AUSTIN, Tex. – When former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took his turn on stage at a Republican donor conference here late last month, he brought the crowd alive with a rousing and extended denunciation of Donald Trump.
Demanding his party “stop whispering” about their unease with Trump, Christie excoriated Trump for falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen, propelling a series of lackluster candidates last year and generally presiding over the decline of the GOP over the last half decade.
“If we continue down this road it’s a road that will lead us to another four years of Joe Biden,” Christie warned, repurposing Trump’s memorable vow that Republicans would become tired of winning on his watch to lament their “losing and losing and losing and losing.”
Yet what was even more revealing about Christie’s half-hour remarks, a recording of which I obtained, was the less direct but unmistakable and certainly not whispered criticism he leveled at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Christie called DeSantis’s warnings about sliding into a proxy war with China “one of the most naïve things I’ve ever heard in my life” — arguing America is already locked in such a conflict; he told the donors “don’t be fooled by false choices” being pushed by “a fellow governor,” a reference to DeSantis’s argument that Biden was too focused on Ukraine’s border at the expense of America’s border; and, most pointedly, Christie wondered how exactly “they teach foreign policy in Tallahassee.”
If any of the contributors gathered at the Omni Barton Creek Resort outside Austin missed Christie’s point, well, he returned to it following his jeremiad against Trump. Immediately after saying “he is the problem” of the former president, Christie concluded his pitch by warning that the safer course was not to “just nominate Trump Lite.”
The Stop Trump campaign among Republican elites is off to a quick start. Most every weekend since the start of this year there’s been some sort of gathering of donors, strategists and lawmakers in a warm weather state. And while the hotel ballrooms, lobby bars and presidential libraries may change, the overarching goal is consistent: how not to be saddled with perhaps the one candidate who may lose to Biden.
Yet a sense of mission creep is already setting in on the anti-Trump plotting. And it’s being driven by the guests of honor at these get-togethers.
As DeSantis heads to Iowa Friday for what’s effectively the start of his presidential bid, his initial strength with Republican contributors and voters alike is prompting the other would-be candidates to divide or at least pair their attacks. With Trump appearing to have an unshakable core of support, and the nature of the primary shaping up to be who can emerge as the strongest alternative to him, the rest of the potential field plainly feels pressure to dislodge DeSantis from his early perch as that candidate.
For his part, DeSantis has ignored both Trump and the other likely Republican candidates in public. In private, though, he has cast doubt about the other aspirants’ fundraising capacity, noting to a small group of Republicans that former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley didn’t release her initial haul after announcing her bid, and has made a bigger statement with the company he keeps.
Clearly alarmed about being portrayed by Trump as overly tied to the so-called establishment, DeSantis has cultivated right-wing leaders and influencers, inviting them to his inauguration in January and his own donor retreat last month in Florida. As significant, he’s deepened his friendship with some of the best-known hard-liners in Congress and is poised to soon deploy them as surrogates.
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), the most influential voice in the right’s effort to deny Kevin McCarthy the speakership and nobody’s idea of a squish, already has the DeSantis party line down.
“A proven conservative who has been disrupting the establishment and challenging it,” Roy said of his favorite soon-to-be-candidate.
While DeSantis is building the message and team of messengers to guard his right MAGA flank from Trump, though, much of the rest of the field is taking aim with hopes of raising doubts about him among non-MAGA voters.
At the hotel in Austin, just down the corridor from where Christie lit into Trump and DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence sat down with me, inscribed a copy of his book and then offered his version of what the former New Jersey governor had just delivered privately to the donors.
“The Bible says if the trumpet does not sound a clear call who will know to get ready for battle,” Pence said. “To me it’s a function of leadership.”
He was talking, as Christie was, about DeSantis’s straddle on Ukraine, an apparent effort to avoid taking sides on what’s the biggest bright-line divide so far in the 2024 Republican primary.
DeSantis said last month in a Fox News interview that it wasn’t wise to tempt a wider war, downplayed the prospect Russia may invade other European countries and denounced what he called Biden’s “blank-check” aid to Ukraine. What he didn’t do was take a forceful stance aligning himself with the populist or internationalist wing of his party on the larger question of America’s role in the conflict.
It was a brief first look at the governor’s foreign policy thinking, which he delivered off the cuff on a morning program known more for its curvy couch than hard-hitting questions.
To the rest of the Republican aspirants it was something else entirely: tempting.
Speaking on the first anniversary of the Ukraine war, Pence rejected, with a characteristic reference to scripture, DeSantis’s uncertain trumpet. “We’ve got to speak plainly to the American people about the threats that we face,” said the former vice president, calling for “strong American leadership on the world stage.”
Firmly aligning himself with the pre-Trump party from which he came, Pence said he had “no illusions about Putin,” invoked Ronald Reagan and said when “Russia is on the move, when authoritarian regimes like China are threatening their neighbors, we need to meet that moment with American strength.”
Then he left the resort, went over to the University of Texas and delivered a speech that could have just as easily been given by a former Austin resident, the last Republican president before the one Pence served.
“If we surrender to the siren song of those in this country who argue that America has no interest in freedom’s cause, history teaches we may soon send our own into harm’s way to defend our freedom and the freedom of nations in our alliance,” Pence said, standing in front of side-by-side American and Ukrainian flags and declaring there’s only “room for champions of freedom” in the GOP.
Which may come as a surprise to the Republican frontrunner and much of Fox News’s primetime lineup.
But those would-be candidates hoping to compete for the 60-plus percent of primary voters unlikely to back Trump, a demographic which overlaps with the more hawkish wing of the party, see their opening.
“I’m absolutely shocked when I hear Republicans talk about not defending Ukraine and not ensuring America is strong across the planet,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu told me after his address to the donors in Austin, which was officially sponsored by the Texas Voter Engagement Project but largely convened by Karl Rove. (DeSantis did not attend because he had his own gathering in Florida getting underway.)
Sununu then turned to confront DeSantis directly on Ukraine, catching himself at the last second.
“Stop trying to have it,” he began, “not just to Ron but to anybody: you can’t have it both ways.”
There was, however, very little mystery about which big-state governor he was talking about when he decried Republicans “who want to outdo the Democrats at their own game of big government solutions” and said “you have to be willing to have the fight but you can’t only be about the fight.”
Haley, the only other major Republican besides Trump who has actually entered the race, has made clear she sides with her party’s hawks on Ukraine but has not yet criticized DeSantis on the issue. In her first trip to New Hampshire as a candidate, though, she did say a bill the Florida governor signed barring discussions about gender before third grade doesn’t go “far enough.”
The growing concern about DeSantis from the rest of the modest-sized field is understandable when you consider his early strengths, the long history of Republican presidential primaries and the unique nature of this race.
No other Republican is remotely as close to Trump in the polls as the Florida governor, nor do any other candidates have the nearly $100 million he’s sitting on from his state races. And they’re not drawing the sort of crowds to party dinners, or protesters, DeSantis is commanding.
What makes this contest similar to the others is that it begins with an obvious frontrunner, a hallmark of GOP nomination battles that often rewarded vice presidents, previous candidates or those who were seen as having waited for their turn. Usually, it was those early leaders who were targeted by the rest of the candidates, often from the right. Think: John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012 and, yes, Jeb Bush in 2016.
Yet what’s different about 2024, and what’s driving the growing urgency to stymie DeSantis, is that Trump’s loyalists are so committed and his skeptics so determined to find an alternative that the market of competition is shifting to the race-within-a-race: the battle to be the last Republican standing against the former president.
By now, the anybody-but-Trump Republicans reading this have probably become triggered, memories of Jeb Bush-on-Marco Rubio Super PAC violence and failed deals between John Kasich and Ted Cruz twirling around in their heads.
“We learned this back in 2016,” Mick Mulvaney, the former Freedom Caucus lawmaker turned Trump chief of staff told me, his exasperation radiating through the phone.
Mulvaney, who said he doesn’t think Trump can win a general election, attended DeSantis’s donor retreat and recalled how the governor regaled the crowd with how he performed better with women and Hispanic voters last year than in his first gubernatorial bid — “and not with identity politics.”
While he said he’s not likely to endorse DeSantis, Mulvaney urged the other Republicans to keep their fire on the former president. “In order to beat Trump you have to beat Trump,” he said.
It’s easy to see why somebody like Mulvaney is so emphatic when you consider some of the early polling, including a private survey I obtained from Differentiators Data, a GOP consulting firm.
When they tested a variety of potential candidates among Virginia Republican primary voters, DeSantis was only leading Trump by three points.
Yet when the firm narrowed the choice to only the two top candidates it wasn’t even close: DeSantis was leading Trump by 17.