May 19, 2023, 1:05pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Republicans had a rough night on Tuesday. Does that spell trouble for Ron DeSantis?

Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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The News

In Jacksonville, the GOP’s candidate for mayor warned that Democrat Donna Deegan would start “defunding the police” and “placing radical activists in charge” of law enforcement. In Colorado Springs, Republican Wayne Williams claimed that his opponent would ruin the city with “socialism.” And in Kentucky, Kelly Craft ran for governor on promises to execute drug dealers and “dismantle” the state Department of Education.

Deegan won, Williams lost, and Craft slumped into third place in Tuesday’s GOP primary. In each race, tactics that paid off for Republicans in 2021 didn’t have the same impact. Donald Trump immediately branded them as defeats for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, declaring his “magic is gone,” after endorsing both Craft and defeated Jacksonville mayoral candidate Daniel Davis.

For once, Democrats agreed with Trump. In Jacksonville, where Davis out-spent Deegan better than 3-1, their candidate — a popular former TV anchor and the head of a breast cancer foundation — promised to “put more [police] officers on the streets” and reminded voters that crime had surged under Republican Mayor Lenny Curry. Davis, they said, ran too far to the right in a city Trump lost twice, and helped other Democrats win down-ballot.

“We just finished one of the most controversial legislative sessions in Tallahassee,” said Nikki Fried, the new chair of the success-starved Florida Democratic Party. “That was fresh in people's minds. It all backfired on them, and gave permission for Republicans and independents to cross over, to support Democrats.”

The GOP loss in Colorado Springs was more complicated: Mayor-elect Yemi Mobolade ran as an independent entrepreneur, not a Democrat. But like Deegan, he picked up some Republican endorsements and prevailed against a campaign that tried to drive up conservative turnout with warnings about crime and racial “equity.”


Add it all up and the picture looked concerning for Republicans looking to move on from Trump, but build off his culture war appeal. The default message Republicans had settled on in his absence — much of it embodied by DeSantis and his “war on woke,” and some of it delivered by consultants integral to his own expected run — again failed to win converts this week. That could spell trouble for a general election, but also for DeSantis’ electability argument in a primary against Trump.

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David's view

Trump’s never ending search for an angle to use against his opponents helped make Tuesday about DeSantis in the press. That’s a little too easy.

Florida’s governor endorsed Craft with full knowledge of the public polling, as a favor to two friends who happen to be deep-pocketed donors, according to a person familiar with the decision. And Davis lost in Jacksonville with the strategic advice of Susie Wiles, a senior Trump advisor ever since DeSantis exiled her. A victory would have been spun as a Trump-aligned rescue mission; defeat, predictably, was blamed on the governor who’s about to run against him.

Republicans in Kentucky also credited Craft’s defeat to a few different factors that may be less applicable to DeSantis. Attorney Gen. Daniel Cameron was popular in his own right, earning what GOP strategist Scott Jennings called “a deep and abiding affection” from conservatives for refusing to charge police officers in the killing of an unarmed Black woman, Breonna Taylor, in a no-knock raid on her apartment, then facing protests outside his private home.

Cameron had Trump’s endorsement, a particular problem for Craft, who’d worked in the administration. But he was also closely associated with Mitch McConnell, the dominant power broker in the state and the type of institutional Republican who DeSantis is counting on to help back a run against Trump. There were also candidate issues: Craft dodged public forums to the extent that even a promising Fox News interview foundered on questions about why she wouldn’t face Cameron in person.


Her paid messaging, much of it developed by Axiom Strategies, the firm behind the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down PAC, couldn’t fix that. A super PAC ad hit Cameron for once supporting cashless bail, while her own campaign warned that the attorney general wouldn’t take on the woke left like she would.

“Kelly Craft’s consultants let her down,” said T. J. Litafik, an unaffiliated Kentucky GOP strategist. “It ended up looking contrived, and her messaging was uneven. For all that money, she deserved a better campaign.”

Still, the less complicated, less personalized lesson from Tuesday was that some popular post-Trump GOP messaging may not be as effective as it was in 2021, or even last year.

The Florida GOP, with more resources and a better turnout operation, made the Jacksonville race close, but Davis lost because Democrats persuaded more non-affiliated and Republican voters to cross over. The relentless GOP effort to label her support for Black Lives Matter as a defund-the-police code felt labored and stale, especially in a GOP-run city where violent crime was out-pacing New York on a per capita basis. Democrats around the country are growing more confident, post-midterms, that they can rebut these appeals with ads showcasing support from sheriffs and police chiefs and clear candidate promises to boost police resources.

“I believe it is both possible and necessary to support our law enforcement while demanding racial justice,” Deegan told Semafor. “Everyone was horrified by the murder of George Floyd, and I marched in BLM protests alongside other community leaders, like Mayor Lenny Curry, and our Sheriff to show solidarity for the innocent lives that are lost every day due to racial violence.”

Kentucky was another story — an all-GOP electorate and a front-runner whose conservative credentials were never effectively challenged. Craft wasn’t the first wealthy candidate to pay consultants for a populist can-she-really-say-that campaign and then lose to a conservative who voters trusted more. But voters aren’t as reactive to this message this time.

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Room for Disagreement

Republicans did pick up the mayoralty of Panama City on Tuesday, and argued that Democrats had ideal conditions for a win in Jacksonville that may not be present elsewhere. Speaking with Politico, FLGOP chairman Christian Ziegler bemoaned the party’s “huge bloody primary” in the mayoral race “where millions of dollars were spent to rip apart the eventual Republican nominee.”

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  • David Bauerlein of the Florida Times-Union looks neighborhood-by-neighborhood at the Jacksonville race.
  • Joe Gerth, in the Louisville Courier-Journal, digs into how badly Craft’s money was spent.

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