Voters are getting a glimpse of what is shaping up to be an ugly 2024 Republican presidential primary between the top contenders, declared candidate former President Donald Trump and undeclared Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL).
But while DeSantis’s supporters are now more vociferously jumping to his defense, with the governor not expected to announce a campaign until Florida’s 2023 legislative session concludes next month, he risks being defined by Trump while the governor and his allies criticize the former president for his temperament and policy positions amid his mounting legal challenges.
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Last week, Trump super PAC MAGA Inc. launched its second TV ad attacking DeSantis, claiming he sought cuts to Social Security and Medicare, in addition to trying to raise the retirement age to 70. The 30-second spot, which came after a $3 million buy last month, also mocks DeSantis for allegedly eating chocolate pudding with three fingers in a 2019 anecdote reported by the Daily Beast.
Two days later, Never Back Down, the DeSantis-aligned super PAC, hit back during Fox News Sunday with its first TV ad, asking, “What happened to Donald Trump?” and urging the former president to “fight Democrats,” not “lie” about the governor regarding entitlement reform. The previous day, the group had described Trump as a “gun grabber” during a 90-second digit spot geo-targeted to the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana.
“About time,” Republican strategist John Feehery told the Washington Examiner. “Trump is starting to land some blows in defining DeSantis. About time that DeSantis starts fighting back.”
But Claremont McKenna College politics professor John Pitney, a former Republican staffer, was uncertain about the Never Back Down ad’s audience as Trump continues to dominate early polls. Months before the first GOP debate this summer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Trump averages 52% of the primary electorate to DeSantis’ 24%, according to RealClearPolitics. Simultaneously, Trump raised roughly $14 million during the first quarter of 2023, particularly around the time of his indictment in March.
“Here is the message: ‘Trump is stealing pages from the Biden-Pelosi playbook,'” Pitney said of President Joe Biden and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Do the DeSantis people really think that they can convince Republicans that Trump is too much like Biden and Pelosi? That seems pretty unlikely.”
“Here’s the problem for DeSantis,” he added. “From the standpoint of hard evidence, the strongest arguments against Trump are that he’s corrupt, that he stole government documents, and that he illegally tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election. But Republicans don’t like those arguments.”
Former Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Pauken, who no longer backs Trump, contended DeSantis’s other problem is that Democrats “want” the former president to be the 2024 nominee. For Pauken, DeSantis is better positioned to win a general election than Trump, standing by the governor’s decision to downplay Florida’s new six-week abortion ban.
“Well, it got done,” Pauken said. “He [came] down on the side of life. … I understand that there’s a great division over abortion. But he signed the law, and he’s focusing on the issues that he’s really been in the fight over, which is the wokeism and taking on Disney.”
The ads underscore concerns related to Biden, the White House, and Democrats scrutinizing Republicans over Social Security and Medicare, as well as the tone for the GOP primary between Trump and DeSantis.
The Trump spots cite votes DeSantis took in 2013, 2014, and 2015 when he was a congressman to change Social Security and the retirement age, as well as votes in 2013 and 2015 to tinker with Medicare. In response, Never Back Down points to DeSantis saying last month that he is “not going to mess with Social Security” and comments Trump made in 2020 that he would “look” at entitlement programs “at some point.”
Trump has more recently repeated that Republicans should not “cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security.” But his presidential budgets proposed decreases to the programs, and in 2012, Trump said then-GOP presidential standard-bearer Mitt Romney and vice presidential pick Paul Ryan’s ideas would “save Medicare.”
“We can also raise the age for receipt of full Social Security benefits to seventy,” Trump wrote in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve. “We have to allow individuals to invest some portion of their Social Security funds in investments that are real and conservative. … Privatization would be good for all of us.”
MAGA Inc. spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in New Hampshire last year, even backed privatizing Social Security and upping the retirement age on the trail.
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A Republican operative supporting Trump’s campaign quipped this was not “a smart road for the DeSantis camp to go down.”
“His PAC’s spokesman Matt Wolking used to praise Trump for building the wall and now claims he didn’t,” the source said. “The fact that they’re responding to this shows how vulnerable they know they are on this issue.”