TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is building momentum in the West, a region that’s home to a series of upcoming GOP primaries that will test Donald Trump’s hold on Republicans there.
Over the weekend, DeSantis topped Trump in the annual Western Conservative Summit’s straw poll, with 71 percent of participants wanting the Florida governor to run for president in 2024 compared to 67 percent for Trump. The next closest was 28 percent for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
It was the second year in a row DeSantis bested the former president at the summit, an annual gathering of around 2,000 party activities just outside of Denver.
That straw poll comes on the heels of DeSantis also running neck-and-neck with Trump in a new University of Nevada, Reno survey asking voters in the state to rate potential 2024 candidates. DeSantis received the highest favorability score of any Republican with all voters — 48 percent compared to Trump’s 42 percent — but was bested by Trump, 73-69, when just Republicans were counted.
“There is no real party standard-bearer at the moment, and DeSantis in many eyes is starting to define the post-Trump party,” said Tyler Sandberg, a veteran Republican GOP operative, based in Colorado. “He fights more about policy and less on his Twitter account.”
DeSantis’ rising popularity in the region coincides with his ascent nationally with conservatives initially drawn to him because he largely kept Florida’s economy open during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. But topping Trump two years in a row at an event dubbed “the largest gathering of conservatives in the Western United States” highlights his growing reputation with Republicans in that part of the country.
“It did not surprise me that DeSantis did well, but, yeah, it kind of surprised me that he did better than President Trump, again,” said Dick Wadhams, a veteran Colorado Republican consultant and former chair of that state’s Republican Party. “I go to a lot of Republican events and have sensed for some time that even with Republicans DeSantis has quite an appeal because of his success as governor of Florida.”
Conservative voters are consistently drawn to the governor’s fights with big business, his opposition to Covid-19 restrictions and pushes around education-related issues like critical race theory and classroom instructions regarding gender and sexual orientation. He received weeks of national attention for pushing Florida’s GOP-led Legislature to remove the self-governing status of Disney after it opposed legislation he championed banning teachings about sexual identity in classrooms up to third grade.
DeSantis also recently vetoed $35 million for a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays after the team tweeted support of gun reform. DeSantis hinted at the team’s “political activism,” but his office has said the veto was due to a general opposition to giving taxpayer dollars to sports teams, an assertion that has not stopped a wave of attention-grabbing headlines.
“The fight with Disney and the Tampa Bay Rays, those sorts of things, they get noticed,” said Jeff Hunt, vice president of Public Policy at Colorado Christian University, and one of the Western Conservative Summit organizers. “You don’t see conservatives historically do that, so when someone like DeSantis fights back it helps get support with grassroots conservatives.”
DeSantis, whose campaign declined to comment, has been increasingly expanding his national footprint ahead of his likely 2022 re-election win and potential 2024 presidential bid. He has made fundraising stops in several states throughout the country, including with Trump donors in South Carolina last month and at an April rally in Las Vegas for U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt, a longtime friend and former roommate.
“The reaction to DeSantis was incredible,” said Paul Jackson, a Nevada Republican consultant who was at the Las Vegas event. “People were lining up in 100 degree weather to see him, it was amazing enthusiasm. People were there just to try and catch a glimpse.”
“My sense is there are two types of Trump supporters. Those who are with him and nothing else matters,” Jackson added. “And those who support Trump’s policy, but not the things the man says, and that might be a bigger group. DeSantis fits that bill well.”
Trump by most measures remains the Party’s leader and continues to exert influence over many aspects of the GOP, including with party activists, state lawmakers and Republican candidates running for office. But as his time in the White House recedes and challengers like DeSantis provide an alternative, the question emerges: will conservatives see better alternatives for getting the same policy outcomes?
Trump’s spokesperson, Taylor Budowich, said via text message that the former president still has “unprecedented strength” through his endorsement record and the demand for his leadership has never been higher.
“Montana remains Trump country, DeSantis is the No. 2 guy, but they love Trump here,” said Republican Party of Montana Chairman Don Kaltschmidt. “But there are people that hope Trump does not run. We want to make sure we have someone who can win. If Trump does not run, DeSantis is shoo-in here.”
That loyalty to Trump will be tested this month during key GOP primaries that feature either Trump-backed candidates or those who the former president has not endorsed but clearly embrace the former president’s policies, including his unfounded contention the 2020 election was stolen.
Montana’s GOP primary, scheduled for Tuesday, features Trump-endorsed Ryan Zinke, his former Interior secretary, for an open congressional seat against a handful of challengers trying to brand him as too liberal for the state.
A week later, the Nevada Republican primary for U.S. Senate has Laxalt, the Trump supported candidate, running against Sam Brown, an underdog candidate who in recent weeks has caught fire, closing the gap in public polling between him and Laxalt, who remains the favorite in that race.
On June 28, both Colorado and Utah are set to hold their primaries. In Colorado, Trump has not yet endorsed any statewide candidates but there is a clear split between contestants directly aligning themselves with Trump’s policies against candidates seen as trying to balance not fully embracing the former president while also not alienating him. In Utah, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a staunch Trump ally, is facing a handful of primary challenges but has led by a wide margin throughout the race and is expected to easily win the nomination.
In last month’s Idaho gubernatorial primary, incumbent Republican Gov. Brad Little easily beat Trump-backed challenger Janice McGeachin, who was Little’s lieutenant governor. Little dominated with roughly 65 percent of the vote, but Idaho political insiders say it’s not a reflection of the state turning on Trump, who remains very popular, but of a flawed candidate.
Phil Reberger, a longtime lobbyist political hand in the state, said Trump remains the most popular politician in the state — but DeSantis is making inroads.
“People have not gotten to the point where they are abandoning Trump, but DeSantis is saying the right things from an Idahoan standpoint,” he said. “It comes without the sharp edges, which is attractive to a number of folks.”
Colorado Republican consultant Guy Short says the focus right now for candidates like DeSantis is winning over conservative base voters, which the Florida governor is doing.
“The time to worry about the broader electorate will come — but right now if you aren’t winning the activists, you are losing,” he said. “DeSantis routinely champions national causes with a louder voice than most GOP leaders in Washington.”
“That’s why he is winning the other-than-Trump GOP primary this early,” he added.