The DeSantis bandwagon gains momentum – POLITICO – POLITICO

With help from Calder McHugh

LEADER OF THE PACK — If the point of Donald Trump’s campaign announcement was to brush aside his midterm election losses and freeze the 2024 primary field, it was clear within a matter of hours that it wasn’t going to work.

The Ron DeSantis bandwagon is already rolling.

Next week, in an advertising campaign shared first with Nightly, a pro-DeSantis super PAC will begin airing TV ads in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

The ads, which began airing digitally today, follow a week in which the Florida governor’s star has risen — and Trump, following a bruising midterm, has lost his luster with many Republicans.

Recent polling underscores DeSantis’ popularity with Republicans outside Florida. Earlier this week, the conservative Club for Growth released a polling memo showing DeSantis running ahead of Trump in multiple states — the polling data less significant than what releasing it said about the heavyweight group’s leanings heading into 2024.

In a survey of likely Republican primary voters in GOP-oriented Texas, DeSantis was beating Trump by 11 percentage points. Even polling that shows Trump ahead of DeSantis has been moving in the Florida governor’s direction: In a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll this week, Trump was beating DeSantis by 14 percentage points among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. But the margin was 22 percentage points before the midterms.

In recent days, 86 elected officials in Utah released a letter encouraging DeSantis to run for president, while GOP Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, one of the Trumpiest states in the country, called DeSantis — not Trump — the “leader of the Republican Party.

One Republican strategist close to Trump, when asked today if the former president was still the frontrunner for the nomination, said, “I don’t know.”

Following DeSantis’ lopsided reelection victory — and losses by Trump’s favored candidates across the map — other Republicans aren’t sure, either.

“I don’t think he’s the prohibitive favorite anymore,” said Bob Heckman, a Republican strategist who has worked on nine presidential campaigns. “I think there are a lot of people in the party and the movement who want to move on from Trump.”

Still, he said, “He’ll be a formidable candidate.”

Formidable may be good enough for Trump in 2024, especially if there are multiple candidates to splinter the primary vote. DeSantis, unlike Trump, has not been tested nationally, and the annals of American politics are full of once-ascendant presidential prospects, like Jeb Bush of Florida or Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who faltered in competitive primaries. It was in 2016 that a wide field of traditionalist Republicans divided the vote in early nominating states, letting Trump cut through them, initially, with less-than-majority support.

And all indications are that Trump will not be contending one-on-one with DeSantis.

Just today, Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state who may run against Trump, was on Twitter calling for “more seriousness, less noise, and leaders who are looking forward, not staring in the rearview mirror claiming victimhood.” Former Vice President Mike Pence, who may also run, repeated his line that Republicans will have “better choices” in 2024, a sentiment echoed by Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, also a potential candidate.

Trump’s announcement did set some early terms of engagement for the base. His call for the death penalty for drug dealers will open any Republican candidate skeptical of that idea up to criticism from Trump that they are soft. He reminded Republicans that he was president when they were happier with the direction of the country than they are now.

But what Trump’s announcement did not do — despite the teleprompter and the stately ballroom, despite his focus on Joe Biden (and not on his GOP rivals) — was convince anyone watching that the 2024 primary is a foregone conclusion.

“The speech hurt him,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who was a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “I’m not saying it’s mortal, but I’m saying this was the opportunity to come out and … be like, ‘Look man, you put me on the ballot and everything changes. People want Trump.’”

Instead, Madrid said, “He just looked Nixonian, like at the end … He just invited a bunch of challengers.”

Chief among them is DeSantis. Republicans close to the governor say he has not yet decided whether to run for president, but he appears to be positioning himself. Following recent criticism from Trump — including the labeling of DeSantis as “Ron DeSanctimonious” — DeSantis told reporters, “I would just tell people to go check out the scoreboard from last Tuesday night.

A week later, as cable news networks cut away at various points from Trump’s speech, John Thomas, the Republican strategist who is running the pro-DeSantis super PAC Ron to the Rescue, said it seemed Trump “wanted a coronation.”

He paused and said, “He’s not going to get it.”

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas at [email protected]. Or contact tonight’s authors at [email protected] and [email protected] or on Twitter at @davidsiders and @PoliticoCharlie.

While final vote counts are still being tallied in some states, scores of newly elected members of Congress are descending on Washington, attending new member initiations, touring the Capitol and getting a crash course in the functions of their new jobs after months of campaigning. At Nightly, we’ll also be conducting a crash course before they are sworn in on Jan. 3 — on rising stars to watch and other congressional issues and trends to follow. 

IT’S OVER — Republicans have won back control of the House, giving the GOP a toehold to check Biden and congressional Democrats despite a disappointing midterm election.

Republicans are on track for the smallest of majorities despite pre-election predictions of a red wave. Instead, it took more than a week of vote-counting after Election Day for it to be clear the party had won the majority. And that majority could be difficult to manage for a Republican speaker next year.

EMPIRE STATE OF MIND — One feature of the House freshman class of 2022 is its huge contingent of New Yorkers: Almost one-third of New York’s congressional delegation — eight members in all — are newly elected. Seven are Republicans, the result of a red wave that crashed hard in Upstate New York and Long Island, writes Nightly’s Calder McHugh.

In total, New York will now send 11 Republican members to Congress, making the blue state the fourth-largest delegation in the GOP conference (after Florida, Texas and California). With so many freshman members, New York’s Republican lawmakers may not wield a lot of individual power, but collectively they can be a force within the party.

For years, national Republicans saw New York — and in particular its very liberal major city — as a flashing red target for all that’s wrong with the country: They complained about everything from growing crime to a show called the Drag Queen Story Hour. Sixty-seven House Republicans famously voted in 2013 to stiff hard-hit New York and New Jersey by opposing a disaster relief package in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Now there’s evidence that GOP overperformance in New York is the only thing that saved Republicans from two more years of a Democratic majority.

New York’s freshman Republicans are all over the ideological map — ranging from Mike Lawler, who has already dumped Trump, to state Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy to George Santos, who made his way down to D.C. for Jan. 6. They’re also from across the state — from Long Island to the Hudson Valley to Upstate. They’ll join Elise Stefanik, the congresswoman from New York’s North Country district, who won another term as conference chair Tuesday, the House GOP’s No. 3 leadership spot.

PROTECTING YOUR FLANK — Mitch McConnell handily dispatched Rick Scott in a contest today for Senate Republican leader, beating back his first challenger and cementing a ninth term running the Senate GOP, writes Burgess Everett.

The Kentuckian prevailed over Scott (R-Fla.), 37-10, in a battle for Senate minority leader in the next Congress. One Republican voted present on the secret ballot held in the Old Senate Chamber, an ornate room where senators met before the Civil War, which one Republican estimated was about 50 degrees during the proceedings.

Scott’s challenge embodied a frustrated wing of the Republican Party that wants a new direction in the Senate, where McConnell has kept an iron grip on the GOP for nearly 16 years. Senators voiced complaints this week that individual members don’t have enough sway over the agenda or party strategy under McConnell’s rule, though the minority leader made little commitments to change how his conference operates.

But it was clear after a marathon three-and-a-half-hour meeting that McConnell critics make up a decided minority of the Senate Republican conference.

— Bass defeats billionaire to win LA mayor’s race: Democratic Rep. Karen Bass has become the first woman elected mayor of Los Angeles, defeating billionaire developer Rick Caruso, who waged the most expensive campaign in the city’s history. The six-term congresswoman will lead a city simmering with anger over the rising cost of living, homelessness and recent displays of corruption and racism at City Hall. She is the second Black person to win the mayor’s seat in Los Angeles, which has a painfully divisive history demonstrated most recently by leaked audio of three City Council members using racist and disparaging language as they discussed manipulating voting districts.

— Ivanka Trump on dad’s announcement night: I’m done with politics: Ivanka Trump, daughter of Donald Trump and a political adviser in his administration, doesn’t plan to be involved in politics “going forward,” she wrote Tuesday evening on Instagram. “While I will always love and support my father, going forward I will do so outside the political arena,” Ivanka Trump said. Her statement came the same evening that the former president announced his plans to run for president again.

— White House’s hopes for a lame-duck debt ceiling deal are fading fast: The White House has largely given up hope of Congress raising the nation’s debt limit during the lame-duck session that runs through late December, increasing the risk of a highly partisan, market-rattling fiscal confrontation next year. Senior administration officials see little chance of attracting any Republican votes for a bipartisan debt limit hike during the short session. And they don’t believe they have the 50 Democratic Senate votes needed to slam through a hike using the budget reconciliation process that would allow them to avoid a Republican filibuster.

— Senators float audit of Rick Scott’s NRSC: The GOP’s post-election finger-pointing intensified Tuesday, with two senators calling for an audit of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. During a tense, three-hour-long meeting of the Senate GOP conference, Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said there should be an independent review of how the party’s campaign arm spent its resources before falling short of its goal of winning the majority.

NO FIGHTING IN THE WAR ROOM — The Army’s top general today cautioned against rushing to conclusions during wartime, a day after Europe reeled from reports that missiles had struck Poland, killing two civilians, write Paul McLeary and Matt Berg.

Several European defense ministers and top Ukrainian officials, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, immediately blamed Russia for the strike in the hours after the first reports. In a video message late Tuesday night, Zelenskyy declared that “Russian missiles hit Poland,” calling it an “attack on collective security.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry denied the charge.

The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies declined to comment Tuesday night, citing the ongoing Polish investigation. By this morning, the Polish government announced that the missile was likely an errant Ukrainian air defense missile sent to intercept one of the roughly 100 Russian cruise missiles aimed at Ukrainian civilian infrastructure the previous night.

“The first report you always want to take a hard look at, and you want to make sure you get the information,” Gen. James McConville said at POLITICO’s Defense Summit. “You want to … talk to people, get the questions answered, and then you’ve got an idea of what happened.”

Asked for details about how the Pentagon reacted in the early minutes of the crisis, McConville said that the “investigation is going on and we’ll find out the finer details, but the big thing is to remain calm during the situation.”

LITTLE CARS, BIG BUSINESS Toyota? General Motors? Ford? How about Hot Wheels? The small cars are far outpacing their big competitors in terms of units sold. OK, so the price point is a little bit different. But these cars are still huge business, and there’s an entire strategy involved with keeping them fresh and attractive to kids who are very different from when Hot Wheels began in California in 1968. Rory FH Smith reports for the Financial Times.

LOW ENERGY — Donald Trump, the defeated, twice-impeached former president facing mounting legal and political peril, on Tuesday night at his private club in Florida announced that he’s running yet again. The campy-but-iconic escalator ride in Trump Tower this was not, writes Michael Kruse.

The more-than-hour-long speech was a low-tone version of what Trump’s been saying for years: His failures are not failures — they’re successes. His losses are not losses — they are wins. “I am a victim,” he said. “I am a victim.” Everything is good when he’s in charge, and everything is awful when he is not. “America’s comeback starts right now,” he said in maybe his most energetic line of the night, but he couldn’t avoid the reckoning of the midterms — that voters across the country aren’t necessarily looking to him to lead it. At one point he unwittingly admitted his apocalyptic depiction of “a failing nation” beset by “hardship, anxiety and despair” is not the United States that most people seem to see. “The citizens of our country have not yet realized the full extent and gravity of the pain our nation is going through,” he said. “But they will.”

Take a look at more exclusive images from the evening here.

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