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GOP civil war pits Ron vs. Don with a presidential nomination at stake

Nov. 16, 2022 Updated Wed., Nov. 16, 2022 at 1:27 p.m.

US President Donald Trump (right) and Florida's governor Ron DeSantis hold a COVID-19 and storm preparedness roundtable in Belleair, Florida, July 31, 2020.   (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
US President Donald Trump (right) and Florida's governor Ron DeSantis hold a COVID-19 and storm preparedness roundtable in Belleair, Florida, July 31, 2020.  (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Mary Ellen Klas Miami Herald

Former President Donald Trump’s decision Tuesday night to announce a reelection bid a week after the midterm elections escalated what had been a simmering feud within the ranks of the GOP into a full-scale civil war.

At the center sits Ron DeSantis, Florida’s newly-reelected governor who rocketed to national prominence as the darling apprentice of the former president.

He is now being promoted by a growing group of establishment factions within the Republican Party as the replacement candidate for Trump. They are moved less by the fact that Trump attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and inspired the deadly riot at the Capitol in a failed attempt to remain in power, but more by the fact that the candidates he recruited and endorsed were rejected by voters.

“A bruised Donald Trump announced a new presidential bid on Tuesday night, an invitation to double down on the outrages and failures of the last several years that Republicans should reject without hesitation or doubt,’’ wrote the conservative National Review in an editorial posted after Trump announced.

Before he took the stage at Mar-a-Lago Tuesday night, Trump filed the official paperwork to become a candidate. But the Ron versus Don primary contest was already underway.

On Monday, the conservative Club for Growth released a poll showing that, if the GOP primary were held now, DeSantis would lead Trump by 11 percentage points in Iowa and by 15 points in New Hampshire. The findings followed a poll last week by YouGov America showing DeSantis with a seven-point lead over Trump among GOP voters nationwide in a 2024 primary matchup.

And a new super PAC called “Ron to the Rescue” had its soft launch last week with the goal of elevating DeSantis’ candidacy and serving as his surrogate campaign until the Florida governor makes it official. Since the group announced on Friday, its founder, John Thomas, said it has received commitments of more than $5.5 million and has plans to launch its first DeSantis for president ad on Wednesday, with broadcast ads running in the primary states starting next month..

“As crazy as it is, Donald Trump is running from behind,’’ Thomas said Tuesday. “I could feel the ground shifting last week, but I didn’t know that it would move as fast as it did. The fact is, Ron DeSantis is arguably the front runner to be the next Republican nominee, and that is remarkable — particularly against Trump who had a cult-like following in the Republican electorate.”

Intraparty leadership struggles

As DeSantis surged, Trump’s supporters directed their displeasure over the mid-term results at the GOP leadership, which is facing battles in both the House and the Senate.

“The Republican Party as we know it is dead,’’ declared U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, after his party failed to retake control of the Senate as every incumbent Democrat won reelection.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee, announced during a closed-door Senate Republican Conference meeting Tuesday afternoon that he will challenge Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and seek the top job of Senate GOP leader.

McConnell, however, appeared prepared to steer the blame indirectly on to Trump and Scott.

“We underperformed among independents and moderates because the impression of many of the people in our party and leadership roles is that they are involved in chaos, negativity and excessive attacks,’’ McConnell said Tuesday. “It frightened moderate and Republican voters, which is why I never predicted a red wave.”.

Republicans are still anticipated to flip the House, but that majority would be such a slim margin that insurgent groups like the House Freedom Caucus are expected to have more influence over GOP priorities.

The normally combative Trump mentioned none of the challenges facing his party in his low-key, 67-minute speech at his resort estate in Palm Beach. He instead promised an improved economy, ending illegal immigration, eliminating street crime and cracking down on illegal drugs and his primary target was President Joe Biden.

Also notably absent was any direct assault on his likely primary rivals, including DeSantis.

For the last week, prominent Republicans across the country were juxtaposing the governor’s dominant victory in Florida with Trump’s losing election cycle after many of his handpicked candidates took a drubbing. Candidates in key gubernatorial, Senate and House races failed to deliver the “red wave” Republicans had expected and many blamed the former president as being a drag on the party.

Sen. Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican, was asked by a Politico reporter if she would support Trump in his bid a second term as president. “I don’t think that’s the right question,’’ she answered. “I think the question is who is the current leader of the Republican Party. Oh, I know who it is: Ron DeSantis.”

Trump’s position is years in the making, but …

That’s not a comfortable place for Trump, who has spent the last six years building his own political establishment and positioning himself as the Republican Party’s most important power broker.

Among his closest allies at the state level was DeSantis. The Florida governor followed the president’s lead in handling COVID, pushing to open the economy as cases rose, downplaying the severity of the virus and demanding that schools open for in-person instruction in the fall of 2020.

Now, Trump’s chief ally is his primary opponent.

He will attempt to secure commitments of loyalty from his allies, lock down commitments from high stakes donors, and use that as leverage to create a firewall between himself and DeSantis, said Rick Wilson a former Republican political consultant and now Lincoln Project strategist who has written a book about Trump and his tactics.

“The war between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis is only in its opening skirmish,’’ he said. “In the days, weeks and months to come, the GOP establishment and elites surrounding DeSantis right now will learn that the Trump base loves the cruelty and brutality of Trumps attacks against anyone he perceives as an enemy.”

For example, Trump likely watched DeSantis’ reaction during the debate with Democrat Charlie Crist when he was asked if he would serve all four years or if he was running for president.

As DeSantis froze, “I promise you, when Trump saw that, the feral cunning in Trump’s brain was like, I got this guy,’’ Wilson said.

Jim Geraghty, senior political correspondent at National Review, predicted that if DeSantis launched his presidential candidacy, “Trump fans and Democrats alike can be counted on to amplify a common barb about DeSantis: that he isn’t very smart. The governor apparently lucked into Yale undergrad and Harvard Law School.’’

But, he added: “Those are just two entries on a sterling résumé for a presidential candidate.”

DeSantis got a taste of what being on the other side of Trump’s attack looks like on Election Day. As Trump was leaving his polling place, reporters asked what he thought of DeSantis’ rising national celebrity status.

“I think if he runs he could hurt himself very badly,” Trump responded. “I will tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering. I know more about him than anybody other than perhaps his wife, who is really running his campaign.”

The governor did not take the bait and at a news conference in Fort Walton Beach on Tuesday redirected a reporter’s question about Trump’s “less than flattering comments” about him to focus on his favorite target, the media.

“One of the things I’ve learned in this job is when you’re leading, when you’re getting things done, you take incoming fire, that’s just the nature of it,” DeSantis said, carefully avoiding any mention of Trump.

“I roll out of bed in the morning, I’ve got corporate media outlets that have a spasm, just the fact that I’m getting up in the morning,” DeSantis continued. “And it’s constantly attacking and this is just what’s happened. I don’t think any governor got attacked more, particularly by corporate media, than me over my four year terms. And yet I think what you learn is, all that’s just noise.”

He also indirectly encouraged people to compare his mid-term record against the former president’s.

“At the end of the day, I would just tell people to go check out the scoreboard from last Tuesday night,” DeSantis said.

The governor will continue to bash the media and avoid engaging with Trump as long as possible, Wilson said. But, he predicted, “the Republican base will know that he’s the candidate of the ‘Never Trump’ types — the wealthy donor class, Mitch McConnell, and the elite conservative media.”

Thomas, the head of the Ron to the Rescue PAC, predicted that while DeSantis attempts to stay out of the fray, if he is attacked, the super PAC will respond.

“We’re not going to let former President Trump try to distort Gov. DeSantis’ record,’’ he said. “Does Trump have an argument for the nomination? He absolutely does. We just think ours is much better.”

In the end, Thomas added, neither DeSantis nor Trump will be harmed by the attention directed at their civil war. “The Ron versus Don conversation is going to be a highly rated feud.”

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