Fergus Cullen is wary of Ron DeSantis’ conflict with Disney, dislikes how the governor once used his kids in a campaign ad, and doubts he’d support the Florida Republican’s presidential candidacy if it were any other election.
And yet Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP and an avowed member of the “Never Trump” movement, is still open to the Florida Republican’s White House bid — almost exclusively because of his deep dislike of former President Donald Trump.
“We’ve got a dilemma on our hands, and I’m trying to be pragmatic here,” Cullen said. “Trump is an existential threat not only to the country, but to the Republican Party’s prospects to be competitive. And I would accept anyone as a preferable nominee.”
Cullen isn’t the only leading anti-Trump Republican who is begrudgingly arriving at that conclusion.
As DeSantis prepares to enter the presidential race this week, a small but influential contingent of Republicans is grappling with a strategic dilemma, stuck choosing between a candidate in Trump many of them consider a clear and present danger to the republic and an alternative in DeSantis they worry would solidify — possibly even intensify — the GOP’s turn to anti-democratic demagoguery.
Ultimately, however, the real danger many of them say they have already seen Trump pose in office outweighs any potential worry about a future DeSantis presidency.
“I don’t want Donald Trump to be the nominee because I do consider him an existential threat,” said Joe Wash, a former Republican congressman from Illinois. “I think most Never Trumpers would probably support DeSantis, even those who don’t like him and have reservations.”
Ron Filipkowski, a longtime Republican in Florida and vocal Trump critic, offered an even more blunt assessment.
“I think DeSantis is just an ass and extreme right-winger who likes to play to the mob a little too much,” he said. “But I don’t think DeSantis is going to pull us out of NATO or fire half the civil service.”
DeSantis, who has intensely courted the party’s conservative base, is unlikely to wear their endorsement as a badge of honor. Indeed, many members of the Never Trump movement are deeply disliked by other Republicans, and they represent only a small fraction of the overall GOP electorate. Trump himself has long derided Republicans opposed to his presidency as elitist bureaucrats, out of touch with the party’s new populist center.
But the grudging support of these anti-Trump Republicans could nonetheless offer a small but critical boost to the Florida governor, as he tries to unite a coalition of GOP voters big enough to overcome the former president and his base of die-hard MAGA supporters.
Most analysts believe that if DeSantis were to topple Trump, he would need to have the support of every wing of the party, from hardline conservative ideologues to more moderate voters.
And the backing of anti-Trump Republicans might also come up with indirect financial support: Sarah Longwell, one of the most visible members of the Never Trump movement, declined to say specifically whether she was planning an ad campaign in the primary against Trump.
But the GOP strategist pointed out that in her role with the group Republican Voters Against Trump, she has spent tens of millions of dollars opposing the former president.
“I’ve opposed Trump every step of the way,” she said. “And I’m going to continue to oppose him in this primary actively.”
WHY THEY BACK HIM
Longwell said that although she supports DeSantis over Trump in the Republican primary, she’d still back Democratic President Joe Biden over the Florida governor in a general election. DeSantis, she said, reminds her of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, an authoritarian leader who has spoken out about mixed race marriages and sharply cut the rights of the country’s LGBTQ citizens.
But she, like others opposed to Trump, still suspects that DeSantis could become what she considers a more mainstream politician if elected president. To some extent, they argue, his public positions over the last few years amount to more of an act than a true expression of how he sees government.
“I think that inside of Ron DeSantis, there’s a bit of a secret normie,” Longwell said. “He’s a bit of a monster, he’s basically changed all his positions to chase the Republican Party.
“But deep down, if you ask him who his heroes were 10 years ago, he’d say George H.W. Bush,” she added.
DeSantis, Longwell and others point out, has a much different political background than Trump, who never held elected office before becoming president. DeSantis served nearly three full terms in office as a congressman from Jacksonville, a tenure in which he compiled a deeply conservative record but one that still stuck close to the party’s traditional viewpoints.
When anti-Trump Republicans talk about DeSantis possibly exceeding their expectations as president, most of them do so in the hope that the politician who served in Congress is truer to what they believe are his personal convictions than the man they’ve seen as governor over the last few years.
Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who served with DeSantis in Washington, described him as politically pragmatic, eager to help elect Curbelo even though he held a more moderate viewpoint than the average Republican official.
“I think he’s entirely different than Donald Trump,” said Curbelo, who declined to support Trump in 2016. “I’m just not sure he wants everyone to know that.”
Curbelo, an MSNBC analyst who is staying neutral in the 2024 presidential race, also said DeSantis and Trump differ in how they view the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
Trump reiterated earlier this month during a town hall broadcast on CNN the lie that the last presidential race was rigged against him, a claim for which he supplied no evidence and one the courts have repeatedly rejected.
“Despite whatever flaws people are talking about, he understands policy,” Curbelo said. “He has interestingly never endorsed Trump’s 2020 election lie, he has played around with it, but he has never defended it or supported it.”
Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election, including the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 that temporarily halted the certification of the race, has convinced many who are otherwise supremely skeptical of DeSantis that they would prefer him anyway.
“I’m depressed in either case,” said longtime conservative leader Bill Kristol, who called Trump the more “talented” demagogue of the two men. “But I’m more alarmed, really alarmed, if Trump wins again. I just think about the signal that sends to the world and America that Trump could win after January 6th.”
WHAT DESANTIS BELIEVES
DeSantis made headlines earlier this year after issuing — and then backtracking from — a statement calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute,” a perceived misstep that earned him widespread criticism from many Republicans.
To Longwell, however, the incident was proof of an important difference between the governor and Trump, the latter of whom she says would have simply doubled down on his original position.
“Him getting pushback from Republicans about Ukraine and then doing that cleanup, actually that was a little bit reassuring,” she said.
But even if they don’t think he’d try to topple a democratic government, these Republicans do have deep concerns about a new governing philosophy that the Florida governor has explicitly embraced.
DeSantis has said repeatedly that Republican politicians need to do more in office than cut taxes and otherwise restrain government interference, arguing that they should use the power of the state to fight what he sees as liberal overreach in all sectors of society.
“If you want to have a free state, you have to be able to defend the people against having the pathologies of the left imposed on them through all these different arteries of society,” DeSantis said in New York last month. “So we take that head on, we make it very clear that we will fight the woke in government, but we’ll also fight the woke in the schools, we’ll also fight the woke in the corporations. We’re never going to surrender to the woke mob.”
That approach has led to pushback from Republicans that he has strayed from limited government principles.
“This is not a free-market, old-school conservative,” Filipkowski said. “This is not what conservatives are about.”
DeSantis has also been criticized by fellow Republicans over his ongoing fight with the Walt Disney corporation, including by potential presidential candidates Mike Pence and Chris Christie.
“This whole battle with Disney, at first, a lot of conservatives rallied behind it,” Curbelo said. “Now it’s just getting weird.”
Never-Trump Republicans warn that even if many of them back DeSantis over Trump, their group is far from monolithic in its views — some of them maintain that they think DeSantis represents such a danger in his own right that he’s not worth supporting under any circumstances.
And while others might still prefer DeSantis to the former governor, they could still back a third alternative to both men in the GOP primary. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, among other candidates, are also running, and both have attracted interest from Trump-skeptical conservatives for their more traditional policy views.
Still, if it comes down to DeSantis and Trump, many of them know how they’ll choose.
“You can’t let perfect be the enemy of at-least-he’s-better-than-Trump,” added Cullen, who has steadfastly opposed Trump since 2015. “Which is different than letting it be the enemy of good.”
One thought on “‘We’ve got a real dilemma’: How ‘Never Trump’ Republicans view DeSantis vs Trump”
these lame-os’ are the stale remnants of the milquetoast wing of the old northeast Rockefeller Wing of the republican party, that sat in dutiful obsequience to the democrats for 50 years, from after WW11 to Newt Gingrich’s amazing victory in 94′. these RINOS are more comfortable as perpetual losers than strong-willed leaders! the Hell with all of them. GO DESANTIS!!!