Republican senators who don’t want Donald Trump to be the GOP’s nominee for president in 2024 are feeling a growing sense of urgency to shake up the race as recent polls show Trump dominating the primary field and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) losing momentum.
Many Republican senators viewed DeSantis as the best candidate to supplant Trump atop the ticket after the 2022 midterm election in which DeSantis won a resounding reelection victory; GOP candidates won every statewide race in Florida.
But after DeSantis committed what some GOP strategists viewed as a few high-profile political gaffes and lost ground to Trump in the polls, Republican senators are stepping back and reevaluating the presidential primary field — as are some big Republican donors.
“It’s way early. It’s way early, and I’m not going to let the media define who our frontrunners are,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) arrives for an all-Senators briefing on Wednesday, April 19, 2023 at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Greg Nash)
Asked if Republicans are looking for an alternative to Trump or DeSantis, who has embraced Trump’s populism to the extent some critics call him “Trump-lite,” Murkowski said, “I certainly am.”
“If that is the face of the Republican Party, if that’s the contest, Republicans are doomed,” she said.
Sen. Mike Rounds (S.D.) on Wednesday became the first Republican senator to endorse a candidate other than Trump and surprisingly it wasn’t DeSantis, Trump’s closest rival in the polls.
Instead, Rounds announced his support for South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (R), who is running in sixth place in national polls.
DeSantis, by contrast, regularly comes in second place to Trump and easily outpaces the rest of the field in most polls.
But Rounds says he wants the party to nominate a candidate more in the mold of former President Reagan who can unify the country, and he believes Scott could bring voters together from across the political spectrum.
Asked about the views of Senate GOP colleagues who want to broaden the field of competitive players in the 2024 presidential primary beyond Trump and DeSantis, Rounds said, “I think we all recognize that we have to have a consensus candidate if we’re going to win.”
“The goal is someone who can win in the general [election] should win in a primary. And Tim Scott can win in a general. I think he’s got a lot of the traits that Ronald Reagan had, and I think we need to move in that direction,” he said.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) arrives to the Senate Chamber for a vote regarding a nomination on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (Greg Nash)
Scott, like DeSantis, hasn’t yet formally launched his presidential campaign but is expected to do so at an event Monday in Charleston, S.C.
One Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss how Senate Republicans view DeSantis’s performance on the national stage since winning reelection in November said the Florida governor appears to be losing political momentum.
“Many Republican senators who never liked Trump would take anybody [else], but I do think that DeSantis’s star has fallen, clearly, on the Hill,” the senator said. “There was a time in November where I heard a lot of chatter from Republican senators about ‘DeSantis is pretty interesting.’ I haven’t heard him discussed [recently.]”
A Rasmussen Reports poll of 996 likely voters nationwide conducted from May 11 to 15 showed Trump crushing DeSantis by 45 points, 62 percent to 17 percent.
More Republican primary coverage from The Hill:
- Trump beats Biden by 7 points in hypothetical 2024 matchup: poll
- Tim Scott makes 2024 bid official
- Clyburn: Biden ‘avoiding embarrassment’ with push for SC as first 2024 Dem primary
- DeSantis poised to enter 2024 race, ending months of anticipation
- Youngkin fuels 2024 speculation with campaign-style video
It showed a far bigger lead for Trump than what Rasmussen measured in a poll of 1,000 likely voters in late February, when Trump led DeSantis by 27 points, 47 percent to 20 percent.
Other national polls show a similar trend, and the polling data in key battleground states aren’t better for DeSantis.
A poll of 500 likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire conducted by National Research Inc. from May 15 to 17 showed Trump leading DeSantis by 21 points, 39 percent to 18 percent. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) came in third place with 17 percent support.
Only two Republican senators, Mike Lee (Utah) and John Cornyn (Texas), attended a meet-and-greet event for DeSantis in Washington last month, and neither lawmaker has made any move to endorse him.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is backing Trump’s White House bid, said it’s “too early to tell” whether DeSantis has been a disappointment as a presidential contender but noted, “He’s not growing, that’s for sure.”
“It’s been a tough couple” of weeks, he said. “You won’t know until you get in the ring.”
“Does he run? If he runs, how well does he do once he says, ‘I want to be president,’” he added.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is seen during a Senate Subcommittee on Defense to discuss President Biden’s FY 2024 budget for the Department of Defense on Thursday, May 11, 2023. (Annabelle Gordon)
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said Republican colleagues and many voters are “looking for a practical conservative with a positive message.”
“We’ll see if that emerges among the narrative in the field,” he said. “I think the thing about DeSantis kind of rising and fall[ing,] let’s keep in mind that he has intentionally not entered the race. So, let’s measure what that looks like a month or two after he’s in the race.”
He said “people made assumptions about how narrow the field got,” noting the first presidential primary debate is scheduled for August.
“That’s when it will start getting interesting to me,” he said.
DeSantis is expected to formally launch his presidential campaign next week.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who has criticized Trump from time to time, said he thinks the Republican primary race will evolve in the months ahead.
Asked if there’s a hunger among Republicans to broaden the effective race beyond Trump and DeSantis, Thune said, “I think there will be organically just more people getting into the race, yeah.”
Some Republican senators have expressed regrets privately that two promising candidates, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, opted against challenging Trump for the GOP nomination next year.
Youngkin in particular is seen as the type of practical conservative with a positive message who some GOP lawmakers are hoping to see emerge as the party’s standard bearer.
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin accompanying with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel and Micron Executive Vice President Manish Bhatia, both not in picture, speaks during a news conference about U.S.-Japan cooperation on economic issues, including the semiconductor supply chain Thursday, April 27, 2023, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Major Republican donors are also holding back from throwing their support to DeSantis, despite expectations that they would line up behind him early.
Hedge fund CEO Ken Griffin, who gave $5 million to help DeSantis’s reelection campaign, told Politico in November that he was prepared to back the Florida governor if he decided to run for president.
Six months later, however, The New York Times reported that Griffin was troubled by DeSantis’s statement downplaying the war in Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” that did not rank as a vital U.S. security interest as well as by the governor’s support for a six-week abortion ban.
The Times reported that Griffin is still evaluating the presidential primary race.
Another major Republican donor, Thomas Peterffy, the founder of a digital trading platform, told The Financial Times last month that he would hold off on funding DeSantis’s expected presidential campaign.
Peterffy donated $1 million to Youngkin’s political action committee last month.
“I have put myself on hold,” he told the publication. “Because of his stance on abortion and book banning … myself and a bunch of friends are holding our powder dry.”
“DeSantis seems to have lost some momentum,” Peterffy added.