‘You think I’m crazy?’ Florida GOP sweats Trump vs. DeSantis

8 months ago 6

The Florida delegation’s 20 House GOP members are clearly wary of choosing sides between the party’s two heavyweight 2024 contenders, as the former president takes shots at their governor even before he formally enters the race. And it’s not hard to figure out why lawmakers are staying out of it — a wrong decision risks political repercussions.

Trump is notorious for his revenge politics, having spent his two post-White House years taking down GOP lawmakers who crossed him by encouraging his base to support their primary opponents. But with his influence in the party on the wane, Florida Republicans are just as acutely aware that they need a strong relationship with their governor.

And DeSantis, who’s especially vocal on natural disaster response and home-state projects, has the power to inflict pain over any of his own grudges. Which puts Florida’s House Republicans in quite a bind as they gather for their annual retreat, set to start Sunday in Orlando.

First-term Rep. Aaron Bean (R-Fla.) was more succinct than Dunn, calling it “Sophie’s choice” in a reference to the four-decade-old film about a woman forced to kill one of her two children.

Another Florida Republican, granted anonymity to speak candidly, addressed Don vs. Ron by exclaiming: “Do you think I want to talk about that? You think I’m crazy?”

Conversations with every member of Florida’s GOP congressional delegation (excepting Rep. Greg Steube, whose office did not respond to a written request for comment while he recovers after a January fall) point to clear future fractures over which candidate to support. And decision time is quickly approaching, as early polling shows the party primary trending towards a two-way battle between the two Floridians.

While Trump hasn’t started pursuing endorsements in the state yet, his level of support on the Hill is still off to a lackluster start. Only two Florida Republicans, Reps. Matt Gaetz and Anna Paulina Luna, have publicly endorsed his 2024 bid since he launched his campaign in November.

“Who am I supporting, Governor DeSantis or Trump? Trump,” Luna said without missing a beat. “I love DeSantis. I don’t think anyone will ever be able to compete with him as governor and I’ll be sad to see if he leaves early. I hope he doesn’t, but I love them both.”

Others are preparing to hear an endorsement request from Trump.

“I think I’ll get a call soon,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), who said he is undecided in the GOP primary and would consider DeSantis. “We will have a nice discussion.”

No Florida members have openly endorsed DeSantis, who has not yet announced a campaign. One Republican described DeSantis’ outreach so far as “non-existent.”

As Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) put it: “Candidly, he’s not in the race. So members are not gonna put themselves on the line.”

But some subtly indicated that they’re leaning toward their state’s governor.

“DeSantis is the ideal candidate,” one Florida Republican lawmaker said, granted anonymity to speak candidly.

“The most important thing is, Florida will be in the mix,” Bean said. And when pressed about the choice, Bean didn’t explicitly answer, but he praised DeSantis and noted the two of them served “side by side” for four years in the state Senate.

DeSantis has close ties with other House members as well. Some are former colleagues in a chamber where he served three terms before winning the governor’s mansion in 2018. Still other Florida GOP lawmakers know him from his own administration; first-term Rep. Laurel Lee (R-Fla.), for example, served as his secretary of state.

Some Florida GOP members, like Neal and freshman Rep. Cory Mills, say they’ve made up their minds about the presidential race but declined to name their choice. Other Florida Republicans, like Reps. Daniel Webster, Mario Diaz-Balart and Vern Buchanan, indicated they’re waiting to see who else runs.

“We’re gonna have to make a choice,” said Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.). “Choices are coming. … I’m open, but I do think it’s a good thing for the state of Florida.”

Buchanan declared that “I’m not getting in the middle of that. I want to let things play out, and so many people are going to be involved.”

Florida’s House Republicans referred to multiple different strategies to handle the choice ahead, from avoiding the primary to endorsing only after one of their two home-state candidates drops out.

But weighing their options also means acknowledging the pros and cons of each man.

Some Florida Republicans noted how accessible Trump is and was, not to mention his ability to deliver the resources they needed in their districts when it mattered. While the delegation largely reports a good working relationship with the governor’s staff, other Florida Republicans noted how little DeSantis has personally sought to build relationships with them ahead of a potential run.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who preceded DeSantis in the governor’s mansion, hinted at closed lines of communication with DeSantis in a brief interview, describing a relationship that became bumpy during their transition.

“DeSantis doesn’t talk to me, so I don’t know about DeSantis. I talk to Trump. I wish him all the best of luck,” Scott said, noting he hasn’t “historically” endorsed in primary races.

Gaetz made it clear that his once strong relationship with DeSantis has fizzled since the former helped the latter win the governor’s mansion.

“I have no ill will, but we are not as close as we once were when I was his transition chairman,” Gaetz said.

DeSantis supporters counter that he can be Trump without the drama, arguing that anointing him will help the party move away from the constant scandals of the former president’s term. While they see the Florida governor as skilled enough to go the distance, some acknowledge it is early and they are waiting to see how he fares against a bruise-inducing Trump if the duo winds up sharing a debate stage.

A few in the state brushed off the looming question altogether. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he has “spent zero time thinking about” Trump vs. DeSantis, though the rivalry has been a constant topic of discussion among other lawmakers in the state.

The primary, Rubio added, “is a long ways away.”

Other Florida Republicans, however, are acutely aware that next week’s House retreat brings them to Trump and DeSantis’ shared backyard.

“It’ll be a tough primary,” Rutherford said. “Even though it’s coming quickly, it’s still kind of early.”

Burgess Everett and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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