(The Hill) – Senate Republicans nervous about former President Trump’s lead in presidential primary polls are impatiently awaiting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to jump into the race.
GOP lawmakers don’t expect DeSantis to make his move until after the Florida legislative session ends in early May, but the waiting game is playing on nerves, with some thinking DeSantis has lost political momentum since his big reelection win in November.
There are also concerns that the longer the governor waits, the bigger the GOP primary field will grow, which is seen as helpful to Trump, who maintains rock-solid support among 25 percent to 30 percent of Republican voters.
“I suspect he is going to run. I’ve been told that he’s very focused right now — the Florida legislature is in session — he’s very focused on Florida issues,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said of DeSantis, whom she called “the leader of the Republican Party” after he won an impressive reelection victory in November.
Lummis predicted that “when their legislative session winds down, the pressure will mount on him to run.”
“He would add an enormously important voice to the race,” she added. “Most of the people that I have visited with about this want to see a competitive primary,” referring to fellow GOP lawmakers.
The Florida legislature is scheduled to be in session through May 5.
DeSantis’s absence from the field creates an opening for other Republicans to jump in and command attention for a few news cycles — which is what former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley did last week when she announced her White House bid. She made a splash by calling for politicians older than 75 to take mental competency tests.
If continued uncertainty about whether DeSantis runs for the White House or not emboldens more people to jump into the race, that may end up helping Trump.
Lummis said Haley’s entrance into the race likely “is the first of many.”
“I suspect that delights President Trump because the more people that get in, the more diluted the field,” she said.
Trump responded to Haley’s entrance with a quip about the more the merrier. He has held a steady double-digit lead over all potential rivals in nationwide polls measuring public views of the Republican presidential field.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said he also expects DeSantis to keep his focus on Florida for a while, saying “he’s probably got a window that takes him — if he wants to — into the summer.”
Asked about colleagues’ concerns that more candidates might join the race the longer DeSantis stays on the sidelines, Thune acknowledged, “There is that.”
He pointed to other trade-offs for waiting to jump into the presidential fray.
“There’s an opening and there are others that are may be heading down that path. As the field gets larger, people get out there, they develop support, they get those ground-game grassroots supporters in the early states. You lose the advantage of that” by waiting, Thune said.
But Thune said DeSantis can afford to wait like few candidates can.
“Every story about somebody else [who] is considering [running for president] also mentions that he’s the one everybody is waiting on,” he said.
A Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment on the machinations of the primary said DeSantis appears to have lost some momentum since November.
The lawmaker said the need to dissuade other candidates from running and to keep the Republican field as small as possible “is a reason to get in early.”
“The prevailing opinion is if a lot of people get in, Trump will win. So there could be a strategy to maybe get your big dogs in, like DeSantis, to try to keep it from being a 12-person race,” the source said.
The lawmaker said the rumor is the governor “is raising a lot of money” to get ready for a bruising showdown with Trump.
A second senator who asked for anonymity to talk about DeSantis agreed that the buzz around him has quieted a bit since November.
“I would assume he gets in as soon as that legislative session is over,” the lawmaker predicted.
Axios reported late last month that DeSantis appeared to be “losing the favorability edge he opened up in November” after a trio of national polls showed Trump with a double-digit lead over DeSantis.
Trump got a boost last month, when the Department of Justice announced the discovery of classified documents at Biden’s home in Delaware and office in Washington, D.C. The revelation that Biden had held onto sensitive information after leaving the Obama administration shifted scrutiny away from Trump for storing secret documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (Ala.), one of the few Senate Republicans who has publicly endorsed Trump for president, said “I don’t think there’s any doubt Trump’s going to have 25 to 35 percent of the base.”
“He’s going to have his voters,” he said.
He said DeSantis has a lot of work to do to introduce himself to voters outside of Florida, noting that the governor is scheduled to speak at the Alabama state Republican winter dinner on March 9.
“I don’t know whether he’s behind or ahead or whatever but he’s sooner or later going to have to start going to other states other than Florida,” he said, predicting DeSantis will get into the race by late May.
He said candidates challenging Trump “got a lot of work to do.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a potential White House candidate himself, observed in an interview that DeSantis remains a mystery outside his home state, telling The Dispatch, “None of us really know who he is outside of Tallahassee.”
He said that running for president is “very different” than serving as governor and that “none of us really know what he’ll be like on the national stage.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) says he sees the presidential primary beginning “in earnest” at the end of August or beginning of September.
Trump didn’t jump into the 2016 Republican presidential primary until June 16, 2015. That year’s early Republican front-runner, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, officially announced his presidential campaign the day before.
Tillis thinks the advantage of waiting is it allows a candidate to calibrate his or her opening message to what rivals have already said.
“It depends on what you see as serious candidates getting forward. That will probably move it up or back,” he said of DeSantis’s possible announcement could move up on the calendar if more people get in the race early.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said Haley’s announcement this past week is “a starting gun for people.”
He said DeSantis “has time for sure” because “he has advantages others don’t have.”
But he’ll “have to watch for cues from other potential candidates,” Cramer added.
“I would think he could make some moves, some noise to make sure he secures support that might be looking for that,” he said.