How can Ron DeSantis regain momentum in the 2024 GOP presidential primary?
A key ally suggests jokingly that the Florida governor needs to get indicted, just like his chief rival Donald Trump.
“I’ve said we gotta figure out, we got to find some judge in Florida that’ll indict DeSantis quick, to close this indictment gap,” said GOP Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who served with the candidate in Congress and has endorsed his campaign. “It’s a truism that anytime someone is being persecuted, their camp rallies to their defense.”
Massie, one of only a handful of U.S. House members to endorse the Florida Republican’s campaign, said he was joking about having DeSantis indicted. But his assessment came as the governor struggled in polls of the Republican primary, which show him slipping further behind the former president both nationally and in key early states like Iowa. Many Republican strategists credit Trump’s gaining strength to a pair of indictments that many GOP voters perceive as unfair and politically motivated.
DeSantis, meanwhile, suffered through staffing cuts of his own last week and renewed questions about whether he remains the most viable alternative to Trump in the Republican field.
Massie spoke to McClatchyDC during a wide-ranging interview last week, sharing candid assessments about the frustration he assumes DeSantis must be feeling about the state of the Republican primary, why the governor might thrive during presidential debates, and what DeSantis’ personality is really like behind closed doors.
What follows is an abridged transcript of the interview, edited for length and clarity.
Question: You once memorably said in 2017, referring to Libertarian and Republican voters, that they voted for Donald Trump because they were looking for quote, “the craziest son of a bitch in the race.” Is Trump still that guy?
Massie: Well, just to clarify a little bit, I think I said they weren’t looking for the libertarian principles. ...
Yes, he still is. There’s no doubt. But he’s also the most indicted candidate. And I think that’s our problem now.
Question: There has been a response from some Republican voters that Trump’s indictments are an example of what they see as unfair prosecution, and that seemingly makes them want to support Trump’s campaign more. If you’re Ron DeSantis, or any GOP candidate in this race, how do you navigate that?
Massie: It’s very difficult. ... I feel sympathy for Trump. And I understand why people are gravitating towards him in this time. It’s a referendum on the swamp versus Trump, and it’s seen as, if you don’t support Trump in this moment, some of the voters see it as being swampy. If you’re not with him, you must be with the other guys. And it makes it tough.
I’ve said we gotta figure out, we got to find some judge in Florida that’ll indict DeSantis quick, to close this indictment gap. It’s a truism that anytime someone is being persecuted, their camp rallies to their defense. [Laughs]
Question: Short of DeSantis being indicted, though, how can he regain momentum in this race? Because his poll numbers have sagged over the course of this year.
Massie: It feels weird to say this, but I’m just going to say it. I think Ron DeSantis has to weather out these indictments.
I think Ron’s taken the right path, which is to be sympathetic to the former president’s plight.
To more fully answer your question, they’re retooling, the DeSantis campaign. He’s made some changes. [He’s] on the ground a lot more in Iowa, it seems to me. And also he made the decision not to go in front of the legacy, mainstream media, and do the long-form open interviews on camera. But now he’s doing that. I think those are the right decisions.
Question: You are one of the few people in Washington who knows Ron DeSantis well. How do you think he’s feeling now? Do you think he’s been at all caught off guard with how difficult and competitive a presidential primary can be?
Massie: Let me think about that.
Ron DeSantis is a conservative, and I don’t know if he was in the Boy Scouts, but he’s a Boy Scout kind of guy, where there’s a clear line between right and wrong. … If you’re asking me to guess what he’s thinking, he’s got to be frustrated that somebody’s that’s being accused of breaking the law is benefiting from that accusation, and [that] less than Boy Scout-like behavior is being rewarded in this race. That’s gotta be frustrating to him.
And also to be asked to defend the person he’s running against has got to be frustrating, I would be frustrated if I were in that situation.
These may be … process crimes, where [Trump] didn’t respond to a subpoena in the timely fashion, he didn’t give over the documents in the right way. But there’s still infractions. Now, they may be infractions for something that wasn’t a crime to start with, but they’re still some infractions here on Trump’s part. And the fact he’s benefiting from that has got to be frustrating.
Question: Right now, Ron DeSantis is being criticized a lot for the way he’s managed his campaign. How do you think he’ll respond to that?
Massie: He is decisive but not impulsive. So he’s got, unlike Trump, he’s got a filter. Trump can switch positions twice in a day. And Ron is not like that.
Obviously, he’s been moved off of some initial positions, but because he’s listened to people, for instance, like whether to go in front of the networks and newspapers and do long-form interviews. He’s been moved by that, but it takes a while, and that’s not a bad thing, to take a month or two to change your tack or direction. It seems to me like he has been persuaded to change course by his donors and close advisers. What he’s not changed, though, is policy. We’re still talking about the best way to run a race and get elected. I haven’t seen any switches on policy, per se.
Question: In a past interview, you explained how you’ve seen up close how the governor responds to criticism, even forceful criticism. Why is he so intractable?
Massie: He does his homework before he takes a position. Like some politicians just sort of wade in intuitively on what feels right. And then when they get whacked, they’re like, ‘Whoa, maybe I made a bad decision going in on this.’ But he went to Yale and he went to Harvard. He’s no dummy. He doesn’t operate on intuition as much as he does on research. So if he’s done the research, and if he’s formed an opinion, it’s because he’s looked at a lot of facts. I don’t think you’re gonna move him off of it easily.
Question: DeSantis has a reputation among some Republicans as being personally stiff in private conversation. You guys have spent time together; how would you describe him in more private moments?
Massie: I went down to Florida with a few of his other advisers. And this was still before the campaign had kicked off. And we spent a day — [May 5, according to a Massie aide] — going through all the policies, all the possible policy positions. And about a dozen of us in the room, and we had we came in for breakfast to get the day started, and Ron and Casey [DeSantis] had been somewhere the night before and had come in late. So, sitting there with these giant binders, I mean, these binders were four inches thick. I set my breakfast on it, and like, it was close to my face … and it had, like, 40 tabs in it. And, I’m like, ‘This is gonna be a long day if we were gonna be using these binders.’
And Ron walks in. And there’s this whiteboard in the corner of the room, and he goes over to grab the dry erase marker. And he’s like, ‘All right, let’s get started.’ And he draws, like, I want to say he draws 16 different squares on the whiteboard. And he’s like, ‘OK, what are all the policy areas?’ And he starts putting in topics at the top of all 16 boxes. And we spent the whole rest of the day, never opened the binders, thank God, and he led the discussion.
[Massie explained the boxes would be labeled as “foreign policy,” “guns” or other subjects]
So he would start filling out the box with his position and then he would turn to the room and he’d say, ‘OK, what else, what else belongs in this box? And what do you all know about this topic?’ That’s Ron DeSantis. We never used the binders. He used the dry-erase board. He ran the meeting. He listened to everybody’s input. And by the end of the day, we had a dry-erase board that was full of all of his policies. And he knows it inside out, front to back, top to bottom.
If he’s ever put in a situation, like a debate, where he has to draw on that, nobody’s going to exhaust his knowledge. President Trump, even after being president, couldn’t have put 20% of the policy stuff on the whiteboard that Ron DeSantis did.
Question: But does a breadth of policy knowledge help you win in a GOP primary?
Massie: It’s not even a necessary condition for winning an election to know that much about policy, right? I just think it would be very refreshing to have a president who doesn’t get snowed every time on all these policies, because of whoever’s in the room with him last, which is what I felt like happened with Trump sometimes.
Question: Can DeSantis overcome Trump and win this race with that sort of logical, methodical mindset?
Massie: I don’t know. It’s not enough right now in the polls. But I think it’s the only way you can beat him. I don’t think anybody’s gonna get in the race who’s crazier than Donald Trump and out-crazy him. I don’t think anybody’s going to get into the race who’s more persecuted by the swamp or the establishment than Donald Trump and get more sympathy than Donald Trump’s gonna get. I think there are some other cats and dogs in this race and their strategy is definitely not working. I won’t say their names on the record.
But I think it’s the only strategy that can work. ...
So I think the DeSantis approach to this, a methodical approach to this, making sure that you have enough money to get through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina is a good one.
When we spoke last, there wasn’t a clear third place. There was no other contender for second place. And we’re still where we are, even though the distance between first and second has grown. And I think Ron’s gonna try to close that gap.
Question: How would you handicap his chances?
Massie: [Laughs] No, I won’t.