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Current and former Republican Party operatives who have spent years trying to banish Donald Trump from American political life say the former president’s 2024 campaign has begun to gain so much steam that they fear he is by far the favorite to become the party’s presidential nominee again.
While the party’s nomination race is still in its early days, the angst among “Never Trumpers” – a small group of Republicans who have opposed Trump since he was first elected in 2016 – is a sign the former president could be gaining momentum over his top potential rival Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
Seemingly entrenched in culture wars, DeSantis risks being overshadowed by Trump’s fundraising, improving polling numbers and lawmaker endorsements, anti-Trump donors say.
Trump had a huge lead over DeSantis among Republican and independent voters nationally of 58% to 21% in an early April Reuters/Ipsos poll. Other polls of Republicans alone show Trump has surged to lead DeSantis in recent weeks.
The “Never Trumpers,” some of whom have left the Republican Party but still work to undermine Trump with voters, say their hopes for DeSantis are waning.
Some have effectively given up.
“If we could stop Trump becoming the nominee, we would do that. But he’s going to be the nominee,” said Reed Galen, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, a prominent anti-Trump group of current and former Republicans.
The Lincoln Project spent millions of dollars on anti-Trump social media, TV and newspaper ads in 2020. It is already looking beyond the 2024 Republican nomination fight, Galen said.
The group will still raise money for ads to attack Trump in swing states, Galen said, not with a view of stopping him becoming the nominee but to damage him ahead of the 2024 general election against likely Democratic candidate President Joe Biden.
DeSantis’s mixed messaging on US support for Ukraine, his reluctance to respond forcefully to Trump’s attacks on him and his poorer showing in some national and key state polls have unnerved allies and donors.
Political strategists stress that while the shine has come off DeSantis’ nascent bid in recent weeks it is still early and DeSantis is not yet even a candidate.
“DeSantis has a lot of time to course correct,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist.
Still, both Trump and DeSantis’s political fortunes have reversed since Democrats defeated a number of candidates Trump endorsed in the November midterms. Republican lawmakers, party officials and voters saw him as weakened and wondered if it was time for someone new.
DeSantis, fresh off a resounding second-term win in the election and with a growing list of conservative legislative accomplishments, appeared to be that person.
However, many Republicans have rallied around Trump since a New York district attorney indicted him on April 4 over hush money payments to a porn star. He has received a surge in endorsements by elected Republicans in the U.S. Congress and in Florida, home to both Trump and DeSantis.
Trump has so far collected 67 endorsements for the Republican nomination, including from 57 members of Congress, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, a website that tracks opinion polls and politics. DeSantis has four.
History shows that early endorsements by elected party officials give candidates momentum and could predict who wins a presidential nomination.
Trump picked up endorsements from six congressmen in Florida this week alone, some of which were sealed with an invite to a “thank you” dinner at his Mar-a-Lago home on Thursday night, April 20.
In the early nominating state of New Hampshire, a University of New Hampshire poll found DeSantis leading Trump by 12 points in January. This week, a poll showed Trump had leaped to a 20-point lead.
Trump’s fundraising has also surged. He raised nearly $19 million in the first quarter this year, through his joint fundraising committee and his campaign, his aides say. Much of that came after his indictment, which many Republicans view as politically motivated.
Trump has also intensified his attacks on DeSantis, at a time when DeSantis is forbidding classroom instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation, taking on gun control groups and attacking the Walt Disney Co. DIS.N. These culture war appeals to Trump’s Republican base so far do not appear to be working.
Trump attacked DeSantis in email blasts this week, calling him a “loser” in his battle with Disney. DeSantis has not only failed to push back, but ended up defending Trump over the criminal charges.
“By defending him on the indictment, DeSantis becomes a supporting cast member in the central drama of Donald Trump. That makes him look weaker, not stronger,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and longtime Trump critic.
Longwell cautioned that Trump’s dominance could fade, but added: “It could be that DeSantis just doesn’t have it, that he doesn’t have the political talent.”
A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment. DeSantis aides say he is still going to run and view Trump’s attacks as predictable efforts to convince people the race is over before the Florida governor announces his candidacy.
DeSantis’ recent signing of an abortion ban after six weeks of pregnancy in Florida, his focus on book bans and his tussle with Disney have caused some major donors to pause, according to several who spoke to Reuters.
“If it wasn’t for abortion and the book-banning, there would be no question I would support him,” metals magnate Andy Sabin told Reuters.
However, many in the Republican donor class are largely fed up with Trump. Many deem him chaotic and unelectable, according to Reuters interviews with nearly two dozen donors and their aides.
While many donors have been putting their faith in DeSantis as the best candidate to beat Trump, they acknowledge there is no concerted effort by them to weaken the former president. Some say they want to support DeSantis but are not yet willing to back him.
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide who broke with the former president years ago and now backs DeSantis, said that while the Florida governor appeared to be on his back foot this week none of the damage would be permanent.
Some donors are fully behind DeSantis — including Robert Bigelow, a Nevada-based hotel chain owner and major Republican donor. Bigelow wrote a $20 million check to a Super PAC supporting DeSantis on March 27.
“There is no Jesus Christ running for the presidency,” Bigelow said. “You should try to elect somebody who has the fewest flaws.” – Rappler.com