Florida’s DeSantis positions himself as Trump’s heir to the White House


Ron DeSantis wouldn’t be governor of Florida without Donald Trump.

The then-president’s endorsement in 2018 turned a young congressman into the runaway winner of a Republican primary that featured a far more seasoned establishment favorite, Adam Putnam. Not quite three years later, many in the party see DeSantis as the person best positioned to carry on Trump’s legacy as their national standard-bearer in 2024.

It’s been a fast rise – and an even faster seesaw of political fortunes, considering where DeSantis’ reputation was early in the coronavirus crisis. He was ridiculed and second-guessed for rejecting mask mandates and reopening businesses. His approach was compared, unfavorably, to other governors from both parties, including now-embattled Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. DeSantis’ popularity in Florida cratered.

But Florida has, since the beginning of the pandemic, seen fewer per-capita coronavirus cases and deaths than many states, including many that instituted the more restrictive measures. And DeSantis’ poll numbers are rebounding a year ahead of his re-election bid. A Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy survey last month found him with a 53 percent job-approval rating.

“I think he’s the odds-on favorite to be the next president,” if Trump doesn’t run again, said Joe Gruters, a Florida state senator and chairman of the state Republican Party.

Such declarations can’t be discounted as parochialism in a state where two other Republicans – Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott – nurture White House ambitions. Nationally, the picture is similarly encouraging for DeSantis.

At last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference for hardcore GOP activists, he finished second to Trump in one presidential straw poll and first in another from which the former president was excluded. A recent survey by Tony Fabrizio, Trump’s chief pollster in 2016 and 2020, showed DeSantis and several others competing for second place in a field led by the former president and showed the governor tied with former Vice President Mike Pence as the second choice among Trump’s supporters. Rubio and Scott both ranked near the bottom.

“When you look under the hood of those numbers, DeSantis garners a lot of support from Trump voters in the absence of Trump,” Fabrizio said. “As the media beat him up as the anti-Cuomo and DeSantis stood up for himself, voters liked that. They associate that type of scrappiness and speaking your mind with President Trump. He is inheriting a lot of that.”

Allies say DeSantis, who did not respond to requests for comment, relishes an adversarial relationship with a press that they believe has rendered him a Republican martyr, precisely the type who can position himself as heir to the Trump mantle. Those who work in or around his political orbit insist he is focused first on 2022 but acknowledge the temptations of 2024.

“Ron DeSantis has quickly become the most recognizable Republican governor in the country, and I think that only bodes well for both his re-election and what he wants to do after that,” said Brad Herold, DeSantis’ 2018 campaign manager.

Donors outside Florida are eager to get in on the ground floor, said Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee lobbyist and DeSantis fundraiser.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” Iarossi said, “and you normally don’t have prominent donors from other states reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, how do I meet this guy? How do I support him? I think he’s going to be president one day, and I want to get to know him now. I want to support him for his 2022 election to make sure he wins if we need him running in 2024.'”

DeSantis’ appeal isn’t isolated to Trump diehards. His job-approval rating in the Mason-Dixon poll was 59 percent among independents.

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