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27 February 2023

Washington doesn’t think Ron DeSantis can win

Democrats are blasé about the Florida governor, while Republicans know he won’t beat Donald Trump.

By Ben Judah

If you’re looking for a theory of American politics, there are worse people to get it from than Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, one of the first men to be in and then very out of Trumpworld. Watching him speak last year at a corporate event to a group of European bankers after a B-list of retired continental political leaders made their own speeches was like watching an enormous celebrity take the stage, in more ways than one. Or like a charming, implicitly violent, Roman senator taking the time to meet the delegation from Britannia to inform them who would be the next emperor.

Christie’s law of politics was a good one, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. One: Generic Republican beats Generic Democrat. Driven both by a mega trend – Hispanic America integrating into the white majority culturally in ways the political historian Samuel P Huntington never thought they could – and a media trend, with perceived gender excesses in the culture wars. This, Christie explained, should make Republicans optimistic. However, there was a second rule: Biden beats Trump. Not only in 2020, but in a rematch. Meaning the Republicans had a problem, because of the broader Rule Three: Generic Democrat beats Trump Republican. When that favourable sociology for the GOP comes into contact with “Make America Great Again” politics it evaporates.

Last November’s midterms, when the Democrats held the Senate and Trump’s “Doctor Oz” crashed and burned in Pennsylvania, were like a formulaic proof of Christie’s law. Biden’s still strikingly unpopular presidency was triumphant because Generic Republicans were barely on the ballot. Instead, Trumpists were – hence no “red wave” in those elections. But does Christie’s law still hold?

Unluckily for everyone in Washington, apart from the political brand consultants, aspiring consiglieres and campaign finance professionals who thrive here, it feels like the countdown to the 2024 presidential election has already begun – as it always does on the stroke of the halfway State of the Union address I was in DC for. This is a town with rhythms.

If there’s one man who urgently needs to know whether Christie’s law has lapsed, his name is Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, recently sky-high victorious in his re-election there. DeSantis seems rather grimly satisfied with taking a few scalps in America’s non-stop Dreyfus Affair of a culture war. In recent months DeSantis banned trans girls and women from competing in Florida’s schools and college sports. He humiliated the “woke” Disney Corporation. He chartered flights for newly arrived asylum seekers out of his state, to the airport nearest to where Barack Obama summers in Martha’s Vineyard. Can all this clinch him the Republican nomination in 2024? Well, head-to-head polls have him neck-and-neck with Biden, whose frailty is frequent diplomatic chatter.

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But nobody seemed particularly worried about that prospect in the cafeteria of the 222,587 square-metre, marble floored Rayburn Building, the gigantic congressional office space for the House of Representatives. Are you worried about DeSantis? What do you think a DeSantis foreign policy could be? These questions drew blank stares from Democratic staffers, who, though they may have lost the House, were flush with the success of Biden’s combative state of the Union address – pointing to figures of Russian war material wrecked or unlocked green investment pouring into red and blue states from his signature Inflation Reduction Act.

Meanwhile, at the ever-so-slightly more elite Dirksen Building, where Senators have offices with the size and feel of overstaffed American private law firms, a Democrat smugness reigned. “I’ve not heard a single person mentioning Ron DeSantis,” said one staffer in the cafeteria, which, I was informed, had recently switched to an honour system unlike at the Rayburn which has outlets like an &pizza and Steak and Shake. In short, nobody blue seemed troubled by DeSantis.

Exactly why Democrats were being so blasé about Ron DeSantis became clear as I plunged into Republican Operative Washington, with drinks at the Dupont Circle Hotel (a place where everyone had conveniently forgotten the former Putin aide Mikhail Lesin was once found dead in one of the rooms). “There’s a strong desire to find a unity candidate to stop Trump,” said one hand in the donor world. “DeSantis is working them. But none of them have really made up their mind.” It became clear it wasn’t indecision but more despondency for the super rich. “The Republicans aren’t really a party,” said one downbeat source, “the Democrats are and can force a candidate like Hillary Clinton on their voters. But the Republicans simply can’t.”

The reason is the gap between Republican Washington and the party’s base. And that gap has a five letter name: Trump. Like a buried, leaking nuclear reactor, Trump is both invisible and poisoning everything in Republican DC. This isn’t what it used to feel like. The days when the full range of Trumpolytes, from aspiring Abraham Accords negotiators to #NeverTrump tweeters turned White House aides could be found drinking in the garish, Muscovite lobby of the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue are gone. In fact the hotel closed down in 2022.

“All those people want him to step aside,” one source told me, “they say it’s all grifters around him now”. That may be true. But the base – a great, but as of yet unused name for a DC watering hole to compete with existing bars like The Green Zone or Off the Record – doesn’t see him that way. “They’ve been told he’s the greatest by the party elites almost in religious terms,” said one District conservative well advanced in steeling himself for Trump 2024. “They can’t understand why suddenly now they’ve turned around to say, actually, he can’t be president.”

In the month I spent trying to work out if Ron DeSantis could win I started to hear a hiss of air coming out of his balloon. Trump’s wild-eyed and jittery son Don Jr accused the governor of “grooming” on Trump’s social media platform Truth Social a few weeks ago. He posted a picture of DeSantis at a party with high school girls when he was a twenty-something teacher. Just like that, I started to find every conversation I had about DeSantis as a potential president had a little less seriousness to it.

“If you could apply truth serum to them, I don’t think you’d find a single Washington Republican that wants Trump over DeSantis,” said one right-wing commentator. But the problem is Christie’s law. Most Republican primaries aren’t proportional. And, with Trump having led every single Republican full field poll when it comes to the 2024 election so far with around 40 per cent, it doesn’t matter if DeSantis mostly beats him head-to-head.

The creeping realisation – that no, it probably is going to be Trump in 2024 – over DC explains the incredible emptiness of Ron DeSantis on the issue the American Nero is going to run in opposition to: the war in Ukraine. The GOP is still so much Trump’s party that the former special forces legal adviser and governor of Florida has been forced to maintain relative silence on it. DeSantis has set up no shadow foreign policy team or even given DC the slightest hint of one.

Meanwhile, Trump is promising to negotiate peace “in 24 hours”. Over at the Munich Security Forum, in front of half the Massachusetts Avenue foreign policy establishment, a satisfied George Soros was forecasting that a landslide was all but guaranteed: if Trump lost, there was a strong chance he’d even run in 2024 for his own third party – dividing the vote and crowning the Democrats with a bonanza of electoral college votes. I left a still Covid-emptied Union Station back to New York thinking the smug Democrat contentment in Dirksen and Rayburn was justified. Whether you go by polling or otherwise – Biden still beats Trump – because anyone who could remotely be called a generic Republican will struggle to get on this ballot.

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