by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is quickly establishing himself as the Republican best positioned to inherit the mantle from former President Donald Trump if the latter exits electoral politics.
DeSantis has taken up the major themes of the Trump presidency — defending national sovereignty, assailing Big Tech, excoriating political correctness, pursuing economic reopening during the pandemic, and getting tough with China — and married it to a relatively popular gubernatorial record in a major state.
“Four years is a political lifetime,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “That said, if Donald Trump chooses not to run for president in 2024, there is no question that DeSantis, assuming he wins reelection in the Sunshine State in 2022, will likely be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.”
DeSantis was the only non-Trump Republican to record double-digit support in the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll, taking 21% of the vote to the former president’s 55%. Without Trump on the ballot, DeSantis dominated with 43% to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s 11%.
Straw polls are not scientific surveys, and CPAC was held in DeSantis’s backyard in Orlando this year rather than outside of Washington, D.C. Most campaigns did not appear to push supporters to vote, with COVID-19 restrictions making mass busing untenable and Trump’s presence making him the likely winner clear. But it was an early test of organic support among the nation’s largest gathering of conservative activists. Other Republicans who have tied themselves to Trump, like Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, languished in the single digits.
Even Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who is traditionally a favorite of the type of movement conservative who attends CPAC, received just 7% of the vote without Trump listed on the ballot.
But DeSantis faces the same uncertainty about Trump’s 2024 plans as the rest of the hypothetical Republican field.