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Matt Dixon and Meridith McGraw

Trump and DeSantis barrel toward 2024 — but keep their distance in Florida

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis campaigns for Republican candidate for New York governor Rep. Lee Zeldin at a rally, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in Hauppauge, N.Y. | Julia Nikhinson/AP Photo
UPDATED: 06 NOV 2022 10:47 AM EST

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s two most powerful Republicans will be far apart on Sunday. And that’s how they want it.

Former President Donald Trump will hold a rally Sunday in Miami as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is campaigning at competing events hundreds of miles away, exposing the simmering tension between two potential political rivals just days before the midterm election.

Multiple people familiar with the planning around Trump’s rally, which will feature Sen. Marco Rubio and is part of a four-city tour, said DeSantis wasn’t invited and didn’t ask to attend. Underscoring the perceived slight, DeSantis’ campaign declared that the governor will tour 13 Florida cities in the remaining days of the 2022 midterms, including three on Sunday, just days after Trump announced his gathering.

“They did not invite Ron, which I do think was stupid,” said one of the Republican consultant with knowledge of the rally’s planning. “Why not try and avoid the appearance of the fight? But in their defense, I don’t know that he would have come even if he was invited.”

Outgoing Florida GOP state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, who is among the most vocal Trump supporters in the Florida Legislature, said the former president’s team is handling the rally “appropriately” and are simply trying to help Rubio, who is facing Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) in his bid for a third term. Most polls show Rubio well ahead of Demings. Other top Republicans who will attend include Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).

“He can do what he wants, but Trump’s team made DeSantis,” Sabatini said of the governor. “He would have lost [in 2018] by 10, 20, maybe 30 points without Trump’s endorsement.”

“He definitely owes him. Big time,” he added.

Both sides have publicly downplayed any conflict between Trump and DeSantis, but interviews with nine GOP consultants, advisers and party officials say hostilities between the two potential 2024 opponents remain. Several were granted anonymity so they could speak freely about the dynamic.

Behind-the-scenes friction, however, burst into the open Saturday night when Trump publicly attacked DeSantis during a rally in Pennsylvania, calling the governor “Ron DeSanctimonious” and lumping him in with other potential Republican 2024 rivals, including former Vice President Mike Pence and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.).

Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the Pensacola International Airport on November 3, 2018 in Pensacola, Florida. | Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

“Trump cannot help himself and Ron knows that. So I think what you’ve seen is him strategically take jabs without taking direct jabs at Trump,” said a former DeSantis campaign staffer. “Ron's very smart, whatever he does he’s going to be calculated and diligent about it."

As the 2022 midterms come to an end and the next presidential election cycle begins, Trump and DeSantis lead the GOP pack of likely presidential hopefuls, a group that includes Pence, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and others.

Trump consistently polls ahead of DeSantis and has a fervent following among conservatives, but DeSantis is often praised by the GOP as a more disciplined and less chaotic leader who has garnered national attention for his fights against Covid-19 mandates.

DeSantis, who rode Trump’s endorsement to the governor’s mansion in 2018, is likely to win re-election easily and will be sitting on nearly $100 million after the midterms as his national profile continues to grow. Few people expect him to be deterred if Trump runs in 2024.

Republican political advisers and consultants close to Trump say DeSantis is jealous that the former president remains the titular head of the national Republican Party.

“DeSantis is still looking for Trump’s affection in a lot of ways, and I think for them to get miffed about not getting invited shows how big of a force Trump is during the midterm elections,” said a person close to Trump. “Even with a candidate who looks like he’s going to win, they’re upset they were not invited to the rally?”

The person said they thought it was “overblown” and more “staff hand-to-hand combat” than any direct animosity between the two.

There have, however, been increasingly open spats between the men in recent months, many instigated by Trump world.

A day after DeSantis’ debate against Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, Trump posted a clip on Truth Social, his social media platform, formerFox News host Megyn Kelly saying that the Florida governor “can’t overcome” Trump in a GOP primary. DeSantis also recently endorsed Colorado GOP Senate candidate Joe O’Dea, a move Trump called “a big mistake” after accusing O’Dea of having moderate positions.

In late September, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kusher criticized DeSantis-funded flights sending Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, arguing the Florida governor was using them as “political pawns.”

Trump “is Dr. Frankenstein coming to Florida to try and kill the monster that has gotten out of control,” said a Florida GOP strategist in the governor's orbit. “It’s a fight over control. I think he [Trump] has picked his enemy. In his mind, they are running against each other.”

But a person close to DeSantis’ campaign said the Florida governor’s staff planned the 13 rallies more than a month ago — well before Trump announced his Miami event. DeSantis’ campaign, the person added, didn’t take it as a snub and characterized it as “Trump is doing Trump and DeSantis is doing DeSantis.”

Another Florida Republican with ties to DeSantis even warned of the risks the Florida governor faced if he attended Trump’s rally, saying that the former president’s off-the-cuff remarks could put DeSantis in an awkward position.

“It’s a dangerous place to be. If he [Trump] goes off script and says something like ‘can you believe this guy hasn’t endorsed me yet’ on stage, it’s a bad spot for Ron. Something he’d want to avoid,” the person said.

Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich, however, said Trump has “reshaped Florida's electoral politics” and is making traditional Democratic strongholds like Miami turn Republican.

The Miami event puts some of the state’s other prominent Republicans in a difficult spot of choosing between Trump or DeSantis’ events on Sunday.

Among the statewide Republicans running for re-election are Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody, while Senate President Wilton Simpson is running for agriculture commissioner. Each has been expected to easily defeat Democratic challenges, but they must now navigate between Trump and DeSantis, both of whom are politicians with well-worn reputations for grudge holding. Simpson, for example, is attending the Trump rally.

A press release announcing the DeSantis campaign’s final 13-city tour, which starts Friday, said “special guests” will include Moody, Patronis and Simpson, but did not specify which events they will attend.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, who helped run DeSantis’ 2018 campaign but is speaking at the Trump and Rubio rally in Miami, said he doesn’t think either DeSantis or Trump care about the other statewide elected Florida Republicans.

“I don’t think the prizefighters care about the undercard,” he said.

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