WASHINGTON, Nov 10 (Reuters) - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis arguably had the best night of anyone on Election Day, trouncing his Democratic opponent on his way to re-election and cementing himself as the Republican Party's top rising star.
What comes next is trickier. With Donald Trump expected to announce a 2024 presidential bid on Tuesday, DeSantis must decide if he's ready for the political fight of his life by challenging the former president for the Republican nomination.
DeSantis' calculus undoubtedly will be affected by the fact that Trump is increasingly viewed as toxic by some Republicans who blame him for the party's underwhelming performance in this week's midterm elections.
Trump and the candidates he supports, they argue, lack the broad appeal necessary to win elections – and they fear that having failed two years ago, he would do so again in 2024.
The man who beat Trump in 2020, President Joe Biden, said this week that he intends to run for re-election and will make a final decision by early next year. The Democrat is already the oldest president in American history and will turn 80 later this month.
Trump would be the favorite in a primary matchup against DeSantis or any other Republican. He remains intensely popular with the party's base and is sitting on a massive campaign war chest that will only grow larger.
But signs of Republican discontent are growing. On Thursday, the New York Post, owned by conservative titan Rupert Murdoch and long friendly to Trump, mocked him on its cover, calling him "Trumpty Dumpty," and beseeched others in the party to put it "back together again."
A day earlier, the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal ran an editorial calling Trump the party's "biggest loser" and blamed him for staging self-serving rallies that stoked Democratic turnout.
Trump showed signs of worry about DeSantis on Thursday, lashing out at him in a lengthy statement.
"Ron DeSanctimonious is playing games! The Fake News asks him if he's going to run if President Trump runs, and he says, 'I'm only focused on the Governor's race, I'm not looking into the future,'" Trump said in the statement. "Well, in terms of loyalty and class, that's really not the right answer."
Some Republicans are concerned Trump could doom the chances of Herschel Walker, the former football star he recruited to run for the Senate in Georgia, in his run-off against Senator Raphael Warnock next month. Republican U.S. Representative Mo Brooks on Thursday implored Trump to stay out of the race.
A source close to Trump's advisory team who asked not to be identified said the former president seemed intent on going ahead with his Tuesday announcement because to do otherwise would be seen as a "sign of weakness." Some Trump allies were trying to persuade him to delay.
MAN IN A HURRY
DeSantis, conversely, has been basking in positive coverage since easily defeating Democrat Charlie Crist on Tuesday. Although he has been coy about a presidential run, supporters at his victory party chanted "Two more years!"
At 44, the former U.S. congressman is more than three decades younger than the 76-year-old Trump and would provide a forward-looking contrast to the octogenarian Biden.
He is especially popular with conservatives for taking the lead on culture war issues concerning race and gender. Last year, he got into a well-publicized spat with The Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) over his support of the controversial law, nicknamed "Don't Say Gay" by opponents, prohibiting the teaching of gender identity concepts to young children.
A dynamic fundraiser, DeSantis has raised more than $200 million since early 2021, smashing previous records for gubernatorial fundraising. Trump raised more than $170 million during the same period across several fundraising groups.
DeSantis spent time away from Florida this year campaigning for other Republicans and building his national profile.
He has held back from criticizing Trump to avoid alienating the party base. Trump, on the other hand, has grown more combative toward DeSantis, ridiculing him as Ron "DeSanctimonious" and bragging that he received more votes in Florida in 2020 than DeSantis did this week.
"I think there's going to be a huge appetite from the more normal wing of the Republican Party for Ron DeSantis to run," said Sarah Longwell, a Republican pollster and frequent Trump critic. "There's going to be a lot on paper that will make it look like he should run, but if Trump announces, he's scorched earth. He's out to destroy DeSantis."
Even if Trump mounts another presidential run, he will continue to face a dizzying array of legal headaches, including probes of his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his removal of classified documents from the White House.
Some former Trump supporters say they would not back him again.
"He's divisive. I don't like him," said two-time Trump voter Gordon Nelson, 77, as he voted for Republican candidates in Michigan on Tuesday.
At a Wednesday press conference, Biden seemed amused at the prospect of Trump and DeSantis going head-to-head.
"It'll be fun watching them take on each other," Biden said.
Voters are not enthusiastic about a second Biden term. About two-thirds of voters surveyed don't want Biden to run again, including 43% of Democrats, according to exit polls conducted on Tuesday by Edison Research.
Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who was a top aide on Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, expects Biden to do so anyway.
"Every time Joe Biden's been told that he can't or shouldn't do something, he's managed to succeed at it and get it done," Ferguson said.
If Biden were not to run again, the Democratic field would likely be wide open, as it was in 2020 when more than 20 candidates lined up to take on Trump. While Vice President Kamala Harris might be looked at as a potential favorite for the nomination, she is saddled with even worse approval ratings than Biden.
Former candidates such as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, as well as Senators Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren could mount another try.
A new class of Democratic governors could also jump in, including California's Gavin Newsom, New Jersey's Phil Murphy, Illinois' J.B. Pritzker and Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer, who just won a decisive victory after a bruising re-election campaign.
Beyond DeSantis and Trump, other Republicans viewed as potential candidates include former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin.
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