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Nov 22, 2023, 6:21am EST
politics

Why everyone is still piling on Ron DeSantis

REUTERS/Mike Segar
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Sign up for Semafor Principals: What the White House is reading. Read it now.

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The News

Ron DeSantis is sliding in the polls, but his opponents don’t plan to give him a breather in the crucial month of December — in Iowa and beyond.

Nikki Haley recently launched a $10 million ad buy across Iowa and New Hampshire beginning next month as she tries to turn the election into a head-to-head contest with Donald Trump. Trump and his team, meanwhile, continue to attack DeSantis daily in press releases and speeches, highlighting the former president’s lead in key early voting states while dismissing those who have endorsed DeSantis, like Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. On Tuesday, both camps sent out press releases promoting an NBC News article detailing infighting within Never Back Down, the pro-DeSantis Super PAC. “The DeSantis DiSaster Continues,” Team Haley wrote.

DeSantis, once seen as a Trump ally, has drawn the former president’s ire ever since he began flirting with a presidential run. Since his announcement, the relationship has continued to deteriorate, and even as Trump’s team points out that their attacks on DeSantis are ultimately a fraction of what they’re doing in the primary, one thing remains clear: They’re going to continue.

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“We take hits at DeSantis, and we’ll always continue to do that, no matter what,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung told Semafor. “He made a disloyal decision to run against President Trump, and that’s a decision he’s going to have to live with for the rest of his life. Ron is going to get got.”

Some analysts believe that Haley actually needs DeSantis to stay in the race to prevent Trump from consolidating even more support –— a thesis Haley’s team rejected in a November “state of the race” memo distributed to various interested parties. The memo cited polling from a firm associated with DeSantis that showed a higher percentage of his voter base would pick her as a “second choice” than Trump in key early states.

“Despite the DeSantis’s team’s outlandish and nonsensical claims, we would be thrilled if he packed it up before Iowa,” Haley’s campaign manager Betsy Ankney wrote in the memo. “Given his campaign cash burn rate, we just might get our wish.

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Haley’s team also argues that their move to ramp up attacks against DeSantis is defensive, the result of his team honing in on her in recent months: From her declaration that George Floyd’s murder should be “personal and painful for everyone,” to accusations that she’s cozy with China, and beyond. Ultimately, they believe that — as DeSantis has long declared — it is, in fact a two-person race: DeSantis just doesn’t make the cut.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s Trump and Nikki, that’s what all signs indicate. I think he’s desperately trying to hang on,” a Haley adviser said.

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Shelby’s view

One thing that’s remained constant amid the primary race? That Trump is leading the charge on attacks against DeSantis. But this focus on making sure DeSantis stays down now feels more important for Haley and her fight for a (currently) distant second place against the former president.

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Trump’s attacks may have started in large part because of the DeSantis hype — as a way to knock down one of the most popular conservative lawmakers before they could pose a threat. Now, though, it’s more personal: As Cheung told me, they have no plans to pull back on targeting the Florida governor, even as he’s struggling majorly in the polls.

That’s because for Trump, politics is often personal: The former president is notorious for demanding “loyalty,” and has openly commented on DeSantis’ apparent disloyalty in deciding to run (as well as Haley’s, albeit less often). To make matters worse, DeSantis and his super PAC have issued sharper criticisms of Trump than some of his other candidates, like Haley. As we’ve already seen, a constant barrage of Trump attacks can affect his opponents. What happens when the broader field begins to turn on DeSantis, too?

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The View From the DeSantis campaign

“The data is clear that Nikki Haley has no path to the nomination and every dollar spent on her candidacy is an in-kind for the Trump campaign,” DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement to Semafor. “Ron DeSantis is the only candidate with the organization, resources, and message necessary to beat Trump in multiple early states — including the first and most important state on the calendar. That’s why Team Trump continues to attack him every day.”

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Room for Disagreement

“If DeSantis quits, Trump gains votes on balance. Not Haley,” Nick Catoggio wrote in The Dispatch. “What Haley needs is for the other normies in the field to drop out, freeing their supporters to rally behind her, while the populist candidates fight on and battle for MAGA voters. Trump prevailed eight years ago because he had the populist bloc to himself while conservative challengers divvied up traditional Republicans. Haley will try to flip the script this time, consolidating conservative voters while Trump, DeSantis, and to a lesser extent Vivek Ramaswamy hopefully split up the nationalists.”

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Notable

  • Fight Right, a new super PAC backing Ron DeSantis, is trying to link Nikki Haley with Hillary Clinton by highlighting comments she made praising her back in 2020, according to NBC News. The only problem? The quotes have apparently been taken out of context: “The full comments make clear that it was not because of ideological commonalities or political agreement, but as a signal that more women are needed in the highest echelons of politics and government.”
  • Non-Trump alternatives are largely betting their hopes on Iowa, where Semafor’s David Weigel reports that the outlook remains bleak: “No candidate truly threatens Trump in Iowa,” he writes, and various efforts to stop him in the state are sputtering.
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