(The Hill) — Former President Trump is facing a dilemma: when — or even whether — to endorse the 2022 reelection bid of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of his biggest potential rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Since leaving Washington last year, Trump has issued a long, if not sporadic, list of endorsements that includes other prospective presidential hopefuls such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Tim Scott, R-S.C.
But absent from that list so far is DeSantis, a steadfast Trump ally and rising conservative political star who is seen as a front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nod, especially in the event that Trump decides against another run for the White House.
It’s unclear exactly why Trump hasn’t issued an endorsement in his adopted home state’s gubernatorial race. One Republican donor suggested that the former president may be holding back because DeSantis hasn’t yet pledged to defer to Trump should he run again in 2024.
“I think with the president, you don’t get anything for free,” one Republican donor said. “He wants DeSantis to come out and say that he won’t run if [Trump] runs. I think once he does that, an endorsement would probably come pretty quick.”
Speculation has swirled for months that the once-close relationship between Trump and DeSantis has grown rocky amid the latter’s rise within conservative political circles and chatter that he may be eyeing the White House in 2024.
Trump himself has floated the idea of launching another presidential run, and has repeatedly suggested that any potential rival should think twice before challenging him for the GOP nod.
In an interview with The Washington Post last week, the former president waved off the possibility of DeSantis challenging him for the 2024 nomination, saying that he’s responsible for the Florida governor’s political success in the first place.
“You know Ron was at 3 percent, and the day I endorsed him, he won the race,” Trump told the Post, referring to the 2018 race for Florida governor, when DeSantis was locked in a heated primary runoff against then-Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
“As soon as I endorsed him, the race was over,” he added.
Both men have sought to dispel talk of tensions in their relationship. DeSantis has repeatedly said that he’s focused only on winning a second term in the governor’s mansion, while Trump has offered some public praise of DeSantis, telling the Post that he has been a good governor.
“I have a good relationship with Ron, I have a good relationship with all the names you mentioned,” Trump told the Post. “Would they run against me? I doubt they would run against me. I doubt it.”
Still, DeSantis’ growing influence within the GOP is clear and multiple Republican sources said they have little doubt that he has political ambitions beyond the Sunshine State.
While early polling shows Trump as the heavy favorite among Republican voters for the 2024 presidential nomination, DeSantis routinely polls in second place among would-be GOP presidential hopefuls and gains significant ground when Trump is taken out of the running.
That trend was made clear at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando in February, where a straw poll of attendees showed that 59 percent would support Trump for the 2024 nomination, while DeSantis finished in second place with 28 percent.
Without Trump on the ballot, however, DeSantis is the clear favorite for the nomination. Sixty-one percent of CPAC attendees said they would back the Florida governor in Trump’s absence.
There’s also DeSantis’ massive fundraising power to consider. The Florida governor raised more than $100 million last year, according to filings with the Florida secretary of state. That puts him in the same league as Trump, whose affiliated groups raised around $140 million in 2021.
“Obviously, assuming Ron wins his reelection bid, which is a very good bet, we are looking at a Trump vs. DeSantis battle for the Republican nomination,” one Republican operative allied with Trump said. “Both men have the admiration of the rank-and-file voters in the Republican Party and they both have the two largest coffers.”
“I think both of them recognize that the inevitable is that they’re going to face each other [in 2024],” the operative added. “So for Trump, he’s gotta ask, do you really want to elevate DeSantis even more when he’s already doing so well?”
Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist and former congressional candidate, suggested a more mundane reason for why Trump hasn’t endorsed DeSantis’s reelection bid, noting that the state’s primaries are still more than four months away and the governor faces only nominal opposition for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
DeSantis also appears to be the heavy favorite in the general election. While the November election is still nearly seven months away, polling shows him leading his highest-profile Democratic rivals, including Rep. Charlie Crist and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.
“If DeSantis finds himself in trouble, I’m sure Trump will endorse him, and I would bet that he probably eventually will,” O’Connell said. “When you look at most of the races where Trump has endorsed, they’re competitive primaries and that’s where Trump has the most sway.”
“I’m just not sure that Trump’s endorsement is a top priority [for DeSantis] right now,” O’Connell added. “That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like Trump’s endorsement. Of course he would.”