The one argument DeSantis must make

April 17, 2023

This week: The Briefing, Vol. XI, issue 16

  • Can Trump win a GOP primary with the old Democratic “Mediscare” argument?
  • Mark Lamb is the first Republican in Arizona’s Senate race
  • Romney will almost certainly face a primary

President 2024

Donald Trump: In his advertising, fundraising, and speeches, former President Donald Trump is attacking the man viewed as his chief Republican rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), using a tactic that Democrats hurled at Republican candidates for decades. DeSantis, he insists, wants to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Trump won the primaries in 2016 after promising not to cut these old-age entitlement programs. Although it was a very unique promise at the time for a Republican to make — conservatives and even moderates had long supported Social Security reform due to the program’s impending insolvency — it didn’t really put that many Republican primary voters off. 

On the other hand, it seems somewhat doubtful that this was what put him over the top. If this had been the main thrust of his attacks on other Republicans, his campaign would not have been what it was.

Will it be the attack that ends DeSantis? It’s hard to imagine that. Republican voters are pretty inured to the idea of Social Security reform. They’re used to hearing their candidates promote private accounts, increases to the full retirement age, and the like. A bipartisan proposal in the Senate would form a sovereign wealth fund and raise the full retirement age to 70 to keep the program solvent. 

Since 2000, when Al Gore seemingly spent an entire debate talking about the lockbox into which he planned to put Social Security, Republicans went from losing the senior citizen vote (Gore carried voters over 65 by four points) to winning it (Trump won by 7 points in both 2016 and 2022). Interestingly, Mitt Romney did quite a bit better than that in 2012, winning older voters by 12 points even as he was losing the election. 

In other words, a major shift toward Republicans occurred among this demographic early in the century, and this happened in spite of fairly persistent Republican advocacy of Social Security and Medicare reforms. Trump did not do significantly better by taking the opposite position.

Moreover, that Republican improvement with seniors occurred in general elections, not primaries, where conservative voters are comfortable with the idea of reforming the retirement programs. 

Although Trump is clearly the frontrunner in this primary and the man to beat, this issue probably isn’t the silver bullet he needs to take out the popular Florida governor.

Ron DeSantis: DeSantis continues to trail Trump in most national polls, and the backlash over Trump’s indictment is clearly making the task of closing the gap more difficult. 

However, pay attention to the states. Two recent surveys by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies suggest that DeSantis is a stronger general election candidate than Trump in key states. Although primary voters may choose to ignore this, it is a very important argument for DeSantis to be able to make if he wants to have a chance. Indeed, this might have to become the cornerstone of his campaign.

In Arizona, a state where Trump did relatively poorly for a Republican in both of his runs (including his victory there in 2016), DeSantis leads Biden by six points, 48 to 42%, whereas Trump trails him by one (45% to 44%) and in Pennsylvania, DeSantis leads Biden, 45% to 42%, whereas Trump trails Biden by four points, 42% to 46%. The survey in Arizona also claims to find that that support for Republican candidates goes up to a 12-point lead when voters are asked about a Biden-DeSantis matchup, but down to a one-point deficit when they are asked about a Trump-Biden matchup. 

It is also noteworthy that Trump’s unfavorable ratings are sky high in both states — 58% in Arizona and 56% in Pennsylvania. There has been a recurring theme in the data almost everywhere that, no matter how unpopular Joe Biden gets, his favorability is not as low as Trump’s. 

Governor 2023

Kentucky: A new local poll shows a close race for the Republican nomination between Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) and Trump’s former ambassador to the UN and Canada, Kelly Craft (R), 30% to 24%. In third is agriculture commissioner Ryan Quarles with 15%. 

This represents a significant gain for Craft and a significant fall-off in support for Cameron since January, even though Cameron received the Trump endorsement. House Oversight Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) backed Craft last fall and has been campaigning with her in recent days. Among her more noteworthy stances (for the primary at least) she wants to add rape and incest exceptions to Kentucky’s abortion ban, which passed last spring over the current Democratic governor’s veto.

Democrats will renominate Gov. Andy Beshear. The primary election is coming up soon on May 16.

Senate 2024

Arizona: Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb (R) has announced he is running against Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I), in a race where Rep. Ruben Gallego (D) already leads in multiple three-way polls. 

Lamb, who will surely make immigration a large part of his campaign, won his office by defeating Steve Henry, the anointed successor of former Sheriff Paul Babeu. Babeu, who ran and lost as the Republican nominee for the old first congressional district in 2016, had been politically damaged by a sex scandal and came out as gay before running for Congress.

Florida: Until now, no Republican has been willing to challenge Sen. Rick Scott (R), for the same reasons no credible Democrat has come forward to challenge him either. Scott is both super-rich and a tireless, disciplined campaigner with an unbroken record of close election wins in Florida. Scott has never been as popular as DeSantis is today, but with three very close wins over top-quality Democratic candidates (including a popular incumbent) under his belt, Scott is the Ph.D.-level Republican candidate. 

Nonetheless, Keith Gross (R), a wealthy conservative attorney from Melbourne, has announced that he is running. Much like Scott, Gross comes from a lower-class background and became a self-made millionaire despite facing great financial hardships as a child. 

Scott is overwhelmingly favored for renomination, and also to win his biggest statewide election victory yet, unless some credible Democrat enters the race and really shakes things up.

Maine: Sen. Angus King (I), who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, will at least have a Democratic opponent, now that left-wing consultant David Costello (D) has entered the race as an admitted “extreme long shot.”

Michigan: Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D) has successfully cleared the field for her Senate bid, as Rep. Debbie Dingell has bowed out like so many other Democrats. The burden will fall on Republicans to field a credible candidate against her. Republicans have not won a Senate race in Michigan since 1994.

Montana: Republicans in the state legislature are on the verge of approving a top two primary, similar to the system in California and Washington State. The reasoning is that, in the past, Sen. Jon Tester (D) has survived by actively helping Libertarian candidates to split the vote on the Right. A top-two primary would force a purely head-to-head matchup that would obviate such skullduggery. This is why it has mainstream media outlets screaming about supposedly unfair rule-changes.

Utah: It seems virtually certain that Sen. Mitt Romney (R) will face a primary challenge if he runs for reelection. State House Speaker Brad Wilson (R) has formed an exploratory committee to challenge Romney, who just filed his statement of candidacy with the FEC last week. 

Wilson is only one of many serious potential candidates who might challenge the Republican senator who voted to impeach Donald Trump twice and then refused to lift a finger for his more conservative colleague, Sen. Mike Lee (R), when he faced an uncomfortably close re-election battle in 2022. Attorney General Sean Reyes (R) is also considering a bid.

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