Ahead of his seemingly inevitable 2024 presidential campaign, Gov. Ron DeSantis was in Iowa over the weekend, and as NBC News reported, the Floridian took some rhetorical shots at a certain former president that were unsubtle, but also indirect.
“We must reject the culture of losing that has infected our party in recent years,” DeSantis said in Sioux Center, alluding to Trump’s effect on GOP candidates in recent years. “If we get distracted, if we focus the election on the past or on other side issues, then I think the Democrats are going to beat us again, and I think it’ll be very difficult to recover from that defeat.”
At face value, this seems like an entirely sensible message. Republicans have suffered a series of setbacks in recent election cycles — 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2022 — due in large part to Donald Trump. DeSantis is presenting himself as a far-right alternative who’s had electoral success. For GOP voters focused on winning, the argument goes, don’t back the guy who lost.
But there’s one nagging problem: Most Republican voters are convinced that Trump won in 2020, reality be damned, convinced that the “big lie” is true. DeSantis’ pitch only works if members of the GOP base — the folks who’ll participate in next year’s primaries and caucuses — genuinely believe that Trump lost and needs to be replaced by a more competitive nominee.
If the GOP governor argues that Trump lost, many Republicans will see him as a traitor who dares to believe accurate election results. If the Floridian goes along with the lie and says Trump won an election that was rigged against him, then Republicans will feel less urgency about nominating someone new.
How will DeSantis thread the needle? At least for now, he doesn’t appear to know.
At a press conference yesterday, for example, a reporter asked the governor about his “culture of losing” assessment and whether he believes Trump lost. DeSantis responded, “When I look at the last however many election cycles, 2018 we lost the House ... we lost the Senate in 2020, Biden becomes president.” Reflecting on the 2022 midterm elections, he added, “I didn’t see a red wave across the country.”
Again, the comments were accurate, but pay particular attention to his three-word assessment of the last presidential race: “Biden becomes president.”
DeSantis didn’t say Biden was elected president; he preferred to say that Biden became president. It’s a passive-voice phrase intended to avoid taking a position that would likely become politically problematic.
Can the likely GOP contender get away with this in May 2023? Sure. Will he be able to spend the next several months avoiding the question about who won the 2020 race? Probably not.
Republican consultant Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign and is currently unaffiliated in the 2024 race, told Politico this week, “First question at first debate: Raise your hand if you think Trump won the 2020 election. If a candidate can’t dispose of a fake issue like who won the election, how can voters expect them to handle the real issues?”
For DeSantis, this is not a rhetorical question.