Momentum -- and planning -- for DeSantis 2024 bid takes off after resounding Florida win
By Steve Contorno, CNN
(CNN) -- Amid growing chatter about his political future and in the face of recent outbursts directed his way from an increasingly agitated Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis rarely engaged in the speculation or mudslinging. He insisted a statement victory in his bid for a second term needed to precede any discussion of 2024.
On Tuesday night, that statement came in the form of a 19-point landslide win over Democrat Charlie Crist -- the most lopsided victory by a Republican gubernatorial nominee in Florida history and a gap that dwarfed Trump's own Sunshine State win in 2020. Within minutes of the polls closing, DeSantis' Tampa election night party burst into euphoria as the totality and breadth of his resounding performance began to crystalize. DeSantis had turned once-solidly blue counties red, won over a majority of Latino voters and carried on his coattails Republican candidates up and down the ballot and in every corner of the state.
"We not only won election, we have rewritten the political map," DeSantis declared to his supporters before confetti rained down on him and his family. Some in the crowd urged him to consider a White House bid by chanting, "Two more years!"
The outcome in Florida was a bright spot for Republicans, who otherwise waited for a red wave that never arrived and watched Trump-backed candidates flounder in key battlegrounds. And the reaction within the GOP has only further fueled momentum for DeSantis to run for president and take on Trump head-on next year.
"DeFuture," read Wednesday's front page of the New York Post, owned by conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Republicans are particularly encouraged by the result in Latino-majority Miami-Dade County, where DeSantis won 55 percent of the vote, because of what it might suggest about the governor's ability to engage with and message to Latino communities around the country. A GOP gubernatorial candidate hadn't won the county in two decades. A CNN exit poll showed DeSantis with an 18-point lead over Crist among Florida Latino voters, a reversal from his first campaign for governor four years ago.
Within Florida, DeSantis allies are already huddling about what comes next. Even before Election Day, there was a strong sense among those in his orbit that DeSantis would likely launch a presidential campaign regardless of whether Trump did the same. Multiple sources told CNN that DeSantis in recent months has privately suggested to donors that Trump's divisiveness is a hindrance to enacting conservative priorities, a marked shift in how the governor has discussed his former ally.
After Tuesday, more Republicans have gone public in suggesting that the former president's influence is dragging down the GOP. One source close to DeSantis' political operation told CNN that he expected the governor to make a decision "soon after inauguration" in January, though he may not publicize it.
DeSantis, the source added, "must take action" and capitalize on Trump's midterms setback.
"There's no way to deny Donald Trump got fired Tuesday night," Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican who has been critical of Trump, told "CNN This Morning" on Thursday. "The search committee has brought a few names to the top of the list and Ron DeSantis is one of them. I think Ron DeSantis is being rewarded for a new thought process with Republicans and that solid leadership."
Still, the timing of a 2024 campaign launch, if it happens, remains up in the air. When reports first emerged that Trump intended to kickstart his presidential campaign in mid-November, those in DeSantis' circle braced for the possibility of a quick turnaround from the midterm to a presidential primary showdown. Now, several consultants in Florida say DeSantis likely won't formally jump into the presidential field until after state lawmakers meet for their annual legislative session. That would put DeSantis on a timeline of a May or June announcement.
"Build anticipation," one longtime Republican fundraiser with knowledge of DeSantis' operation said. "I think DeSantis controls the time frame. As much as everyone anticipates things and you want to move quickly, he calls the shots now."
Even those with access to DeSantis caution that he has not come to a final decision about his future and they say he has maintained a tight circle as he weighs his options. The governor's brain trust is notoriously small. It consists of himself and his wife, Casey. But sources said the DeSantises also are hyper aware that he has a window to make a 2024 move, and though it widened after Tuesday, it might not stay open forever.
"You have a moment," one GOP pollster told CNN before Election Day. "Something could come up in a second term that knocks him down."
The intrigue surrounding a potential Trump-DeSantis showdown reached the White House on Wednesday. Asked which of the two Republican rivals would be the tougher 2024 competitor, President Joe Biden remarked, "It'd be fun watching them take on each other."
Planning red meat for spring
Multiple sources told CNN that DeSantis will orchestrate a legislative session full of conservative priorities that he can carry into a GOP presidential primary. Republicans won a super majority in both chambers of the Florida legislature Tuesday, allowing DeSantis to make good on promises to further restrict abortion and make it easier to carry a firearm in public.
The legislative session will be "as red meat as you can possibly imagine," a GOP consultant said. "Whatever he proposes, they will pass it, and it will become law."
The Republican fundraiser said that "anything 'woke' they can find to kill within their path, they're going to do that" and predicted that financial institutions, in particular, would be a DeSantis target this spring.
In the meantime, DeSantis will continue to build out a political operation that has already proved it can raise money at an impressive clip. His reelection effort brought in more $200 million between his two political committees, according to state campaign finance reports, pulling money in from deep-pocketed donors and grassroots Republicans alike to shatter national fundraising records for a gubernatorial campaign. As of November 3, those committees had $66 million in unspent cash. CNN previously reported that DeSantis' political team has explored how to transfer the unused money into a federal committee that could support a presidential campaign. That remains the plan, sources confirmed.
He is also expected to continue political travel outside the state to raise money and grow his brand. After avoiding public events outside Florida for most of his first term, DeSantis in August took the calculated gamble to hold rallies in support of Republican candidates in some of the country's most contested races for governor and US Senate. He continued to travel up until 10 days before the election.
However, DeSantis stuck largely to midterm battlegrounds and avoided early nominating states where appearances can set off presidential buzz. Stephen Stepanek, the chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said DeSantis' political operation turned down multiple requests to address voters there and the state GOP has had "virtually no contact with the governor." Despite the hype around DeSantis, Stepanek predicted it will be difficult for the Florida governor to overcome Trump in the nation's first primary in New Hampshire. Trump's victory in the 2016 New Hampshire primary served as the launching point to him winning the GOP nomination.
"People not only still have their 2020 signs out, but they have 2024 signs," Stepanek said. "It's still Trump country here in New Hampshire."
'When people bring up DeSantis today, I bring up Scott Walker'
Despite the tailwinds from Tuesday, DeSantis nevertheless faces an uphill climb to win over GOP primary voters whose loyalty to Trump has not wavered.
At home, Republicans are divided but seem to favor DeSantis. While 33% of Florida voters want to see Trump run again in 2024, 45% said DeSantis should take the plunge, according to the preliminary results of the Florida exit poll conducted for CNN and other news networks by Edison Research.
JC Martin, the chairman of the Polk County Republican Party, said it would be a waste for DeSantis to go up against Trump because he "still has plenty of work to do in Florida and he's a shoo-in for 2028."
"I'm not looking for an all-out party war in this next primary," Martin said.
But Shawn Foster, a Republican state committeeman for Pasco County, said the GOP "needs a new face" and he hopes it is DeSantis.
"I think the party needs it, and I think independents would look more for that," Foster said.
Nationally, DeSantis must avoid the perception that he is peaking too soon, a pitfall for countless GOP stars who came before him.
"When people bring up DeSantis today, I bring up Scott Walker," Bob Vander Plaats, an influential conservative leader in the early nominating state of Iowa, told CNN earlier this year, drawing comparisons to the former Wisconsin governor who was an early favorite in 2016 before his campaign stalled.
Like Walker, DeSantis' agenda has won over conservative editorial boards and Beltway think tanks. He relishes confrontations with reporters, flaunting a brash style similar to the one that endeared New Jersey's Chris Christie to many GOP voters. He has built a fundraising machine that rivals Florida's Jeb Bush.
Those past governors all acted on presidential ambitions; Trump crushed their dreams.
"If in fact you go into a presidential primary with Donald Trump and think you're going to kick his ass, you got another thing coming," one Republican consultant in Florida told CNN.
Trump publicly lashed out at DeSantis in the final days of the midterm cycle while privately stewing over the perceived disloyalty from a former political disciple. He nicknamed DeSantis "Ron DeSanctimonious" at an event Saturday in Pennsylvania and held a rally in Miami two days before the election without inviting the home-state governor.
DeSantis declined to engage and instead held competing rallies on Florida's opposite coast.
In an interview before Election Day, Trump warned against a challenge from DeSantis.
"I don't know if he is running. I think if he runs, he could hurt himself very badly," Trump said in an interview with Fox News Digital. "I think he would be making a mistake. I think the base would not like it -- I don't think it would be good for the party...I would tell you things about him that won't be very flattering."
Trump later downplayed Tuesday's election results, noting he received "more votes" than DeSantis in Florida in 2020. Presidential races usually have much higher turnout than midterms and Trump's margin of victory over Biden was about 3 points.
It will only grow more difficult for DeSantis to avoid talk of Trump and 2024 in the weeks ahead, though he may still try. On Wednesday morning, DeSantis, his voice hoarse from a demanding closing campaign schedule and election night celebrations, held a news conference to brief Floridians on Tropical Storm Nicole.
DeSantis didn't mention the election results. And he left without taking questions.
This story has been updated with additional reaction.
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