The leading pro-DeSantis PAC surprised the political world with a single tweet after Donald Trump’s CNN town hall last week. It bluntly called out the former president for his answers on January 6th, his “rigged” election claims, “the sex abuse case” he was found liable for damages over, “his defense of his comments about grabbing women by their genitals,” and investigations into “his stash of taxpayer-owned classified documents.”
“How does this Make America Great Again?” the tweet from the official account of Never Back Down concluded.
This was the kind of all-out critique of Trump that Ron DeSantis — and most of the 2024 field — have never made themselves.
One DeSantis ally familiar with their thinking told Semafor that the group’s leadership “100%” recognized it as an error. A second source familiar with the situation added that they were told the tweet was sent without the approval of the PAC’s senior communications team.
“That post was a massive mistake,” the first ally said. “It sounded like it came from CNN, and I think people inside realized that that was a massive mistake, and I hope it won’t be repeated again.”
In perhaps a sign of concern around how it had been received, Never Back Down also added a reply to the tweet the next morning: This one focused on DeSantis’ “impressive accomplishments” in Florida and his dedication to discussing his “great vision” for the country.
In a statement, a representative from Never Back Down called the sources’ version of events “false,” but did not name any specific errors.
“This inaccurate gossip based reporting about internal conversations and strategy at Never Back Down is false,” Steve Cortes, a spokesperson for the PAC, said in a statement. “Never Back Down remains focused on telling the incredible story of success and service of Governor Ron DeSantis and amplifying the growing grassroots calls for him to become president.”
Never Back Down’s aborted attack gets to a core obstacle for DeSantis and indeed all of Trump’s Republican challengers: How do they attack him without sounding like Democrats to Republican voters?
Entire categories of what would be go-to attacks against any other candidate are effectively forbidden. DeSantis backed off almost immediately after a brief mention of Trump’s hush money payments to an adult film actress. He strongly defended him from his indictment in New York, from an FBI search on his Mar-a-Lago home that turned up hundreds of classified documents, and has avoided getting into topics related to other investigations. Even as DeSantis boasts on the pre-campaign trail that he’s a “winner,” he still hasn’t taken a clear stance on the most fundamental part of any electability argument: That his opponent lost the previous election.
Primary voters have long been conditioned to see discussion of Trump’s issues with the law, or January 6th, or women as liberal obsessions designed to drag down the party, not issues to be litigated in a contest between Republicans. After CNN’s town hall, for example, the network’s focus group of attendees bemoaned that the hosts kept bringing up his 2020 election claims: “Couldn’t the media ask him a question about 2024?” one voter asked.
This reflects my own experience on the trail in recent months: Republican voters rarely cite Trump’s personal or legal issues as prime arguments against him or even topics that they’re concerned about (the furthest they’ll usually go is to note that they’re tired of the “drama”). Issues like the economy, parental control over what’s taught in schools, or the border are much more likely to come up first.
So what to hit Trump on instead? DeSantis and his supporters have telegraphed some likely lines of attack aimed at hitting him solely from the right.
There’s electability, where DeSantis has recently criticized a “culture of losing” in the party without naming Trump, while warning Republicans will lose again if they “get distracted and focus the election on the past or on other side issues.”
And then there’s competence: DeSantis has hinted at attacking Trump from the right on COVID-19, in particular, saying repeatedly that he would have fired Dr. Anthony Fauci and resisted health guidance from CDC officials.
DeSantis has tried to call out Trump for attacking fellow Republicans as well, saying his criticisms of his record on Social Security and Medicare amount to “Democrat attacks” that damage the party.
Room for Disagreement
Some potential 2024 candidates, most notably Chris Christie, have urged Republicans to go further in attacking Trump over the issues named in the Never Back Down tweet. “The way to win is to beat the guy that’s ahead,” he said on The Dispatch podcast. “And so what would a campaign look like? A campaign would look like a direct, frontal challenge to Donald Trump.”
- A recent AP-NORC poll found that Trump’s various legal issues are not having a significant impact on his support. 74% of Republicans said the cases against him were “not justified.”
- For Politico Magazine, Jonathan Martin wrote that — despite a rough month for the Florida governor — DeSantis’ team in Tallahassee is feeling optimistic: They’re boasting of strong interest from donors, touting internal surveys of three kickoff states showing GOP voters remain open to his impending run, and expressing confidence his record will show he’s a competent leader who can contrast well with Trump.