DeSantis’s problem: How to campaign against Trump

A very happy Easter season to all of our readers.

This week: The Briefing, Vol. XI, Issue 15

  • Conservatives lose consequential race in Wisconsin
  • Trump’s indictment is helping him for now, but that could change
  • DeSantis faces a problem no Republican has yet solved: how to counter Trump?


Wisconsin: Republican Dan Kelly was crushed once again, by almost the same margin as in 2020, in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election. Which invites the question — why was this man nominated despite being such a poor candidate the first time?

Kelly was nominated to the Supreme Court by Scott Walker in 2016 and was defeated in the 2020 election. But his real undoing was probably his involvement in the scheme to seat a slate of Trump electors after Trump lost Wisconsin in 2020. This scheme was not as nefarious as many leftists have portrayed it, but it was a piece of heavy partisan lawyering that many people would view as unbecoming of a Supreme Court justice. 

Liberals’ takeover of the court could be highly consequential, potentially overturning its anti-abortion law, forcing the legislature to revisit its state legislative and congressional maps, and possibly even reversing Scott Walker’s landmark Act 10 legislation limiting the powers of public employee unions. In short, Wisconsinites may be about to discover how far a narrow partisan majority is willing to go.

President 2024

Donald Trump: Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) got his moment in the limelight last week, as former President Donald Trump was arraigned on 34 charges related to false bookkeeping entries surrounding a single transaction — a (perfectly legal) secret legal settlement for $130,000 to prevent adult film actress Stormy Daniels from discussing the affairs she had already alleged that they had almost two decades ago. Trump denies the affair, but all parties agree that a payment was made. The key question has to do with what the payment was for — was it a legal expense, or a campaign expense? And does it automatically become an illegally concealed campaign expense just because Trump was running for office in 2016? In fact, the fate of Bragg’s indictment hinges upon the answer to this question. 

The New York statute that Bragg is relying upon requires that Trump not only made false bookkeeping entries, but also did so for the purpose of furthering or concealing some other crime. If this did not happen, then the most that can be proven is that Trump might have committed a misdemeanor whose statute of limitations already ran out five years ago. (The statute of limitations might still have run out anyway, but that’s another issue that will have to be settled.)

To date, no such underlying crime has been proven or even prosecuted. Oddly, Bragg appears to be relying upon an unprosecuted federal campaign finance crime in order to justify this entire indictment. It is a very dubious and flimsy case that he has put together, as even some of Trump’s harshest critics have acknowledged. And if this prosecution depends upon an assumption that Trump is guilty of some other crime that he has never been tried for, can this statute even hold up to constitutional scrutiny given the requirement of a presumption of innocence?

So far, the indictment is helping Trump’s polling numbers. That isn’t guaranteed to stick for long, though. It is worth noting that a majority of voters currently believe Trump did something wrong on purpose, as a new ABC News poll shows. A large majority of general election voters do not believe that he is the victim of an overzealous or malicious prosecution designed to rig the 2024 election against him, even if Republicans specifically are sympathetic.

In the long run, this cannot be good for his brand or his electoral support. The same poll suggests that more than six in ten U.S. citizens do not want Trump to be president again. This is consistent with other polls that show that, no matter how unpopular Joe Biden is, Trump is considerably less popular.

Meanwhile, a key Florida Republican lawmaker who could have gone for Ron DeSantis — Rep. Byron Donalds —  just endorsed Trump instead. Donalds is viewed as a rising star and a potential eventual successor to DeSantis.

Ron DeSantis: The Florida governor faces a nearly impossible question that no one has yet been able to answer: how do you work against the most powerful force in the Republican Party, namely Donald Trump?

As the Washington Post pointed out over the weekend, DeSantis has gone back to avoiding direct criticisms of Trump. He had received some backlash after making remarks critical of Trump’s character related to the sordid legal settlement underlying the Manhattan indictment. Republican primary voters generally don’t like it when you attack Trump, as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and a host of others discovered in 2016. To date, no Republican has figured out how to counter him in a primary.

Then again, especially given the magnitude of the legal problems Trump could be facing beyond Manhattan, no one should assume that he is entitled to or even can win the nomination in 2024.

At the moment, it is true that Trump is leading in most national polls. But two points about this: first, there is no national primary election, and so the state polls that give DeSantis a much better chance are probably a more reliable indicator of the state of affairs. Second, such an early lead can be illusory. It means very little at a moment when Trump’s main opponent isn’t even a candidate yet.

Finally, here’s another thought. Just as there were shy Trump voters in 2016 who made the difference, various operatives and even journalists in the field report quietly that there are shy Republicans for DeSantis who don’t want their Trump-loving friends to know. DeSantis recently impressed conservative gatherings in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and he will keep moving conservative measures through the state legislature until it ends in May.

Senate 2024

California: If you’re wondering why Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) went so far above and beyond to woo Democrats hopeful about the Russiagate hoax during the Trump presidency, look no further than his fundraising totals in this year’s senate race. 

An otherwise unimpressive older white male in a Democratic Party that normally looks down on such things, he is now leading the field for the open primary in both polling and fundraising. His $6.5 million haul for the first quarter is $2 million better than the runner up (Rep. Katie Porter (D) with $4.5 million).  

Nevada: Jacky Rosen is officially running for re-election. So far, Republicans have no formidable candidates to run in what should nonetheless be a competitive race. 

Governor 2024

Missouri: Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft (R), son of the former senator and U.S. attorney general, intends to maintain the family business with a run for governor next year to replace the term-limited Republican Gov. Mike Parson (R).

North Carolina: Well ahead of next year’s race to succeed Gov. Roy Cooper (D), Republicans gained functional control of the state when state Rep. Tricia Cotham switched to Republican, giving the GOP three-fifths majorities in both houses and the ability to override Cooper’s vetoes without any Democratic help. They have already overridden Cooper’s veto on a measure to abolish pistol permitting and are soon expected to override his veto of a universal school choice bill. This is the second party-switch this year (after another in Louisiana) to create a veto-proof GOP majority in a state legislature.

West Virginia: Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), who lost his 2018 bid for Senate against Joe Manchin (D), officially announced his bid for governor early last week. As a candidate with four statewide runs already under his belt (and three wins) in the last 11 years, he begins his race amid a very large but mostly undistinguished field, which includes Del. Moore Capito (the son of Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R)) and the current state auditor and secretary of state. Morrisey’s last win was a 28-point blowout in 2020.