PITTSBURGH — With a loud crowd in Pittsburgh thrusting signs in the air, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took to the stage at the Downtown hotel and stirred the people to their feet with calls to “make Pennsylvania free” and “put on the full armor of God.”
While backing Doug Mastriano for governor, DeSantis boasted of his own family’s roots in Aliquippa and exhorted the crowd during the rally last summer to “stand your ground. Stand firm. Don’t back down.”
Just months after his appearance, a private Boeing 757 with “TRUMP” painted on the side carried former President Donald Trump to a rally for Mastriano in Latrobe in front of a roaring crowd of thousands.
Their speeches in Western Pennsylvania were far more than just stump rallies for key candidates.
They were laying the groundwork for a generational battle that’s expected to dominate American politics and determine the course of both the Republican Party and the country.
With Trump’s announcement last week to run for another term, the political landscape is now shaping up with both men as the leading GOP contenders in what could be one of the most consequential primaries in decades.
DeSantis’ sweeping victory in Florida — on the same night as Trump-backed candidates nationally were going down in flames — propelled the 44-year-old governor into what experts say is a rare position: a credible threat to Trump’s political future.
If DeSantis launches his own presidential run — as a growing chorus of Republicans say he should — it’s expected to unleash the fury of the MAGA movement and its leader in a fight that could splinter a party that’s desperately trying to recover from a bitterly disappointing midterm.
It will also force their party’s leaders to make critical choices that could perpetuate the bare-knuckle politics of Trump — who still commands a significant base — or usher in an entirely new era for the party.
It’s likely to trigger fights among party factions and candidates who were reined in for years by Trump’s ability to wield his base voters like a club against anyone who challenged his supremacy, say political observers.
The success of each politician depends on which one will better tap into the changing political landscape — an electorate that the midterms showed to be radically different than what the strategists predicted.
In Pennsylvania, where Trump stunned the country by winning in 2016, a restless voting population that bucked history in the recent midterm is emerging as the proving ground for winning power in Washington.
Florida was once the largest swing state, until DeSantis’ success turned it into a Republican stronghold.
“Pennsylvania’s now the most important swing state in the country,” DeSantis said at that August rally in Pittsburgh.
Battle of heavyweights
From the suburbs that drove Democratic gains in the Trump years to the white, working class enclaves that powered Trump’s rise, few states would be better suited to test the strength of the two men, say political experts.
Up for grabs: a base of voters who have been deliriously loyal to the former president, but who may have finally tired of the chaos that has been a hallmark of his leadership.
In DeSantis, party leaders see a conservative standard-bearer who’s pugilistic style can fire up base voters, but without the constant personal attacks and conspiracy theories that set Trump apart from mainstream politicians.
“They don’t want to talk about stolen elections,” said Sam DeMarco, chairman of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County.
“Trump raised those claims after the 2020 election and lost every single case in court,” said DeMarco, who sits on the county’s Board of Elections and angered members of his own party when he pushed back on false rigged-election claims.
“There’s been nothing — no evidence. The American public, in regards to what others may feel or say, is looking to move on and not looking to re-litigate the 2020 election.”
And then there are the growing differences between the two men that could further fuel what would amount to a political war.
During his campaign stop in Latrobe in early November, Trump belittled DeSantis as “Ron DeSanctimonious,” and has since hinted that he could drop damaging information about the governor, setting the stage for what could be a campaign marked by insults and mudslinging.
“If he did run, I will tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal recently.
On the other side, the Florida governor has shown himself to be a fighter whose career has been defined by battles he’s waged against everyone from Florida’s news outlets to local school boards to the Walt Disney Company.
Any impending campaign primary between the two men would quickly become “the mudfest to end all mudfests,” attorney and anti-Trump Republican George Conway told MSNBC.
“The way you go after Trump is to go after him hammer and tong — and Trump is going to go right back,” he said.
DeSantis might not be in that fight alone. The anger among some Republicans over the damage Trump-backed candidates inflicted on the party in this election has burst into open defiance, with party leaders struggling to wrest control of their base voters from the former president.
Lopsided losses by Mehmet Oz in the U.S. Senate race and Mastriano were national embarrassments to a party primed to regain control of a country teetering on the edge of recession.
There is a “40-year-record inflation, high gas prices, soaring crime, chaos overseas, what’s going on in Ukraine. You have supply chain shortages,” said DeMarco.
And yet the voters rejected the only alternative to the party in power.
“He bears so much responsibility for such a terrible performance,” retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
In addition to the losses in Pennsylvania, leaders are still shaken from the governor’s race in Arizona, where Kari Lake — one of Trump’s most ardent supporters and loudest deniers of his 2020 loss — couldn’t pull out a victory even when she was favored.
Rise of youth voters
For both parties, several key messages are emerging from the midterms about the changing electorate and what could potentially help either one in the fight over the presidency in 2024.
One of those messages is that young voters played a significant role in elections across the country, including Pennsylvania, and that many are turned off by the unrelenting attacks on elections, said Kristin Kanthak, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
“People don’t want the drama anymore. People are done with it,” she said.
One exit poll found that 63% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 voted for Democratic candidates.
In Pennsylvania, it was an even starker split: A whopping 70% of voters younger than 30 cast their ballots for Democrats, according to exit polls. “The Republican Party is running out of time to appeal to younger voters,” said Kanthak. “I think they can do it, but they need to get beyond where they are now.”
Even in the governor’s race in Florida, 55% of that age group threw their support behind Democrat Charlie Crist over DeSantis.
While the former president and DeSantis both have singled out Pennsylvania as a crucial swing state, the Florida governor may already have one advantage: Most people don’t know him.
Trump’s half-decade in the national spotlight hardened many people’s opinions of him. In Pennsylvania, nearly 6 in 10 voters in the midterms said they viewed him unfavorably, and a quarter said they cast their vote to oppose him — even though he wasn’t on the ballot.
DeSantis, who railed against COVID mandates during his speech in Pittsburgh, still has a chance to pitch himself to Republican voters as a fresh face, with a track record of winning tough elections.
Before his sweeping victory this month, DeSantis defied public polling and a national political environment that heavily favored Democrats when he eked out a narrow win over Democrat Andrew Gillum in his first race for governor in 2018.
His win this year has Republicans around the country — including in Pennsylvania — wondering how different election night might’ve been if they’d run better candidates.
“What should’ve happened in Pennsylvania is what happened in Florida. (DeSantis) had Charlie Crist against him. He didn’t have a bozo, he had a seasoned politician. And Charlie Crist went down badly,” said Joseph DiSarro, an Allegheny County Republican committeeman and political science professor at Washington & Jefferson College.
What made his win all the more impressive is that he carries his own political baggage.
The governor has angered human rights activists with a law he pushed that bans teachers from discussing LGBTQ issues to grade schoolers and another that restricts speech in classrooms by censoring dialogue about systemic racism — a law that was just halted temporarily by a federal judge from being enforced at public universities.
“We need a governor with a heart and who really cares about people, doesn’t beat up on LGBTQ and doesn’t beat up on African Americans and their right to vote,” Crist told PBS during the campaign.
In a general election, DeSantis would face deep opposition, but in a GOP primary, his hard line may not matter.
During the Florida governor’s August appearance in Pittsburgh, more than 1,000 people lined up at the Wyndham Grand hotel to get a glimpse.
DeSantis “demonstrated incredible popularity in Western Pennsylvania,” said DiSarro. “I tried to get a ticket when he came to Pittsburgh, to the dinner. I couldn’t get one.”
But at the same time, DeSantis faces an opponent who commands a formidable base of voters that has shown unflagging loyalty.
Trump is “a charismatic person who has demonstrated that he can win against all odds. He’s a person who believes that if you get hit, you hit back harder, you don’t go over and negotiate,” DiSarro said.
Any such fight poses an enormous danger to a party already reeling from the midterm elections and split by deep divisions over what went wrong, he said.
“It’s going to be a mess. This inter-party battle of two giants could easily — easily — sink the hopes of the Republican Party to regain the presidency and the Senate,” DiSarro said.
The intensity of Trump’s support was on display at his rally in Latrobe just days before the midterms, when thousands of people stood in a quarter-mile-long line to see the former president.
He “still has his base,” said Kristie Coopie, a teaching professor of political science at Duquesne University. “You don’t know what can happen two years from now. Twenty twenty-four is a long way off. Anything can happen in two years.”
That includes whether DeSantis announces a candidacy that others are clamoring for, including high-profile members of the party and high-powered donors.
Though others could jump into the race, including former Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, political experts say DeSantis still retains the greater star power.
An Economist/YouGov poll taken this month found DeSantis and Trump had the same favorability rating, at 41% — the highest among a raft of potential GOP candidates.
In that same poll, 52% had an unfavorable view of Trump, compared to just 37% for DeSantis.
With nearly all midterm races settled, the party is sifting through the wreckage for lessons to take into 2024.
“The Republican Party, as we have known it, is dead,” Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley said. “The working-class, independent voters who powered Barack Obama and then Trump into office “stayed home this time,” he said.
“We are not a majority party unless we can appeal to those voters.”
And getting that kind of support means elevating a candidate conservative enough to win over GOP voters and who can survive the battles that are expected to unfold over the next two years.
“Donald Trump is not going to go gentle into that good night,” Kanthak said.
For DeSantis, that could have real consequences.
Every Republican who’s tried to take down Trump — from then-Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake to outgoing Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney — has failed, often at the cost of their political career.
“I don’t see what the upside is for him to do that if he might lose,” said Conway, who is married to the former president’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway.
But ultimately, he might be the party’s only hope to keep Trump from winning a third nomination, say those GOP members pushing for change.
“It’s time we move on as a party,” Jim Schultz, a former lawyer in the Trump White House, told MSNBC.
“Mehmet Oz got smoked by John Fetterman by all historical figures in terms of what a landslide election looks like in Pennsylvania. And his endorsed candidate, Doug Mastriano, lost by more than 11 or 12 points — double-digit points. You can’t have those kinds of results, and those results lie directly at the feet of Donald Trump.”
DeMarco credited the former president with ushering in sweeping changes while in office, but he said it was time for the GOP to “reflect, strategize and plan accordingly. We need an answer to (the question) what do we have to do to win an election? Because if we can’t win, we can’t govern. I just think it’s time for us to turn to a new generation of leaders.”