The Democrat-led Jan. 6 committee seems to have finally drawn political blood from former President Donald Trump. Ex-West Wing aide Cassidy Hutchinson on Tuesday detailed alleged fits of rage by Trump in his persistent but futile attempts to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 win. The proceeding’s biggest winner, though, may not be Democrats but a putative rival of Trump’s for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The Jan. 6 committee’s hearings come about a year-and-a-half before the expected first state filing deadlines for 2024 Republican presidential candidates. If cracks in Trump’s political armor appear, should he, as expected, run for another White House term, Tuesday’s hearing will have contributed to that outcome.
Hutchinson’s testimony was disputed by Trump but drew mostly conspicuous silence from many of the usual Trump defenders. And her recollections under oath even spurred criticism from some surprising quarters. “This testimony was very compelling from beginning to end,” said Fox News host Brett Baier, raising questions about Trump’s behavior on and around Jan. 6. “She obviously had access to all of the players.”
As one Trump ally told CNN after Tuesday’s hearing, “This is basically a campaign commercial for (Florida Gov.) Ron DeSantis 2024.”
For many Republican voters, DeSantis could be the best of both worlds: a committed Trumpist without the headaches of Trump himself.
To be sure, the Sunshine State Republican is an avowed critic of the Jan. 6 committee, as is virtually every elected Republican save for the panel’s pair of GOP members, Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who have long been outspoken Trump foes.
But that doesn’t mean DeSantis won’t reap the political benefits that may come from Trump’s potential diminishment in the eyes of GOP primary voters. And DeSantis isn’t exactly starting from scratch if he chooses to challenge Trump, his fellow Floridian. Since DeSantis’ narrow 2018 gubernatorial win after several years as a U.S. House member representing a coastal north Florida district, DeSantis has carved out a distinct political identity in the GOP firmament.
It’s best described as “own the libs” governance. DeSantis has made a national name for himself by, among other things, targeting social media companies for their content moderation policies and cracking down on protests following Black Lives Matter demonstrations. DeSantis has sought to punish Disney, among Florida’s largest employers, for opposing a law enacted by him and pushed by GOP legislators restricting schools from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity.
These actions and his enduring skepticism over Covid-19 precautions are already paying political dividends. Even before Tuesday’s riveting Jan. 6 committee hearing, DeSantis had pulled even with Trump in betting markets on who would emerge as the 2024 Republican presidential nominee. The Odds PR, a website related to sports betting, cited consistent revelations about Trump’s arguably seditious behavior in and around the events of Jan. 6 as a contributing factor, noting the former president could face criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits.
The betting site also pointed to a mid-June poll showing DeSantis neck and neck with Trump in New Hampshire, the state that holds the first primary in the-nation. That Granite State Poll, surveying attitudes of likely Republican primary voters, was a significant drop from October 2021. At that time, the Granite State Poll showed Trump had support from 43% of likely Republican voters, while DeSantis lagged at 18%.
It’s important to note that the recent poll was taken before Tuesday’s bombshell hearing. Indeed, DeSantis has been nipping at Trump’s heels for a while. Within two months of Trump’s ignominious White House exit, his MAGA base was starting to fracture. At the March 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump received 55% of the straw poll vote to DeSantis’ second-place at 21%. Without Trump as an option, DeSantis won a dominant plurality of 43%.
For many Republican voters, DeSantis could be the best of both worlds: a committed Trumpist without the headaches of Trump himself. Along with DeSantis’ pugilistic brand of populist politics, he’s got sterling academic and career credentials that might appeal to the more professional class of GOP voters, particularly in the suburbs. DeSantis is a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School, and spent several years in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the military justice branch of the armed forces, in the United States and Iraq.
Moreover, DeSantis has a picturesque family. His “All-American” credentials even include being a member of the baseball team from Dunedin, Florida, that made it to the 1991 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. (DeSantis later was captain of the Yale baseball team.) It’s the type of experience conventional politicians love to promote and which, in theory, could help draw a stronger demarcation line with the erratic Trump.
DeSantis, of course, is hardly the only prospective Republican presidential candidate who may reap benefits from the Jan. 6 committee’s probe of Trump. The pool includes not only the former vice president, Mike Pence, but a group of Republicans with similarly elite academic and professional credentials as DeSantis, including Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton (Harvard, Harvard Law School), Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard Law), Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley (Stanford, Yale Law School), former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (first in his class at the United States Military Academy, followed by a Harvard Law degree) and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse (Harvard, Yale Ph.D.).
But only DeSantis has been out there consistently offering what’s effectively an alternative version of Trumpism. Whether DeSantis admits it publicly or not, he has the most to gain from the Jan. 6 committee’s ongoing investigation into the former president.