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Updated Jul 11, 2023, 7:14am EDT
politics

Nobody is going ‘rogue’ on the confrontational DeSantis campaign

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, his wife Casey and their daughter Madison walk in the Fourth of July Parade in the rain in Merrimack, New Hampshire, U.S., July 4, 2023.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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The News

When conservatives complain Ron DeSantis is “too online,” the face of their argument is his campaign’s digital operation, which shared the recent anti-LGBT video packed with right-wing memes that generated a firestorm of headlines.

The DeSantis “War Room,” the rapid response online operation fronted by Christina Pushaw, keeps generating attention-getting controversies. In June, they shared what appeared to be AI-generated pictures of Donald Trump embracing Dr. Anthony Fauci, raising questions over the use of manufactured images in a presidential campaign. They also lashed out at Trump for not denouncing “adverse effects” from vaccines, prompting National Review’s Noah Rothman to accuse them of “throwing wild haymakers at the former president without concern for the collateral damage.”

Conservative radio host Erick Erickson wrote Monday that “the campaign needs to really, honestly assess just how online it is in terms of Twitter” and get more “offline” if it wants to retain a shot at the victory — echoing a common criticism from Republicans who aren’t backing Trump.

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Shelby’s view

Like it or not, this is the DeSantis platform. His emphasis on social issues and culture war fights has plenty of critics on substance and strategy alike, but it’s the platform he’s chosen to take his stand on.

The digital “War Room” can feel like its own separate entity, especially given Pushaw’s high-profile daily battles with Trump influencers and the press, alongside the fact that DeSantis doesn’t personally use social media like the former president. But there’s only one campaign here, and the Florida governor’s digital team is simply an extension of it.


As someone involved in the DeSantis team put it: “There’s a 0% chance that Ron is sort of tolerating a rogue operation. He’d fire them in two seconds.”

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Days after the “War Room” promoted the “Pride” video, DeSantis himself defended it, arguing that “identifying Donald Trump as being a pioneer in injecting gender ideology into the mainstream” is “totally fair game.”

The video itself might have come off as odd, but DeSantis and his allies are pursuing a similar strategy at every level. The top DeSantis super PAC recently sent out direct mail pieces featuring blurred explicit images from LGBT-themed books to voters in Iowa — the least online audience — while another outside group (not clearly backing DeSantis) sent out letters mockingly “thanking” Trump for supporting LGBT causes. A high-profile video released by Casey DeSantis, Florida’s first lady, leaned hard into the same topics and made reference to “child mutilation.”

It’s a similar dynamic with other “War Room” controversies. National Review might scoff at their vaccine skepticism, but as the same column noted, it’s in line with the Florida governor’s record. While his focus on the campaign trail has been about COVID-19 mandates and his success in opening up his state early on, he spent the end of 2022 calling for the Florida Supreme Court to investigate “wrongdoing” connected to the vaccines.

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To the extent there’s a difference between the various parts of his campaign, it’s at the margins in style and emphasis. Ultimately, the online operation seems to be functioning as a way to get the activist, more “online” supporters on board, while DeSantis works the ground with an adjacent — but often slightly less hard-edged (depending on who you talk to) — message aimed at convincing more traditional voters.

“The activists will be attracted by the more aggressive stance,” the person involved in DeSantis’ presidential efforts said. “The sort of regular voter — who we don’t want to view Ron as extreme — will have a likeability relationship with Ron, that’s different. In that regard, I think it’s really smart, and frankly, well executed.”

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Room for Disagreement

Liz Mair, a digital strategist on prior GOP campaigns who plans on voting for DeSantis, argues that the campaign’s online arm may be hurting itself with faulty tactics. Another campaign might try to launder damaging info about Trump’s record on LGBT issues through the press via opposition research, for example, without drawing the same scrutiny.

“The benefit of pushing dirt on your opponent and doing it without your fingerprints attached is you don’t become the story,” Mair said. “They are the story.”

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Notable

  • Conservative radio host Erick Erickson wrote Monday that DeSantis and his team “need to adjust” if they want to remain serious contenders for the White House. In part, Erickson argued that “the campaign needs to really, honestly assess just how online it is in terms of Twitter.”
  • “The DeSantis team really dominates a lot of Twitter conversations, but that’s not actually where Republican voters spend most of their time online. It’s for the campaign to assess how much ROI they get online and if adjustments should be made. Twitter isn’t the real world and some times campaigns can forget that. Regardless of an online strategy, successful campaigns need to connect to people offline,” Erickson noted.


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