When Donald Trump first ran for president, he assured his supporters that he would preside over an era of “so much winning” that they would eventually get bored with all the victories he would deliver. “We’re going to win so much,” he said. “We’re going to keep winning, winning, winning.”
In fact, the Trump era was largely one of losing, losing, losing, above all when Americans voted. Republicans lost their majority in the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms. Two years later, Trump lost his reelection bid and the GOP lost control of the Senate.
Last week Trump extended his string of losses. In state after state, Republican candidates endorsed by Trump — many of them cranks or amateurs whose chief credential was fealty to the former president — went down in defeat in the midterm elections. Thanks to Trump’s influence, the expected red wave never materialized. The one exception was in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis led Republicans to sweeping victories. In 2020, Trump beat Joe Biden there by just 3 percentage points. This year, by contrast, DeSantis clobbered his Democratic challenger, former governor Charlie Crist, in a 60-40 landslide. He did so, moreover, just days after Trump had mocked him as “Ron DeSanctimonious” at a rally in Pennsylvania.
Trump expected to bask in acclaim on Tuesday, but he seemed to sense before the polls closed that the candidates he had promoted so vigorously might not be headed for glory. “I think if they win, I should get all the credit,” he said in an interview with NewsNation that aired Tuesday. “And if they lose, I should not be blamed at all. But it will probably be just the opposite.”
It was indeed the opposite. As Republican hopes of a midterm triumph turned to ashes, Trump was promptly identified on the right not only as the election’s biggest loser but as the cause of the GOP’s debacle. “The pattern of Republican wins and losses on Tuesday . . . is not hard to discern,” wrote Yuval Levin, a conservative thinker. “It presents itself as a blinking, blaring, screaming sign that reads ‘Republicans: Trump is your problem.’” After three consecutive election cycles — 2018, 2020, 2022 — in which Trump proved to be an electoral liability for Republicans, many in the GOP were finally learning to read the room. Trump may be a fighter, as his MAGA loyalists have long maintained. But he isn’t a winner and was never popular.
Like Trump, the Florida governor cultivates the image of a fighter undaunted by the harshest criticism. But DeSantis also succeeded over the past four years in turning Florida from a perennial battleground into solid red territory. He carried urban, suburban, and rural voters by hefty majorities. He won 57 percent of his state’s critical Hispanic vote. His coattails helped flip three of Florida’s congressional districts from blue to red.
The contrast between the feckless ex-president and the surging Florida governor couldn’t be clearer. In exit polls Tuesday, 33 percent of Florida voters said they want to see Donald Trump run for president in 2024. But a far higher share of the electorate — 45 percent — said they hoped their governor would launch a White House bid.
After last week’s balloting, it was fascinating to watch, in real time, as Trump’s star dimmed and DeSantis’s brightened.
In Ohio, Senator-elect J.D. Vance — a MAGA cultist who had spent much of the campaign brownnosing Trump — gave a victory speech in which he thanked 34 people by name, but never mentioned the man whose endorsement he had sought so ardently. The New York Post, which Trump used to call his favorite newspaper, hailed DeSantis on its front page as “DeFUTURE” of the Republican Party. (The Murdoch-owned tabloid gave the knife another twist with a front page on Thursday depicting Trump as “Trumpty Dumpty” who “had a great fall.”) Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went on Fox News to extol DeSantis as the “biggest winner” of the election and proclaim that he would “almost certainly become the rallying point for everybody in the Republican Party who wants to move beyond President Trump.”
Besides electoral wins, what does DeSantis offer Republicans that Trump doesn’t? Above all, normality.
Whatever else might be said about DeSantis, he operates within normal parameters. Over the past four years, he became, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed, an unabashed “avatar of cultural conservatism” who simultaneously demonstrated the ability to “be competent, calculating, aware of public opinion . . . and capable of bipartisanship and steady leadership in a crisis.”
In Trump, Republicans have a leader who excels at culture-war pugnacity, trolling liberals, personalizing political disputes, and playing to the mob. DeSantis supplies all that plus a respectable record of governance. His response to the COVID-19 pandemic made him a bête noire to many on the left. But his insistence on keeping schools open and eschewing mandates while strongly promoting vaccines and protecting the elderly was an eminently defensible strategy. If I were a Republican partisan, it would cheer me greatly to see the spotlight moving from Trump to DeSantis.
But as a conservative dismayed by the gross incivility of contemporary politics, I am less sanguine. Like his ideological foes on the woke left, the Florida governor is too willing to use the power of government to wage cultural battles. When Disney executives criticized DeSantis for supporting legislation to limit discussion of sexual topics in elementary schools, he retaliated with a law stripping the company of its longstanding “improvement district” tax status. To score propaganda points during the run-up to the election, he devised a scheme to induce 50 migrants from Venezuela to board what they thought was a plane to Boston, then flew them without warning to Martha’s Vineyard.
Nor do I like DeSantis’s Trumpian taste for gratuitous taunts. Denouncing Anthony Fauci to a crowd of cheering supporters, DeSantis barked: “Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.” Must our politics be so degrading?
After seven years of being dominated by Trump, the GOP is finally recognizing its need for a smarter, shrewder, more effective leader. It also needs a leader less ruthless and vengeful, one who knows there is more to leadership than rewarding friends and punishing foes. Compared with Trump, DeSantis is a dramatic improvement. But Republicans can do better.