A lacklustre early performance by Florida governor Ron DeSantis in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination is reopening the market for alternatives to Donald Trump.
Business leaders, in particular, are casting about for a candidate wedded to conservative policies but without the culture war fervour displayed by DeSantis in recent months or the theatrics and unpredictability of Trump.
Among the names being discussed by Republican operatives are governors Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and Brian Kemp of Georgia — both of whom have hosted recent meetings for high-level donors.
“It would be welcome to have someone in the race who wasn’t trying to out-Maga Trump on economic issues, a Reagan-esque candidate who can talk about free market policies and praises — not demonises — big business,” said Brian Darling, a former aide to Senator Rand Paul and executive at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Youngkin has previously said he would not run “this year”. Asked about his plans on Wednesday, he replied: “It is so humbling that there is an expectation that I might do this . . . But I’m going to continue to focus on Virginia.”
Still, the growing clamour to enlist him is prompting Republican operatives to parse his words. “Youngkin is meeting with business types who are open to his message . . . basically that he’s not crazy,” an adviser to a top New York donor said.
A source close to the Virginia governor’s political operation acknowledged that donors were encouraging him “to keep his future options open”.
Others are clamouring for Kemp, who twice vanquished progressive Stacey Abrams in the governor’s race and then proved sturdy in opposing Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia. “Brian Kemp is beloved by conservatives,” said Daniel Faraci, a Republican strategist who introduced DeSantis to conservative groups in Washington when he first ran for Congress.
Two other potential Republican candidates pitching to the business community are Chris Sununu, the New Hampshire governor, and Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor. Sununu, in particular, has repeatedly criticised DeSantis for attacking Disney and other corporations for supposedly “woke” policies — a practice that he has rejected as contrary to the party’s traditional principles.
“I think the best foundation of the Republican Party is limited government, local control. Appreciating that private businesses and the free market are what made this country great,” Sununu said in a recent interview with Fox News at a conference in DeSantis’s native Florida.
Christie, meanwhile, who billed himself as a tough but pragmatic conservative in a failed bid for the party’s 2016 nomination, is also being encouraged by donors to consider another run and is expected to make a decision in a matter of weeks.
“There was a moment and [DeSantis] lost it, and that’s led to people looking for a third option,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican consultant in New Jersey who is close to Christie.
Still, some Republican analysts are convinced the race is Trump’s to lose, and that challenging him carries substantial risk. In doing so, a candidate would be signing up for months of pummeling that might result not only in defeat but also their political demise. Paradoxically, the more people who enter the race, the greater Trump’s chances of prevailing over a divided field.
Others who have jumped into the race have failed to gain traction. According to the latest Realclearpolitics.com polling average, Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, is backed by 4.6 per cent of Republican primary voters, while Asa Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor, is supported by just 0.8 per cent. Tim Scott, the South Carolina senator who announced his White House bid last week, garnered 1.9 per cent of voters.
DeSantis’s campaign got off to an inauspicious start last week with a glitch-filled launch on Twitter alongside Elon Musk. The Florida governor began manoeuvring late last year when Trump appeared vulnerable and several pundits speculated that the populist spell he had cast over the party had at last broken.
Candidates the former president endorsed in the midterm elections fared poorly in crucial races in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp media empire turned on Trump in brutal fashion, branding him a “loser” in the pages of the New York Post while anointing DeSantis as the party’s future. Multiple criminal investigations also appeared to threaten Trump’s viability as a candidate.
“Right after the midterms I think there was an opportunity for somebody to challenge Trump but nobody stepped up except DeSantis,” Darling said.
The Florida governor generated early enthusiasm and built a formidable war chest. But he has since struggled. One challenge for DeSantis is how to confront Trump without alienating the former president’s adoring fans. Recent opinion polls show him trailing Trump by more than 30 percentage points — although it is still early days. DeSantis will hope to regain momentum this week with appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire.
For many business leaders, his relentless focus on hot-button social issues, such as restricting abortion and limiting school curricula, has been a turn-off. There are also doubts about his aloof manner.
Thomas Peterffy, founder of Interactive Brokers, transferred $1mn to Youngkin’s political operation after recently saying he was halting donations to DeSantis. Other big GOP donors, including Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of Blackstone, have met with DeSantis but not yet committed to him.
While DeSantis has stumbled, Trump’s buoyant polls are a reminder of the durability of his bond with supporters even as he has been buffeted by legal troubles, including a $5mn judgment in a civil lawsuit in which he was accused of sexual assault. He is also displaying an insurgent’s vigour that some consultants believe his failed re-election campaign lacked.
“This is not Trump 2020,” said Faraci. “This is Trump 2016.”
By contrast, Faraci has been critical of DeSantis’s continued hostilities with Disney over its criticism of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law he signed last year, which restricts discussion of sexual orientation in elementary schools.
The Florida governor, he believed, should have used Bob Iger’s recent return as the media company’s chief executive as an opportunity to make peace. Instead, he has continued to feud with the state’s largest private employer.
“He can’t let it go,” he said.