Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor and Republican campaign adviser, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis launches his presidential campaign, he immediately becomes the most formidable contender to dethrone former President Donald Trump from atop the Republican Party.
Trump’s fear of DeSantis is quite apparent. When other candidates have entered the race, Trump has practically welcomed them in. When former Ambassador Nikki Haley declared her candidacy, Trump responded, “the more the merrier.” When South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott launched his campaign on Monday, Trump wrote on Truth Social that “Tim is a big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious.”
With DeSantis, however, he has unleashed a constant string of invective, attacks and criticisms of the governor and his policies.
But Trump’s not the only one concerned about the DeSantis’ campaign. There are three groups who would benefit tremendously from hastening Trump’s return: Trump’s campaign, the Democrats who believe Biden can beat Trump again and those in the political media who benefit from the “Trump bump.”
DeSantis is indeed a formidable challenger to Trump. While polling in the GOP primary has moved decisively toward Trump in the last several months, DeSantis is light years ahead of the other GOP challengers in the primary. He has a massive war chest – over $100 million, according to Politico – and a rock solid conservative governing record.
While today’s politics are less dependent on adhering to any sort of policy orthodoxy, for the voters who wonder if a DeSantis presidency would be conservative, he’s got bushels of Tallahassee policy wins to prove it (universal school choice, the elimination of automatic public-employee union dues and a crackdown on ESG policies, just to name a few) – and he could easily move the party past the Trump era.
But DeSantis is selling more than a set of conservative policy wins; he has an entirely different attitude from Trump. When it comes to the media, for instance, DeSantis will argue that while Trump talks the talk, the 44-year-old governor actually walks the walk. While Trump continues to crave the attention of outlets like CNN and the New York Times, DeSantis does not care what mainstream media thinks of him.
His decision to bypass the mainstream media by launching his campaign in a Twitter conversation with Elon Musk shows that DeSantis is serious about channeling the disdain that many Republicans have for traditional media outlets. In running for president by stiffing the normal political journalists who orbit these campaigns, DeSantis will attempt something that has never really been done.
Can he fully communicate with GOP primary voters by employing a strategy of total mainstream media disengagement? We are about to find out. While this is sure to frustrate many journalists, DeSantis is taking a calculated risk – he knows he gained popularity when many in the media criticized his policies during the pandemic.
DeSantis rose to prominence as a national Republican figure by preaching against Covid-19 lockdowns and masking, decisions that earned him criticism from many in the media, who often contrasted his policies with then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s stricter lockdown and masking ones.
But a fundamental truth of today’s Republican Party is that if you become the victim of a national media onslaught, GOP voters will rally to your defense – and rally they did.
Though the attempted shaming of DeSantis was widespread (remember the ridiculous slogan “DeathSantis”?), Republican voters found a conservative fighter who wouldn’t back down when the liberal mob came for him.
DeSantis now uses his conservative Covid-19 halo to contrast himself to Trump, who has oddly aligned himself with Dr. Anthony Fauci and Democratic governors, as he tries to falsely redefine DeSantis’s Covid-19 record.
“Leaders take the bull by the horns and make the decisions for themselves. They don’t subcontract out their leadership to health bureaucrats like Dr. Fauci,” DeSantis said recently, foreshadowing a Covid-19 throwdown with the former president.
Trump is undoubtedly the GOP frontrunner and has all the trappings of the establishment – party loyalty, a war chest of his own and a top-notch campaign team led by Chris LaCivita, a seasoned operative who knows the dark arts of how to destroy an opponent perhaps better than any active GOP operative.
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What DeSantis has is the energy of a conservative insurgent, reminiscent of the pre-Trump “Tea Party vs. establishment” battles that defined the 2010 to 2016 era of Republican politics. To that end, DeSantis has attracted several former Ted Cruz-aligned operatives – including Jeff Roe – to run his operation, perhaps a recognition by DeSantis that he will face a long primary battle.
The hopes and dreams of many Republicans who want to move on from Trump are wrapped up in DeSantis, who, in this moment, appears to be Trump’s strongest challenger. But it won’t just be Tea Partiers who line up with DeSantis; several traditional Republicans will be with him, too, believing DeSantis to be the best chance to defeat Trump.
Still, questions remain. Can he reset the narrative that Trump cannot be dethroned? Can he further marginalize the political media? Can he set up the generational challenge to Biden that so many Republicans crave (and that Trump, because of his own age, cannot)?
DeSantis will begin to answer some of those questions today.