DeSantis faces tough questions about his path forward

DES MOINES, Iowa — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is facing questions about his path forward in the Republican presidential primary as he leaves Iowa with a distant second-place finish and stares down yet more challenging contests in the next early nominating states.

The Florida governor came in second, behind former President Trump’s expected first-place finish Monday night. But DeSantis’s finish was still seen as lackluster, especially after his campaign and super PAC poured most of their resources into the Hawkeye State.

On top of that, the governor faces an uphill climb in New Hampshire and South Carolina, where most polls show him coming in a distant third, trailing former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.

“Realistically, it’s going to get late very early the day after New Hampshire,” said Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist. “I think it’s going to be for everyone not named Trump, and that includes Haley. It’s going to take some clear eye on what the path forward is.”

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the Family Research Council’s Pray Vote Stand Summit in Washington, D.C., on Friday, September 15, 2023.

Trump easily won the Iowa GOP caucuses, clinching more than half of the vote. Multiple news outlets called the race for the former president less than an hour after the caucusing began — underscoring the former president’s hold over Republican voters in the state while also drawing criticism from the DeSantis campaign and some journalists over the decision to call it so early.

But speaking to supporters in Des Moines, DeSantis sought to project confidence about his campaign, saying “we got our ticket punched out of Iowa.”

“They spent almost $50 million attacking us,” he told his supporters. “The media was against us; they were writing our obituaries months ago. They even called the election before people even got a chance to vote.”

All eyes are now turning to the Granite State, where an average of New Hampshire surveys compiled by Decision Desk HQ and The Hill show Trump at 41 percent, Haley at 33 percent and DeSantis at 6 percent.

In a nod to the Florida governor’s standing in New Hampshire, DeSantis immediately headed to South Carolina the day after Iowa, though he will later head to New Hampshire on Tuesday for several events.

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Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, suggested the Iowa results were “pretty much exactly what the polls predicted.” New Hampshire-based strategist Mike Dennehy argued there was “nothing positive” for the governor heading out of the Hawkeye State and suggested he was a “dead man walking right now.”

“He cannot make an argument that he’s in a stronger position because he lost to Donald Trump by 30 points,” Dennehy said, later adding, “He can say that his ticket was punched out of Iowa, but it’s a bus ticket going to Antarctica. I mean, it’s not — his campaign is going nowhere.”

At the same time, Republicans say that Trump’s performance in Iowa speaks for itself.

“Whether or not he finishes over 50 percent — which is very likely, given outstanding counties — he has smashed the Iowa GOP caucus record for margin of victory, and that’s a powerful message to the grassroots,” said Florida-based Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

“There is no way to spin this other than a resounding win for Trump in Iowa,” O’Connell added.

O’Connell acknowledged that it makes sense for DeSantis to make his presence known in South Carolina following Iowa, pointing to the state’s more conservative electorate.

“It’s a smarter play for him than New Hampshire, because the South Carolina electorate is closer to Iowa in terms of issues,” O’Connell said. “But by not going to New Hampshire, you also lose media coverage, and it’s hard to stay in the conversation. Plus, two weeks in a presidential primary is a political lifetime.”

In a statement to The Hill, the DeSantis campaign predicted that in the next few weeks, the GOP primary would come down to a race between Trump and DeSantis.

“Nikki Haley spent more money per vote than any other candidate in Iowa to get a disastrous third – proving no amount of money can erase her record of caving to the left on every issue important to conservatives,” said Andrew Romeo, communications director for DeSantis’s campaign.

“While it may take a few more weeks to fully get there, this will be a two-person soon enough. Despite spending $24 million in false negative ads against Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley couldn’t buy herself the kill shot she so desperately wanted last night, and now she will be out of this race after failing to win her home state on February 24,” he said.

Former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley speaks during the fifth Republican presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 10, 2024. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)

In New Hampshire, DeSantis supporters point to what they say are inaccuracies in polling coming out of the state. They also note the fact that Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy have dropped out of the race in recent days.

“You’ve got the Christie people out now, the Vivek people out now. My suspicion is that most of those are going to come our way,” said New Hampshire House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R), who is backing DeSantis. “[Christie] was the one guy who was really tearing after Trump in a way that nobody else was. Why would any of those people then jump on board with the candidate who’s running to be Trump’s VP or secretary of State?” he continued, jabbing at Haley.

“And then you got all of the Vivek people, mostly libertarians,” Osborne said. “Why on earth would they get on board with Lockdown Don when they could get on board with Freedom Ron?”

Those arguments cut against conventional wisdom, which says Christie supporters would be more likely to support Haley. Additionally, Ramaswamy has endorsed Trump and is set to appear at a campaign rally, a clear signal to his own supporters.

“Everybody knows that [the] sliver of the party that [Haley] appeals to is not anywhere near what it takes to take on Donald Trump,” Osborne said. “Meanwhile, Ron DeSantis — like I’ve said from the very beginning — he is the bridge builder between all of the different factions of the party.”

Other DeSantis supporters say Haley’s decision to only debate Trump or President Biden, effectively ruling out any future debate with DeSantis, could play into the governor’s favor.

“I really take issue with that. It’s a New Hampshire tradition,” said DeSantis-supporter Kate Day, the former chair of Cheshire County (N.H.) Republicans. “We go and we see these candidates then the ultimate is to see the debate.”

(AP Photo/Meg Kinnard/Rebecca Blackwell)

Dennehy, the New Hampshire GOP strategist, didn’t expect there to be pressure on DeSantis to drop out, noting that “Ron DeSantis’s existence in the Republican primary helps Nikki Haley.”

“If Ron DeSantis were to drop out of the race, all of his votes would go to Donald Trump,” he explained. “And so Nikki Haley’s only chance of winning is to increase exponentially the turnout among undeclared, independent voters in New Hampshire. She needs to hold on to her small amount of Republicans support, and so splitting the Republican voter base with Ron DeSantis helps right now.”

But some Republicans have seriously doubted that either DeSantis or Haley will be able to topple Trump at all.

South Carolina-based GOP consultant and Trump critic Chip Felkel called it a “tremendous mistake” for neither candidate to come out swinging harder against Trump and suggested “neither one of them’s got a shot in hell.”

“This game is about expectations,” Felkel said. “It’s about beating expectations and getting momentum. And you can’t tell me 21 and 19 percent of the vote — those were the expectations, that they would lose that big. And that doesn’t truly give you momentum, no matter how much they claim.”

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