Ron DeSantis would seem to have everything going for him in the Republican presidential primary. There’s just one small question: Will the good vibes now result in election doom later?
As the Florida governor cast out to early nominating states in recent days, even some of his supporters could see a problem brewing for him back home. Lawmakers in his home state are advancing controversial bills on gender and diversity policy — base-pleasing issues for Republicans, but a potential liability in a general election. And on one cultural issue that did hurt Republicans in the midterm elections — abortion — DeSantis is going even further to the right, preparing to sign a bill banning the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for rape and incest if victims offer proof of a crime.
“Wow,” said Amy Tarkanian, a former chair of the Republican Party in Nevada, where DeSantis traveled over the weekend. “A lot of people don’t even know they’re pregnant at six weeks. I’m pro-life, but that’s pretty extreme.”
In the run-up to the primary, DeSantis solidified his place as Trump’s chief rival for the nomination largely based on an electability argument. He was MAGA, like Trump, but without the former president’s baggage or toxicity to moderate Republicans and independents — the kind of voters Republicans will need to run Joe Biden from the White House next year.
But as DeSantis edges closer to announcing, he is testing the limits of how hard right he can go without undermining his rationale for running in the first place. It’s a significant risk in a primary in which Republican voters — sore from losing the White House in 2020 and a less-than-red-wave midterm two years later — are desperate to nominate a candidate who can win.
“In a way, the Republican dominance of the Florida Legislature may end up hurting DeSantis because his proposals can become reality,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican strategist in Arizona. “That may help him in a primary in Iowa or Texas or South Dakota, but in a general election in Arizona, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, it could be ruinous for him.”
That fear isn’t lost on Republican primary voters, either. In hypothetical matchups with Biden in a Morning Consult poll this week, DeSantis fared no better than Trump, with each trailing the incumbent Democrat by 1 percentage point. Moreover, when asked in arecent Yahoo News/YouGov poll who had the best chance of winning in 2024, DeSantis didn’t stand out against Trump, either, with about as many Republicans and Republican-leaning independents naming Trump as DeSantis. That is a major shift from December, when far more Republicans viewed DeSantis as the more electable Republican.
“[DeSantis has] this huge advantage in the Florida legislature and the ability to pretty much write his script for the next year in terms of policy direction,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “But that may not turn out to be a blessing, ultimately.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade DeSantis said he was in favor of additional restrictions but as his reelection drew closer he declined to say exactly what he would support. When the ban on abortions after six weeks — albeit with exceptions — was filed last week DeSantis told reporters “I think those exceptions are sensible and like I said we welcome pro life legislation.”
A DeSantis spokesperson declined to comment. But a top Republican consultant in Tallahassee, who was granted anonymity to talk freely about DeSantis, said there is a logic behind the governor’s moves.
“The bottom line is that if he decides to run he wants to have the most robust cultural and policy conservative list of accomplishments,” said the consultant. “This makes him impervious to hits from the right.”
DeSantis may have little choice but to pull further to the right on some key issues for the base. In a modern GOP that has seen Republicans with decades of conservative credentials exorcized as “Republicans-In-Name-Only” at Trump’s behest, DeSantis has, through his hard-line politics, avoided being cast by Trump as weak or low energy. Instead, Trump has portrayed him as an imitator, telling reporters DeSantis was “following what I am saying” on Ukraine. With Trump still leading the field and several other Republicans expected to join the campaign, DeSantis will likely have to cut into some of Trump’s support to beat him in the primary.
With his six-week abortion ban, DeSantis appears to be making that precise play. Evangelical voters scoffed at Trump after he blamed the GOP’s focus on the “abortion issue” for losses in the midterms. That constituency is especially significant in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state that DeSantis and Trump both visited in recent days.
Bob Vander Plaats, the evangelical leader in Iowa who is influential in primary politics in the first-in-the-nation caucus state and who was a national co-chair of Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign in 2016, pointed out that Iowa is “a very pro-life state today, and part of that is Gov. [Kim] Reynolds has been a champion for the sanctity of human life and she won by an overwhelming margin in 2022”
He said DeSantis is wise to be “stressing his bonafides” on the issue and that DeSantis’ six-week ban “will be in [DeSantis’s] favor, quite frankly, and it would put him on equal footing with Gov. Reynolds here in the state of Iowa, which is a good place to be.”
But even Republicans acknowledge it will likely come at a cost, after Democrats successfully used abortion as a cudgel against their party in the midterm elections, following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“If you’re running for president, you ain’t got no choice,” said Jason Roe, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party and adviser to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “On the abortion issue, if you don’t go as far right as the oxygen will allow you to go, it’s a vulnerability in a Republican primary. That’s just life.”
One New York Republican, granted anonymity to speak freely about the party primary dynamics, said a six-week ban viewed as unpalatably restrictive to some will be considered too weak by some anti-abortion rights purists in the right wing of the GOP.
“This position is so scrutinized that you’ll lose a core constituency in allowing for any abortion at any time,” said the person, who is partial to Trump. “Six weeks sounds like the middle ground that a political operative would advise you to take. Six weeks is not what the Christian right voters will accept. There is a definite bifurcation between political realities and politically paid staffers.”
For his part, Trump declared on Twitter in 2019 he is “strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions – Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother – the same position taken by Ronald Reagan.” He took executive actions that pleased anti-abortion advocates, including delivering the Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade last year. But when he announced his comeback bid, he made no mention of the hot-button issue, concerning some conservatives.
In Florida, state Sen. Erin Grall, one of the sponsors of the bill to put in place the six-week ban, said the legislation was done in collaboration with the governor’s office. “It’s not done in a vacuum,” said Grall, although she did not go into details about her conversations.
As DeSantis is forced to engage more on national issues, he is likely to alienate voters in other ways. On the foreign policy front earlier this week, he drew blowback from traditionalist Republicans when he said the conflict in Ukraine is not a “vital” U.S. interest.
DeSantis may ultimately survive the hits, whether from progressives or fellow Republicans. He has defended his approach by pointing to his big win in November, when he beat his Democratic opponent by nearly 20 percentage points. Below the national radar, he took actions designed to win over moderates and independents, such as pushing to bolster pay for teachers or championing Everglades restoration.
Tarkanian, who like many DeSantis’ supporters views him as the party’s “best shot” of winning the White House in 2024, said DeSantis still is a candidate who appeals to “more reasonable, rational, centrist Republicans.”
She doubted the abortion ban would hurt him in the primary. Still, she said, it’s “definitely not going to help him win a general.”