Donald Trump owns the Republican Party. Everybody inside and outside the party knows it. Republican lawmakers meet any overt or perceived challenges to Trump’s power with censure and disgrace (see: Cheney, Liz). The party’s base is completely loyal to him; Trump’s control and influence is absolute and unfailing.
And Ron DeSantis might give him a run for his money.
The Florida governor won a straw poll at the Western Conservative Summit over the weekend. The poll allowed respondents to pick more than one candidate, so the numbers were wonky. DeSantis polled at just above 74 percent, barely more than Trump at 71.4 percent. But the victory is still significant, because this isn’t DeSantis’ first time rivaling Trump in polls. He polled second in a CPAC straw poll earlier this year and won outright when that same poll removed Trump as an option. PredictIt has DeSantis trading just two cents behind the former president as of this writing. DeSantis is the only Republican with any juice or momentum to rival even the idea of challenging Trump for the GOP nomination in 2024, which until now was a foregone conclusion (and probably still is, despite this result).
So how did DeSantis get here? By doing a Donald Trump impression, of course. DeSantis is basically a room temperature version of Trump’s fiery bluster. He was notably outspoken against COVID-19 restrictions during the height of the pandemic. Florida’s disastrous results almost immediately after DeSantis’ defiance made him look stupid, but it didn’t matter—he raised his profile and scored points. In the months since, DeSantis has taken virtually every opportunity to present himself as Trump-lite—a younger, slightly more palatable version of the big man himself. He’s elevated some extremely dumb legislation this year, including a crackdown on big tech’s (read: Facebook’s) supposed political censorship and restricting Florida universities from working with Chinese academics. Those bills sound ridiculous until you consider them through the lens of raising your political profile with a base that hates big tech and wants to start a war with China.
Understanding why DeSantis is polling side-by-side with Trump isn’t terribly hard. The real question is whether his challenge is legitimate. DeSantis has the platform as governor, something Trump sorely lacks without social media or any kind of internet presence. But the Faustian bargain chuds like DeSantis make is that they’ll always bow to Trump when he demands it. He is the reason for their success and no one understands that better than Trump himself. He’s surely incensed that someone outpolled him in any forum, even one that lets you pick all your favorite people. It’s not a matter of if Trump will response to this, it’s how and when.
DeSantis is a performative dummy, but he’s smart enough to know he needs to bend the knee. But he’s also holding more cards than virtually any GOP challenger before him. Some popular Republican is eventually going to stand up to Trump and back him down, whether it’s next year or a decade from now. DeSantis might not be that guy, but he’s closer now than anyone’s ever been.