Who benefits if DeSantis peaks too early? | The Hill

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Scott P. Yates/The Roanoke Times via AP

Like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, shown here delivering remarks on his proposed tax relief package for individuals and businesses on Jan. 5, 2023, in Salem, Va., is being eyed by some Republicans as a potential White House nominee in 2024.

When running for president, there is always one anxiety-creating fear for the perceived frontrunner: prematurely peaking.

For many Republicans, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has moved comfortably into the perceived frontrunner role with regard to the 2024 presidential election. Although DeSantis has not committed to running for president — and likely won’t for several more months, should he be so inclined — it is clear that his star has ascended as Donald Trump’s continues to dim in the eyes of many in the GOP.

But, as the cliché reminds us: “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” While the Florida governor has gotten used to being the prize duck in the shooting gallery for Democrats and liberal media, he is now starting to draw fire from some in his own party — including potential Republican nominee opponents such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.

With regard to Noem, Sununu or any other potential Republican candidate who may go after DeSantis, their audience is not the voters. It is the uber-wealthy power brokers behind the scenes who write the checks to fund political action committees. 

As one who has been involved in a few winning presidential campaigns, it’s easy for me to imagine staffers warning other potential Republican candidates: “We need to go after DeSantis now. If not, he will lock in as ‘The Guy’ and vacuum up every major political donation to be had.”

You can bet those conversations are taking place. It’s also logical to believe that, in private, some staffers (if they are smart and truly care about their candidate) are warning DeSantis, “Be humble. Don’t start to believe your own press, Be accessible. Be nice to donors. Reach out to communities less inclined to vote Republican, and don’t come off as aloof or suddenly entitled.”

In the words of 1970s band Three Dog Night, “One is the loneliest number.” In politics, a frontrunner peaking too early is the next loneliest. As an example, ask former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

In 2004, Dean seemed to be on a solid glide-path to the Democratic nomination. And then his “I have a scream” moment happened. During a speech to supporters that January, after losing the Iowa caucus, Dean tried to pump up the room by listing all the primaries remaining  He closed that list with an exuberant scream. As CNN dubbed it, “The scream that doomed Howard Dean.”

In the universe of presidential campaigns, it seemed like a goofy blip at first. But when you are the perceived front-runner, goofy blips, faux pas and even slights to donors can be unintentionally or intentionally used to bring down your campaign. Dean’s scream was literally played hundreds of times on New Hampshire and Massachusetts television stations before the New Hampshire primary.

Goodbye, Howard Dean — hello Democratic nominee John Kerry.

So, if DeSantis peaks too soon, or his “lead” is continually whittled down by opponents seeking to stop his momentum, who might be the main beneficiary of such a downfall? The name I hear over and over again is Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Some say that two of Youngkin’s pluses are that he’s “the anti-Trump,” in that he comes across as a dignified and civil statesman, and that he is independently wealthy, so isn’t likely to be beholden to special interests or those in power in D.C.

As an example of Youngkin’s “adult in the room” manner, in November he was subjected to a somewhat bizarre — perhaps even racist — broadside from Trump, who said on Truth Social: “Young Kin (now that’s an interesting take. Sounds Chinese, doesn’t it?) in Virginia couldn’t have won without me.”

When asked to respond to Trump’s comment, Youngkin took the high road and ignored the bait. “I do not roll that way,” he said. “I do not call people names. I treat people well, and I believe that’s the way that everyone should behave — and sometimes in politics, I think folks forget that.”

My note to Glenn Youngkin is this: More and more voters — and Republican “movers and shakers” — are starting to remember that civility and decency in politics are winning attributes. Whether or not Ron DeSantis stumbles, your star is rising over the horizon and getting brighter with each passing week.

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration


2024 presidential election

Chris Sununu

Donald Trump

Glenn Youngkin

Howard Dean

Kristi Noem

Republican Party

Ron DeSantis

Ron DeSantis

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