Early DeSantis supporters exhibit Trump fatigue

Author: Aaron Navarro and Olivia Rinaldi / CBS
Published: Updated:
Split image showing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis next to former President Donald Trump. Credit: CBS

Republican voters backing a 2024 run by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are sick of former President Donald Trump, and they say the news about his indictment only adds to their fatigue.

In conversations this week with people who voted for Trump in past elections and attended DeSantis’ speeches in two key battleground states, Georgia and Pennsylvania, Republicans worried that Trump could lose the general election if nominated again. They cited his temperament, the “drama” that surrounds him, his recent attacks on DeSantis and baggage from the 2020 election they fear would weigh him down in a general election.

“I love what he did as a president. I’m not real happy with how he’s behaved after. He’s very polarizing for our country. His time is over. And I wish he would kind of enjoy retirement,” said Ashley Seiler, a resident of Marietta, Ga., who went to see DeSantis speak in metro Atlanta on Thursday.

Wes Goodroe, also a Marietta resident who twice voted for Trump but leans toward DeSantis, said Trump wanted to play up a potential indictment “because it’ll probably give him a big boost in the polls.”

“I think it would probably help Trump a little bit,” Goodroe said of a Trump indictment, hours before news broke that the former president had been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury Thursday. “But that’s just all sideline news. Stick to the issues and concentrate.”

Trump’s campaign said Saturday it raised over $4 million since the indictment and shared an internal poll conducted Friday through Saturday that showed an increase in Trump’s lead over his 2024 primary opponents.

DeSantis’ remarks in Harrisburg, Pa., and in Long Island on Saturday were his first public appearances since Trump was indicted. Most attendees said the indictment angered them and didn’t agree with it, and applauded when DeSantis called it “flimsy” and criticized Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

After Trump initially claimed he would be arrested earlier this month, DeSantis criticized Bragg but took a backhanded shot at Trump with the remark, “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.”

In March, Trump began ramping up his attacks on DeSantis, whom he sees as “probably” his biggest 2024 primary challenger. He posts often about DeSantis on his “Truth Social” social media platform, attacking his past support for reforming Social Security and Medicare, alleging he drank alcohol with underage students when he was a teacher in Georgia and mocking DeSantis for asking for his endorsement for his 2018 gubernatorial run.

“If Donald Trump is not the nominee, I will vote third party. I will not vote — Ron DeSantis — I wouldn’t vote for him for anything,” said Debbie Dooley, an ambassador for the “Veterans for Trump” group that gathered in the parking lot outside DeSantis’ event in Georgia.

Dooley was once a fan of DeSantis, and wrote his name in for governor in the 2022 primary and general election. But on Thursday in Georgia, she was wearing a t-shirt that said “ULTRA MAGA” and brought a makeshift poster featuring news clips of Trump’s attacks towards DeSantis. “He is phony, and he is fake,” Dooley said of DeSantis.

DeSantis isn’t a candidate yet, but he’s been visiting or plans to visit early presidential primary states such as Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He’s expected to officially launch a campaign after the legislative session in Florida ends in early May.

Voters leaning towards DeSantis said Trump’s early attacks put them off.

Melvin McDowell, a retired attorney and former member of the Republican State Committee in Pennsylvania who attended DeSantis’ event in Harrisburg, said he was “really displeased” by Trump’s mockery of DeSantis.

“His style at this point is a liability, electorally speaking,” McDowell said. “I think President Trump, for all he has accomplished in the past, it’s time for him to make way for a stronger candidate.”

Seiler called it “pretty tacky,” and said she admires DeSantis’ restraint. “He has not thrown any low punches, and that’s what I do like about him as well,” she said.

Goodroe called DeSantis “less controversial” than Trump. The name-calling has “kind of been a problem for me,” he said about Trump’s attacks.

“He’s notorious for it,” Goodroe said of Trump. “During the last primary, everybody had a nickname. And it just doesn’t have to work that way.”

Most of the voters who spoke with CBS News were going to see DeSantis speak for the first time. Many liked his response to COVID in Florida, his transport of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard from Texas and his “culture war” battles to incorporate more parental involvement in education. But multiple attendees also said they don’t know much about him personally yet.

“I’ve been impressed with what he’s done in Florida. He seems to be a reliable candidate,” said Roger Hitchcock, a Georgia Republican who says he’s open to other choices in the 2024 races, but that his vote for DeSantis “would be his to lose at this point.”

Christian Johnson, a 22-year-old congressional staffer in Pennsylvania, said he loved DeSantis’s speech on Saturday and chose DeSantis in the conference’s straw poll because he thinks DeSantis has the “best chance of bringing a hopeful message to the nation.”

“I think the magic of 2016 has passed and I don’t think it can be replicated. I think it’s time we have a new and whole image for this country,” Johnson said.

Fin Gomez contributed to this report.

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