The DeSantis Moment: Florida's Governor Emerges As Possible Trump Successor

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is quickly establishing himself as the Republican best positioned to inherit the mantle from former President Donald Trump if the latter exits electoral politics.

DeSantis has taken up the major themes of the Trump presidency — defending national sovereignty, assailing Big Tech, excoriating political correctness, pursuing economic reopening during the pandemic, and getting tough with China — and married it to a relatively popular gubernatorial record in a major state.

“Four years is a political lifetime,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “That said, if Donald Trump chooses not to run for president in 2024, there is no question that DeSantis, assuming he wins reelection in the Sunshine State in 2022, will likely be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.”

Still, Trump will be 78 in four years. DeSantis is only 42. The two men are political allies. And they now reside in the same state. “Florida under DeSantis has been heralded as a beacon of freedom by conservatives, and with Donald Trump residing at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach and Republicans locked out of power at the federal level, Florida is now seen as the center of the Republican political universe,” O’Connell said.

“Gov. DeSantis’s leadership during the pandemic has earned him plaudits in conservative circles across the country. When other big-state governors were stressing lockdowns and stoking fears, DeSantis was pushing to reopen safely, and it paid off. His goal was to minimize death and suffering while maximizing openness,” O’Connell added. “And it is not just Republican voters who recognize DeSantis’s success and meteoric rise, there is a reason why the Florida governor is being hammered by the dominant liberal media. He is succeeding by following the science and the data and making media-anointed pandemic heroes like Govs. Newsom and Cuomo look like amateurs in terms of doing what is best for their constituents.”

Read more from W. James Antle III at the Washington Examiner

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‘Their Hair Is On Fire’: Trump Fans Await Return To Political Stage

On his final day in the White House last month, Donald Trump told a small crowd of supporters at Joint Base Andrews, the military airport, that he had no intention of leaving the stage quietly.

Now the 45th US president is set to make a splashy return to the fray on Sunday with a keynote speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual gathering of Republican politicians and media personalities that has become a kind of rock festival for rightwing activists, especially college students.

Ford O’Connell, a Trump supporter and former Republican congressional candidate, said attendees were “dying” to hear from Trump, whom he described as the “leader of the Republican party, even if he is not in office in the traditional sense”.

“These folks are unhappy about how the 2020 elections turned out, but their hair is on fire after a month-and-a-half of the Biden administration,” O’Connell said.

“What they want to hear from Trump is: how do you move forward in 2022 and 2024,” he added, referring to the midterm elections in two years and the next presidential contest.

Trump’s speech will end an unprecedented stretch of near silence for the former reality TV star, who built his political career on regular cable television appearances and constant tweeting. After leaving Washington, he took off for Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Palm Beach, Florida, and has stayed there since, playing golf and shunning the spotlight.

Read more from Lauren Fedor at the Financial Times

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Trump Headlines CPAC In Orlando, Which Is Conservative Florida's Coming-Out Party

Former President Trump will mark his return to the political arena at the annual CPAC summit, but the four-day fest that kicked off Thursday in Orlando is a coming-out party for Florida's conservative leaders, too.

“The reason why Florida is the conservative hub of the universe at the moment is a lot of conservatives believe that the road back to power is highlighting Florida as a conservative model of government for the rest of the nation,” said Ford O’Connell, a Naples-based Republican strategist and former presidential campaign operative. “Given the fact that we are shut out of all three levels of the federal government, the one place Republicans are thriving is Florida.”

In fact, Florida is home to the former president, who will close out the conference Sunday afternoon. It is a major fundraising venue for Republican and conservative candidates from across the country. It boasts a Republican-dominated state government, two U.S. senators and a firebrand congressman with ambitions for higher office.

Still, it is no coincidence that CPAC, which stands for the Conservative Political Action Conference, chose Florida to host this year’s event after its traditional location outside Washington remained closed because of COVID-19 restrictions, O’Connell said.

Besides being Trump’s adopted home state, Florida is home to Trump’s heir apparent, DeSantis, O’Connell said.

“You have a governor who, probably, if Trump did not run for election in 2024, would likely be the frontrunner for the Republican nomination,” he said.

Read more from Antonio Fins and Wendy Rhodes at the Palm Beach Post

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GOP Not Worried About Voting Against Popular Relief Bill

Republicans are dismissing the idea that they'll be punished at the ballot box for voting against President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

The relief measure is expected to get few, if any, GOP votes as it moves through Congress in the coming weeks. Democrats are trying to pressure Republicans into voting for the package, touting polls that show it's popular with the public.

Republicans counter that much of the bill is focused on Democrats' longstanding priorities rather than coronavirus relief. And strategists note that it's unclear whether voters will be thinking about the relief package closer to the midterm elections, which are more than a year and a half away. 

“I don’t see any risk to Republicans at all opposing this, especially as it relates to the 2022 election,” said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist and former congressional candidate in Florida.

Read more from Namoi Jagoda at The Hill

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Governors In Hot Water Over Their Coronavirus Response

Governors from both parties are increasingly finding themselves in the hot seat over their response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts who's up for reelection in 2022, has become the latest state leader to face criticism in recent months. He joins Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York and Gavin Newsom (D) of California as one of the high-profile governors to see his reputation take a noticeable hit amid the public health crisis, posing a potential challenge to his future political ambitions.

The recent turn of events presents a stark contrast to the early months of the pandemic, when many governors — Cuomo in particular — gained positive media exposure for their responses to COVID-19. Most governors, in fact, had higher approval ratings than former President Trump at the beginning of the crisis.

Republicans are quick to draw a contrast between Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has taken the opposite approach to the pandemic, aggressively pushing for reopenings while Democrats like Newsom favored statewide shutdowns.

“In a lot of DeSantis’s counties, people are in in-person schools and the economy is rebounding,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “Newsom is starting from, how shall I say? Scratch.”

Read more from Julia Manchester at The Hill

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Trump Slams McConnell As 'Political Hack' In Statement Reasserting Control Over GOP

Republicans are wrestling with the future of their party after the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. While a faction of Republicans wants a clean break from the former president, the vast majority remains loyal to Trump, indicating that reports of the death of Trumpism within the GOP may be greatly exaggerated.

In a statement Tuesday, Trump reasserted his influence over the party and tore into Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"Trump does not control the GOP, the grassroots control the GOP...and these folks love Donald John Trump. That is the reason Trump has so much influence," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "So until the grassroots sour on Trump, this is his party."

Conventional political wisdom suggests a candidate can't get elected without support from the grassroots. These are the voters who attend party meetings and vote in every primary election. If the grassroots haven't found a reason to turn on Trump by now, there's little reason to believe they will before the midterm election. That means the Republican Party's electoral fate is inextricably tied to Trump, for better or worse.

O'Connell said the idea of a third party was "beyond a stupid fantasy" and noted that the parties that lose always go through a period of soul-searching to figure out why they didn't win.

"One of the great misperceptions out there is that parties stay static," O'Connell noted. "It's a two-team match and the parties are always reinventing themselves."

Read more from Leandra Bernstein at WZTV

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Republicans On Forming A Third Party: Don't Count On It

Don’t hold your breath on Republicans angered with former President Trump breaking away to form a new party.

Interviews with more than half a dozen Republican strategists, operatives and former officials conducted ahead of this weekend’s impeachment trial vote show there is a deep reluctance among even Trump’s most ardent critics to formally break away from the GOP.

Trump allies waved off the possibility of a new center-right movement forming either separate from the GOP or within the party itself, arguing that such an effort is out of touch with the conservative grassroots.

“It’s beyond a stupid fantasy,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist and staunch Trump supporter. “If the goal is to win back the party and the base, destroying the base and giving the Democrats power isn’t going to make them friends.”

“The grassroots is what has influence over the party and the grassroots loves Trump,” he added.

Read more from Max Greenwood at The Hill

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Trump In Exile: The Man And The Idea

The contrast could not be more stark. 

A year ago, during Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, presidential tweets and retweets lit up social media, disparaging House Democrats as they made their case for a Senate conviction. “Sleaze bag,” “con job,” “corrupt politician” – the barbs coming from then-President Trump’s Twitter account seemed endless. 

Today, midway through the former president’s historic second impeachment trial, the social media silence is almost deafening.

Mr. Trump’s permanent banishment from Twitter on Jan. 8, two days after the Capitol riot he is blamed by Democrats and some Republicans for inciting, has certainly crimped his style. He’s at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, living in deplatformed exile. Old-fashioned press releases from The Office of Donald J. Trump land in reporters’ inboxes. But the ex-president has made no TV or radio appearances since leaving office.

“His instinct is telling him to be quiet,” says Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist. 

Read more from Linda Feldmann at The Christian Science Monitor

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Donald Trump’s Impeachment Lawyers On Back Foot After Performance Panned

Donald Trump’s legal team entered the second day of his impeachment trial on Wednesday on the back foot after a debut performance that was widely panned by Republican senators, including some of the former US president’s closest allies.

The first day of Trump’s trial kicked off on Tuesday with a powerful opening argument from Democratic impeachment managers acting as de facto prosecutors, who relied heavily on video footage that tried to tie the deadly January siege on the US Capitol to the former president’s words and actions.

Trump’s lawyers appeared to struggle to respond during a subsequent four-hour debate that was intended to settle the question of whether it is constitutional to try a former president once he has left office.

Ford O'Connell, a Trump ally and former Republican congressional candidate, said Democrats were "trying to ... prey upon the horrors of what happened in the Capitol in an effort to paint all Republican voters as extremists and to prevent Donald Trump from ever running for president in the future."

"They see the political game here," he added.

Read more from Lauren Fedor at the Financial Times

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Impeachment Dilemma: Republicans Rally Behind Trump Before Senate Trial

After four years of moving in virtual lockstep with Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell used his final day as Senate majority leader to make a clean break with the outgoing president.

In a speech on the Senate floor on the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration, McConnell, the chamber’s top Republican, placed the blame for the violent January 6 siege on the Capitol squarely on Trump.

Yet with the Senate trial due to begin this week, McConnell is striking a very different tone. Just one week after blaming Trump for the riots, he joined 44 fellow Republicans in backing a Senate motion declaring an impeachment trial unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in the White House.

“The Republican party is the party of Donald John Trump for the foreseeable future,” says Ford O’Connell, a former Republican congressional candidate in Florida and a Trump ally. “The base of the Republican party loves Trump, and the base has that power over elected officials in Washington.”

In his final days in office, Trump briefly toyed with the possibility of forming a “Patriot party”. But his allies now say the former president has gone off the idea, given the US system makes third parties exceedingly unlikely to succeed at the national level.

“The idea of a third party, while it sounds enticing in theory, in practicality it is a disaster,” says O’Connell. “It is the quickest way to make sure that you never get to power again.”

Read more from Lauren Fedor at the Financial Times

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