By Joseph Ax and Alexandra Ulmer
(Reuters) -This week’s testimony at congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol assault portrayed an enraged Donald Trump throwing food against a White House wall, voicing support for threats against his vice president, and dismissing the news that some of his supporters had come armed with rifles.
Democrats hope the revelations will remind voters why they didn’t reelect the former president in 2020. But the biggest political beneficiary may be Trump’s fellow Republican, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, his top potential rival for the 2024 presidential nomination.
Neither Trump nor DeSantis has yet declared a 2024 run for the White House, the first nominating contests are more than 18 months away, and the nation still needs to get through the Nov. 8 midterm elections that will determine control of Congress for the next two years. Trump has proven remarkably resistant to political damage and remains his party’s most popular figure.
But still, there are signs that DeSantis’ star is rising.
Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor, estimated three-quarters of roughly 150 fellow donors with whom he regularly interacts backed Trump six months ago, with a quarter going for DeSantis. Now, the balance has shifted: about two-thirds want DeSantis as the 2024 nominee.
“The donor class is ready for something new,” said Eberhart, who supports both politicians but says he’s much more excited about DeSantis. “And DeSantis feels more fresh and more calibrated than Trump. He’s easier to defend, he’s less likely to embarrass, and he’s got the momentum.”
DeSantis has emerged as a fundraising giant, with a political war chest similar to Trump’s in size. He has raised more than $120 million since winning office in 2018, with recent financial disclosures showing his political accounts had over $110 million in cash in mid-June, with a November reelection campaign ahead.
By comparison, Trump’s Save America group – his main political committee – had just over $100 million in cash at the end of May, according to a federal disclosure.
Should DeSantis run for president, federal election rules would bar him from transferring leftover gubernatorial race money to a presidential campaign. He could, however, refund donors and resolicit the money for a White House bid.
EASIER TO ‘INCH AWAY’
It remains to be seen whether the Jan. 6 hearings, which have presented evidence that Trump and his inner circle pushed conspiracy theories about voter fraud they knew to be false, will mar Trump’s standing among his supporters. The twice-impeached Trump has defied conventional wisdom many times in the face of prior scandals.
In posts on his Truth Social platform on Tuesday, Trump lambasted a former White House aide who testified about his behavior on Jan. 6 and denied her most explosive allegations.
His reaction proved that he recognized how damaging the testimony was, said Douglas Heye, a Republican strategist.
“It’s beneficial for anybody who’s looking at running for 2024,” Heye said. “This is making it easier for Republicans – candidate and voter – to inch away from Trump.”
An opinion poll released last week in the state of New Hampshire, traditionally the site of the first presidential primary, showed Trump and DeSantis in a statistical tie among likely Republican voters.
The University of New Hampshire poll found 39% supported DeSantis, with 37% backing Trump. That’s a dramatic swing from October, when Trump had double DeSantis’ support.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is weighing a 2024 campaign after breaking with Trump following the Capitol riot, was in a distant third at 9%.
There have been other signals suggesting Trump’s power over Republican voters is not absolute. He has seen mixed results for his most high-profile endorsements in key swing states during this year’s midterm elections.
Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich said Trump was in a “stronger position” than ever. “The American people remain hungry for his leadership,” Budowich said.
A DeSantis spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
DeSantis, 43, owes his political rise in part to Trump, who endorsed him for governor in 2018 when DeSantis was a relatively obscure congressman. Trump’s backing helped propel DeSantis to an upset victory in the Republican primary, and he edged out a scandal-damaged Democratic candidate, Andrew Gillum, that November.
After the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, DeSantis was aggressively skeptical on containment policies, relaxing restrictions on businesses and schools in defiance of federal guidelines and overruling local officials who sought to preserve mask mandates.
He has also enacted numerous conservative bills with the help of the Republican-controlled legislature, including an election “police force” dedicated to investigating voter fraud, new voting limits, and a ban on teachers discussing gender identity with young children – decried by critics as the “don’t say gay” law.
In an unprecedented move, he effectively took over the redistricting process from Republican lawmakers, vetoing their congressional map and substituting his own proposal that eliminated two majority-Black districts while delivering four additional seats to Republicans.
“He’s taking on every culture war fight that he can to demonstrate to the base that he’s a fighter,” Heye said.
(Additional reporting by Jason Lange in Washington, Editing by Scott Malone and Rosalba O’Brien)