‘Traitor’: After bitter primary, DeSantis may struggle to win over Trump supporters if he runs again

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis arrives at a watch party during the 2024 Iowa Republican presidential caucuses in West Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 15, 2024. (Christian Monterrosa/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis arrives at a watch party during the 2024 Iowa Republican presidential caucuses in West Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 15, 2024. (Christian Monterrosa/AFP/Getty Images/TNS) Christian Monterrosa

TAMPA, FL - MAY 17: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis throws pens into the crowd after signing a series of education bills at Cambridge Christian school in Tampa, Fla. on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (Photo by Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post)

TAMPA, FL - MAY 17: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis throws pens into the crowd after signing a series of education bills at Cambridge Christian school in Tampa, Fla. on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (Photo by Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post) Thomas Simonetti

By JILL COLVIN

Associated Press

Published: 01-31-2024 11:42 AM

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Before launching his ill-fated campaign for the White House, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was a star. Again and again, Republican voters said they saw him as the future of the party — a potential vice president who, after serving four years alongside Donald Trump, could become the party’s standard-bearer and run for two terms.

But after a scorched-earth primary in which Trump pounded DeSantis viciously for the better part of a year, interviews with voters across early-voting states suggest the Florida governor may have an uphill battle if he chooses to run for president again in 2028. Many Trump supporters not only dislike DeSantis, but echo Trump’s assertions that DeSantis betrayed him and say they would never consider him again.

“I think he stabbed Trump in the back,” said Pamela Shinkwin, 73, who lives in Massachusetts and traveled to New Hampshire for one of the former president’s final rallies before his double-digit victory in the primary. DeSantis’ campaign against Trump had soured her on the governor, she said.

Mary Sullivan, 76, a retired registered nurse from Manchester, slammed both DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley for daring to run in the first place.

“They should never have ever tried to go against Donald Trump for what he’s done for this country. I just can’t even imagine,” she said after stopping by Trump’s campaign headquarters.

Asked if she would ever vote for the Florida governor in the future, Sullivan offered an emphatic and repeated “No.”

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“He doesn’t deserve it,” she said. “He backstabbed President Trump. If he kept on the Trump train all along, stayed in Florida, supported him, then maybe he would become, eventually, a running mate with President Trump. And like everybody says in ‘28. But no, he showed his true colors.”

The hostility reflects the deep connection many of Trump’s supporters have with the former president, a bond that Trump has harnessed to tear down rivals in the primary and influence Republicans in Congress. Whether or not Trump is elected again, he will likely wield enormous influence in future Republican contests, complicating the calculus of anyone seeking the party’s nomination in 2028 or beyond.

DeSantis’ allies believe the Florida governor has a clear path to another presidential bid should he want one. His current term ends in January of 2027 when he’ll be just 49 years old. Pointing to national polls, they say he lost the primary not because he was unpopular with primary voters, but because those same voters liked Trump more.

DeSantis endorsed Trump when he dropped out, calling him a better option than President Joe Biden. But he hasn’t yet offered an olive branch to angry Trump supporters. Instead, he has needled Trump, including responding to a news story about some Republicans in the Florida legislature wanting to help fund Trump’s legal bills by posting: “But not the Florida Republican who wields the veto pen …”

The former president has always fought viciously. During his 2016 campaign, he belittled Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as “Little Marco,” insulted Carly Fiorina’s face and suggested Ted Cruz’s father had somehow been involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, while also criticizing the Texas senator’s wife.

But his attack lines against DeSantis cut especially deep as he cast the governor’s decision to run as a betrayal. At nearly every one of his rallies, Trump dramatically recounted how DeSantis had begged for his endorsement while first running for governor. (DeSantis leaned so much on Trump’s support in 2018 that his campaign ran an ad that showed him building a toy border wall and teaching one of his children to read with a Trump campaign sign.)

Trump’s campaign, his allied super PAC and allies also ridiculed the governor, highlighting unflattering stories and rumors about his awkward interactions, his eating habits and his choice of boots. For some, the mission was personal: A handful had previously worked for the former governor — some with bad experiences — giving them unique insight into the candidate’s weaknesses.

Indeed, Trump continued to mock the man he’d labeled “Ron DeSanctimonious” — or “DeSanctus” for short — long after the governor had slipped in the polls, like a lion dragging his captured prey.

DeSantis, meanwhile, weary of alienating the Trump supporters he was trying to win over, was often reluctant to hit Trump too hard and focused more on Haley, his most prominent rival for second place.

Trump’s attacks seemed to work in the states where they were targeted. A CNN/University of New Hampshire poll conducted earlier this month found that only about 3 in 10 GOP primary voters in New Hampshire had favorable opinions of DeSantis, down from 44% in a September poll.

But national polls are far more favorable. An ABC News/Ipsos Poll conducted after the Iowa caucuses found 64% of Republicans have a favorable view of him, as did a majority of Republicans in an AP-NORC poll conducted in December.

DeSantis will now shift back to his day job as Florida’s governor, backed by a Republican supermajority in the legislature that is expected to help him continue to rack up legislative wins on the issues that matter most to the Republican base.

DeSantis’ allies also say he improved as a candidate as the race went on, appearing more comfortable in the national spotlight. It was just too late to save his anemic 2024 campaign.

Still, the charges of disloyalty, in particular, seem to resonate.

Melissa Davis, 56, a small business owner who lives in Windsor Heights, Iowa, and served as a Trump caucus captain and volunteer in the state, expressed deep disappointment with DeSantis after admiring his record in Florida.

“I was a DeSantis fan, admittedly, until he ran against my president,” she said. “DeSantis wasn’t loyal to my president. And so I would never consider voting for him ever, ever again.”

Davis went as far as to cast him as a traitor.

“It’s very sad because I really thought he was on our team,” she said. “So it’s very disappointing to know that he could stab you in the back. He’s a traitor to our great president who helped him get elected. What’s he going to do to me if he’s my president? So no, no voting for DeSantis.”

For some, DeSantis’s decision to endorse Trump as he exited the race also wasn’t enough to redeem him.

Edward X. Young, who traveled from New Jersey and was attending his 69th Trump rally in Rochester, New Hampshire, said the effort was “too little, too late.” For diehard Trump supporters like himself, he said, DeSantis “permanently tainted his image in our eyes.”

“Me personally and my friends used to like and admire DeSantis a lot. And I bought one of those flags, ‘Trump-DeSantis.’ I’ll never fly it again,” Young said.

Still, others were more open to the prospect.

Jacob Morgan, 34, who traveled with friends from upstate New York to volunteer for Trump in New Hampshire, said he sees DeSantis as a more “polished Trump” with a bright future ahead.

“I think he’s done a great job in Florida,” said Morgan. “If, for instance, let’s say, for whatever reason, Trump was taken out of the picture, then yeah, he would be the guy.”

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Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in New York, Michelle L. Price in Rochester, New Hampshire, and Linley Sanders in Washington contributed to this report.