Updated Jul 24, 2023, 8:19am EDT

Ron DeSantis is struggling to keep it a two-man race with Donald Trump

REUTERS/Kevin Wurm

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The News

For months, Ron DeSantis’ pitch to Republicans was simple: He was the only serious alternative to Donald Trump. Others might run, but he was coming off a blowout re-election, putting up record-shattering fundraising numbers, and leading a post-Trump conservative movement in Florida — nobody’s resume (or polling) could compare.

“You have basically three people at this point that are credible in this whole thing: Biden, Trump and me,” he told donors in May.

But as DeSantis’ campaign struggles mount, that narrative — to use one of DeSantis’ favorite words — is showing some major cracks. And polling over the weekend threatened to crumble it entirely.

On Sunday, two Fox News surveys presented worrying data for the Florida governor (and good news for some of his opponents): In Iowa, Tim Scott sat in third place within 5 percentage points of DeSantis, and in South Carolina, the poll found the state’s former governor Nikki Haley in second at 14%, just ahead of DeSantis’ 13%,with Scott again closing in. Meanwhile, Vivek Ramaswamy is trending upward and sits a for-now distant third behind DeSantis in averages of national polls: A new Harvard/Harris survey found him at 10%, barely behind DeSantis at 12%.

“No matter how much the media and D.C. elites try to destroy Ron DeSantis, they can’t change the fact that this is a two-man race for the nomination,” Andrew Romeo, a spokesman for the DeSantis campaign, said in a statement to Semafor. “Ron DeSantis is ready to prove the doubters wrong yet again and our campaign is prepared to execute on his vision for the Great American Comeback as we transition into the next phase of winning this primary and beating Joe Biden.”

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Shelby’s view

The problem for all of the candidates is still Trump, of course, who held massive leads in each of these polls ranging from 30 to 40 points. But DeSantis no longer looks like the dominant challenger — setting up what could become a free-for-all to take the second slot and try to consolidate opposition to Trump.

Campaigns are so far dismissive of Ramaswamy’s rise in the polls, and Haley is still widely seen as a niche candidate. But the same can’t be said of Scott, who is increasingly looking like a concern for DeSantis — and, worse for the governor, a well-financed one. The Super PAC backing the South Carolina senator recently announced it was purchasing a whopping $40 million ad buy in key early states and on cable TV.

Those problems could get worse still: Donors turned off by DeSantis’ hard right emphasis on social issues —The New York Times reported on Sunday that his own staff produced a strange anti-LGBT video and tried to pass it off as a supporter’s on Twitter — might find Scott a more natural fit if he looks viable.

Scott seems well-poised for a breakout, but with it will also come more attention from his opponents and deeper dives into his record from the press.

In recent weeks, the DeSantis camp has started to quietly lay the groundwork to go after Scott: An internal memo from earlier in July to donors honed in on Scott, suggesting he could be an incoming threat, NBC News reported at the time, while also pointing to potential vulnerabilities.


“While Tim Scott has earned a serious look at this stage, his bio is lacking the fight that our electorate is looking for in the next President,” the memo said. “We expect Tim Scott to receive appropriate scrutiny in the weeks ahead.”

A pro-Haley Super PAC last week attacked Scott’s “wasteful spending approach” and Chris Christie on Sunday denounced his recent remarks defending Trump from accusations he instigated the Jan. 6 riot.

One person who’s unlikely to attack Scott? Trump himself, who has so far spent the bulk of his time going after DeSantis with occasional flicks at anti-Trump candidates like Christie.

The former president is now relishing the crowded field, and fully understands it benefits him at this point. And although he recently suggested he’d go after whoever was in second place, there’s no indication from the campaign that Trump would start going after Scott (or Ramaswamy, for that matter) should he overtake DeSantis. Aides have noted that the two don’t directly attack Trump, and the former president has in fact explicitly told them not to criticize Scott.

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Room for Disagreement

DeSantis deserves some credit for recognizing things are not where they need to be. In a memo to donors last week, the campaign detailed their plans to move past its messaging issues and money problems and get DeSantis —an “insurgent outsider” — into fighting shape. Ideas included addressing the campaign’s high burn rate by cutting travel costs, focusing more on smaller intimate events with the candidate, and accepting more invitations from outside organizations. DeSantis, his team told donors, will also aim to be more media accessible, building off his CNN interview last week.