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Semafor LogoShelby Talcott
Shelby Talcott
politics

How a pro-DeSantis group is planning to take down Donald Trump

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Title iconThe News
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
REUTERS/Marco Bello

A super PAC urging Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to run for president in 2024 is gearing up to take on Donald Trump in the new year by any means necessary.

“Ron to the Rescue,” founded by Republican strategist John Thomas, emerged just after the midterms with an ad declaring that “America needs Ron DeSantis” and pitching his success as Joe Biden’s failure to keep a good state down. But they’re also preparing to go on offense with ads and coordinated media campaigns if the cold war between Ron and Don turns into a hot one.

“We’re not afraid to take the gloves off,” Thomas told Semafor. “If the former president decides to get nasty with DeSantis, the governor has shown a level of discipline I admire and not responding to those kinds of things, but somebody needs to and so we will defend the governor and not be afraid to do it.”

He added that “it doesn't matter if it's Democrats unfairly attacking him, if it's Mike Pompeo or Mike Pence, it literally doesn't matter.”

Thomas isn’t a “Never Trumper,” he insisted, nor is he a blind DeSantis superfan. In fact, as recently as August he thought the Florida governor shouldn’t run for president after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago and the party seemed to be rallying back to Trump’s side. The midterm results, which featured a strong performance by DeSantis and a series of losses among Trump-backed candidates, convinced him it was time to go all-in.

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“Ron to the Rescue '' is not sanctioned by DeSantis’s inner circle — the governor’s representatives have made clear publicly that they are operating independently, and not just in the technical legal sense. “Whether well intentioned or not, the organizers of these PACs have not been in contact with DeSantis leadership and such efforts may create confusion amongst supporters of the Governor and his policies,” DeSantis legal counsel Benjamin Gibson wrote in a memo last month.

Thomas is hoping his group can act as a command center for pro-DeSantis surrogates during the potentially long awkward period in which Trump has the field mostly to himself. Thomas says they expect to name state chairs with Trump ties and roll out a number of former senior Trump administration officials to act as surrogates in January.

According to Thomas, the super PAC will likely focus on “exploit[ing] some of the former president’s vulnerabilities” on topics like Trump’s relationship to Dr. Anthony Fauci, his COVID-19 policies, and the Second Amendment, where he pointed to Trump’s ban on bump stocks.

But perhaps the biggest point of contrast is the argument that talking heads, some Republicans, and polls have been making for months now — that of electability.

“Trump can't win,” Thomas said. “And we're going to remind voters of what they already know to be true — that he's lost the last three elections, or three and a half elections if you count the runoff. Meanwhile, Governor DeSantis is a winner and knows how to win in very tough environments.”

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Beyond coordinating on-air fights with Trump, Thomas is working to build up a volunteer grassroots list that can be given to DeSantis should he decide to run and plans to scoop up operatives who could become part of an official campaign later on.

“We're going to basically put them all on retainer and have them start organizing, but more importantly, we're taking them off the table so they don't go to work for Trump,” Thomas said. “And then if the governor chooses, when he's a candidate for president, we will release the organizers from their contracts and they can then go work directly for the governor.”

Republican strategist John Feehery told Semafor the group’s strategy seemed “pretty smart” on paper — governors, in particular, have struggled with the early phases of campaigns in recent elections as state obligations often make it hard for them to enter the fray. It could be months before DeSantis officially launches a campaign, leaving Trump to operate without pushback.

“You’d think governors would always win, but now because of the media environment, you really do need to have this outside group at this unique time helping DeSantis out,” Feehery said.

undefined headshotShelby's view

It remains to be seen whether “Ron to the Rescue” takes off — they’re hoping to raise over $50 million by the end of 2023, a far cry from the “low seven figures” Thomas says they’ve already garnered — and it’s possible a rival PAC emerges as the primary pro-DeSantis vehicle. A “Ready for Ron” group launched during the midterm cycle, but rankled DeSantis supporters who felt they took money and attention away from his re-election campaign.

But the election is also unlikely to be decided by super PACs. Jeb Bush in 2015 started the cycle with a historic outside super PAC operation, complete with experienced staff and heaps of cash, only to see it undone upon first contact with Trump. If DeSantis himself can’t stand up to him onstage and rebut him on the trail, all the money in the world won’t save him.

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

While Trump has survived key stretches without a traditional campaign or outside super PAC in the past, many of his own former staff and supporters have told me his latest campaign rollout has been disastrous and that he looks more vulnerable than at any point since 2016. He may have a harder time shouting down a well-coordinated organization, especially when much of conservative media seems sympathetic to DeSantis so far.

Title iconNotable
  • DeSantis has his own potential vulnerabilities on the right. The New York Times last week pointed to a pressure campaign by conservatives around DeSantis and Florida’s 15-week abortion ban. As he rises in the 2024 polls, some anti-abortion activists are unhappy and pushing for him to go even further.
  • While Trump has praised the COVID-19 vaccines his administration helped create, DeSantis has recently taken a hard shift towards skepticism, including backing a statewide grand jury investigation into the vaccines.
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