo collapse

He’s still the conservative populist who rarely parts with Trump. But unlike the former president, DeSantis is showing that he can tone down some of his most extreme partisan rhetoric during a disaster.

‘The governor has been decisive. He´s been constant. He´s been collaborative,’ Miami-Dade County Mayor Danielle Levine Cava, a Democrat who has sparred with DeSantis in the past, said in an interview. ‘Hats off to the governor for how he has supported us in this crisis.’

Charles Burkett, the nonpartisan mayor of Surfside, called the level of cooperation ‘astounding, even surprising.’

Of course, DeSantis isn’t ushering in a new era of bipartisanship or a Republican return to reality-based rhetoric. The governor has dodged direct questions on whether Biden’s victory in last year’s election was fair. A day after the collapse, DeSantis promoted an unusual plan to deploy officers from Florida to the southern border, a move Democrats dismiss as political theater.

Still, DeSantis’ actions present a sharp contrast with Trump. The former president often threatened to withhold aid to Democratic officials who criticized him, including Govs. Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York. At other times, he appeared insensitive or clumsy in his response to people’s suffering. During a visit to hurricane damaged Puerto Rico, for instance, Trump tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd of residents.

Mac Stipanovich, a former Republican campaign strategist, said DeSantis is ‘less frightening than Trump’ to some voters even as he steadily courts the former president’s base.

DeSantis ‘has a finely tuned sense of what is the best red meat, on any given day, to throw to the MAGA base and he does it with some skill and no shame,’ Stipanovich said. ‘Soon as we´re beyond the window of this tragedy, everybody will be at each other´s throats once again.’

Indeed, the debate could swiftly move to how the state and local governments manage aging infrastructure. Officials in Miami-Dade County are moving forward with a 30-day audit of buildings that are more than 40 years old. DeSantis has questioned the necessity of a statewide review of older buildings.

Gov. DeSantis skipped Donald Trump's July 3 rally in Sarasota, Fla.

Gov. DeSantis skipped Donald Trump’s July 3 rally in Sarasota, Fla. 

While effective responses to catastrophes can help burnish a governor’s political reputation, the boost can sometimes prove fleeting. Former Govs. Jeb Bush of Florida and Chris Christie of New Jersey were widely praised for their response to devastating storms. But Trump, who never held political office before running for president, defeated both men for the 2016 Republican nomination.

DeSantis’ handling of the tragedy appears to have caught some Democrats off guard, leaving them with no unified response.

Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democrat hoping to challenge DeSantis next year, didn’t respond to requests for comment on the governor’s response to the collapse. Nikki Fried, Florida’s Democratic agriculture commissioner who has also announced a bid for governor, praised local officials, Biden and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But she knocked DeSantis for wading into the politically charged immigration debate by sending Florida law enforcement to the border with Mexico.

‘Although the Florida Division of Emergency Management has been working around the clock to support search and rescue efforts, it was unfortunate that Governor DeSantis diverted first responders to the southern border during this incredibly difficult time for the Miami community and our entire state,’ she said.

Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat challenging GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, said she was ‘glad to see productive partnership between local, state, and federal officials as we work to save lives.’

‘In times of crisis,’ she said, ‘we need to set partisanship aside and do what´s right for our communities.’

DeSantis is gaining national attention at a critical juncture for Republicans. While Trump decides whether to run again in 2024, those with presidential ambitions are making aggressive moves to position themselves as his heir should he opt against a campaign.

For his part, DeSantis has said he is focused more on winning reelection next year than the 2024 contest. He is one of the few leading Republicans who has not yet visited Iowa, home to the leadoff presidential caucuses and a state dominated by conservative evangelicals who can sway the GOP’s direction. 

But DeSantis led a straw poll of presidential contenders at the by the Western Conservative Summit last month with 75 percent to Trump’s 72 percent.  Democrats are already using the 2024 reports against him, arguing to Florida voters that, if they give DeSantis a second term, he will immediately pivot to a White House race.

For now, Trump remains happy to be aligned with DeSantis. But several people in touch with the former president and his team said he has paid close attention as DeSantis has wooed donors at Trump´s Mar-a-Lago club in South Florida and gained traction in some conservative circles. If DeSantis´ popularity rises and he threatens Trump´s status as the undisputed leader of the party, many Republicans privately expect Trump to turn on the governor.

Friction between the two spilled into the public for the first time last week when Trump rebuffed DeSantis´ entreaties to postpone the rally in Sarasota. Trump, who opened his remarks with a moment of silence for the victims in Surfside and their families, told the conservative network Newsmax that he and DeSantis had ‘mutually agreed’ that the governor should skip the rally.

Trump has sought to keep the upper hand in the relationship, bringing up his early endorsement in several recent interviews. He has also said he would consider DeSantis as a potential running mate if he chose to run again for president.

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