Republican senators are rallying to defend Ron DeSantis from former President Trump’s attempt to keep the popular Florida governor out of the 2024 presidential race.
At the same time, Trump is picking up more formal endorsements within the Senate Republican Conference as his feud with DeSantis intensifies, an early signal that the 2024 Republican presidential primary will divide GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Republican senators who view Trump as a drag on candidates in last year’s midterm elections, say it’s up to DeSantis to decide whether to run for the White House and he doesn’t owe any special deference to Trump, who claimed it would be “great act of disloyalty” to challenge him for the party’s nomination.
“He ran an impressive reelection campaign for governor from an important state. It looks to me like he’s polling well. I think we need some new blood and I think he’d probably qualify,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of DeSantis’s possible bid for the White House.
Cornyn barely stifled a laugh when asked about Trump’s assertion that DeSantis would commit a great act of disloyalty by running against him.
“No, no, I don’t think so,” he said.
Republican senators also argued Trump’s 2018 endorsement of DeSantis that helped propel him to Florida’s governor’s mansion is no reason for DeSantis not to challenge Trump.
“I expect to see a number of Republican candidates for president and a number of them had President Trump’s endorsement so I don’t see it as an act of disloyalty to run for president, even people on the president’s cabinet may get in this race,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said.
“So, it’s not a matter of disloyalty,” she added. “The person who best articulates a future agenda for the country will emerge from Republican primary and it’s not a foregone conclusion who that will be.”
Members of Trump’s administration weighing presidential bids include former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
Thus far, Trump is the only Republican to announce a 2024 candidacy.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who himself is viewed as a potential presidential candidate in 2024, said “anybody can run.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said it’s “healthy” to have “lots of folks considering the race.”
He said it’s up to DeSantis to decide if he owes it to Trump to stay out of the race, adding “Gov. DeSantis can speak for himself in that regard.”
DeSantis fired back at Trump when asked about his criticism during a news conference on higher education reform Tuesday, reminding reporters that he won his reelection race, unlike the former president.
“Well, look, what I would just say is this: I roll out of bed, I have people attacking me from all angles,” he said, highlighting his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Florida. “If you take a crisis situation like COVID, the good thing about it is when you’re an elected executive, you have to make all kinds of decisions, you got to steer that ship.”
“The good thing is the people are able to render a judgment on that, whether they re-elect you or not,” he added. “I’m happy to say in my case, not only did we win reelection, we won with the highest percentage of the vote that any Republican governor candidate has in the history of the state of Florida.”
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said any question of what DeSantis owes Trump is “going to be between the two of them” but added that “if people feel compelled or called to run for” president, “that’s their prerogative, it’s a free country.”
But Trump still has several senators backing him.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) argued at a Trump campaign event over the weekend that Republicans need to give Trump more credit for his accomplishments in office and can’t just blithely say they like the former president’s policies but have reservations about the man himself.
“How many times have you heard: ‘We like Trump policies, but we want somebody new?’” Graham told the crowd. “There are no Trump policies without Donald Trump.”
Trump’s allies point out that DeSantis was trailing then-Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam by 15 points in Florida’s gubernatorial primary in June of 2018 when Trump endorsed him enthusiastically.
Within weeks of that endorsement, DeSantis raced ahead to a 12-point polling lead, which he never relinquished. He thanked Trump at his general election victory speech, acknowledging he was given little chance of winning at the start of the race.
Now there appears to be little love between Trump and DeSantis, who are widely viewed as the two strongest Republican candidates heading into next year’s primary.
The former president got a boost Tuesday when freshman Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) endorsed his presidential campaign in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
“Mr. Trump did more than simply keep the peace. He brokered the Abraham Accords, a historic agreement between Israel and Sunni Arab states providing the best hope of a long-term counterbalance to Iran,” he wrote.
“He began the long, slow process of decoupling the U.S. from its economic reliance on China. He opened diplomatic talks with North Korea after a half century of stagnation,” he added.
Freshman Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) also announced this week his support for Trump in next year’s primary, telling Politico: “He’s very popular in Missouri.”
Trump took a public relations hit after Republicans underperformed expectations in last year’s midterm election, picking up fewer House seats than many GOP lawmakers and pundits expected and failing to win the Senate majority.
Some polls showed Republican primary voters shifting away from Trump and toward DeSantis after the November election, in which DeSantis won a second term with nearly 60 percent of the vote, a whopping margin the governor emphasized at his press conference Tuesday.
But more recent polls show Trump remains a formidable candidate in next year’s primary.
A Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey conducted this month showed 48 percent of Republican voters would back Trump in an eight-way presidential primary while 28 percent they would support DeSantis.
A CBS News/YouGov poll published earlier this month showed that more than two-thirds of Republican voters said they want the party to show some loyalty to Trump with 35 percent of registered Republicans saying that staying loyal to Trump is very important.
–Updated at 8:57 a.m.