Senate Republicans declined to wade into the growing feud between former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday, opting instead to watch the two leading contenders for the GOP presidential nomination duke it out from the sidelines.
“I don’t see any particular benefit of me getting involved in that,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said when asked about DeSantis taking not-particularly-subtle shots at Trump.
“I’m not going to opine on campaign tactics. People decide how they want to run their own campaigns,” added Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) of his home state governor.
DeSantis recently swiped at Trump over his role in a hush-money payment in 2016 to adult film star Stormy Daniels, generating howls from Trump and his allies. On Tuesday, the Florida Republican again seemed to take a shot at Trump by calling truth an “essential” quality in a leader and talking up the value of character in politics.
“It’s not saying that you don’t ever make a mistake in your personal life, but I think, what type of character are you bringing? … I think the person is more about how you handle your public duties and the kind of character you bring to that endeavor,” DeSantis told British journalist Piers Morgan.
Trump hasn’t taken the veiled criticism lightly. He quickly fired back at DeSantis with a reminder of allegations that DeSantis drank with underage girls when he taught at a boarding school in Georgia, seemingly accusing him of being a child sex predator. Longtime Trump ally and former White House adviser Steve Bannon called DeSantis a “weasel” while MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell accused him of being a “Trojan horse.”
DeSantis is widely expected to seek the 2024 Republican presidential nomination ― which would put him in competition with Trump, who has already declared his candidacy.
DeSantis’ aggressive use of government power to restrict LGBTQ rights and courses on African American studies in Florida, as well as his busing of undocumented immigrants to blue states, has made him a darling of the conservative movement and generated plenty of hype about a presidential bid.
But in a post on his TruthSocial website on Wednesday, Trump called DeSantis “merely an average REPUBLICAN Governor who has great Public Relations, far better than deserved,” noting that DeSantis’ support in early polls on the GOP primary seems to be slipping.
Trump currently leads all the other candidates and potential candidates in the race, according to a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday of the GOP presidential primary’s possible lineup. Moreover, Trump has gained in support as DeSantis has fallen.
It’s still very early in the race, and DeSantis has yet to formally begin his campaign for president, but he could find it harder to make headway in the primary if legal charges are brought against Trump, in New York or elsewhere. Trump has already capitalized on the mere possibility of an arrest, raising funds and rallying fellow Republicans, including several of his declared rivals in the presidential race, to his defense.
“There’s a certain rallying around the victim that happens,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said of the effect that a potential indictment of Trump may have within the GOP.
Some Republicans acknowledged that attacking Trump is a risky strategy even as they welcomed a healthy debate within the party that included more presidential candidates in the 2024 race.
“I look at the current polls in terms of where the average primary voter is ― it looks like that might be a tricky way to navigate,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said when asked about DeSantis’ strategy in recent weeks.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), a Trump ally, meanwhile, suggested that the ability to win elections mattered more to GOP primary voters than issues of character.
“You look at college football or basketball, winning matters first,” said Tuberville, a former college football coach in Alabama. “Character should be more involved, [but] people look for success. That’s the way it is. Win. Win.”
But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who called Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic” bigot when they both ran for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination before he dropped out and eventually became a loyal Trump supporter, said he didn’t hold it against DeSantis.
“You gotta stand up for yourself,” Graham told HuffPost. “Trump has got one speed when it comes to primaries, and if DeSantis did push back, that would make some sense to me.”
Cramer said DeSantis’ “strength is combat, similar to President Trump’s.”
Still, most Republican senators didn’t want to get in the middle of a growing divide between their top presidential contenders on Wednesday.
“I don’t think that it’s in any Republican’s best interest to speculate about what might happen in a Republican primary,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters on Wednesday.