A week ago in Iowa, Ron DeSantis scathingly described how Donald Trump was forcing Republican politicians to “kiss the ring” of the former president in order to earn his praise and avoid public humiliation.
But on Sunday afternoon the Florida governor wasted no time in bowing down to Trump, endorsing him as he exited the US presidential race without even competing in the second Republican contest in New Hampshire.
DeSantis’s announcement that he was abandoning his quest for the White House marked a humbling end to a nearly eight-month campaign that was once seen as the most serious threat to Trump from conservative America’s fastest-rising political star.
Having rapidly dispensed with DeSantis, Trump is now one big step closer to defeating all of his opponents and clinching the Republican nomination to challenge Joe Biden in the November general election.
Over the past week, Trump has secured the backing of biotech investor Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina senator Tim Scott, who both fell in line with the former president after dropping out of the race.
The only remaining Republican obstacle for Trump is Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and former US ambassador to the UN.
Haley and her allies on Sunday cheered DeSantis’s departure and the fact that she had outlasted all the other Trump rivals in the Republican primary.
“A little while ago there were 13 candidates in the race and now there are only two,” said Chris Sununu, the New Hampshire governor and a staunch Haley ally, at a rally for her on Sunday. “They said that couldn’t be done, but then Nikki Haley came along and wiped them all out!”
Many strategists and analysts believe, however, that she will be harmed more than helped by Sunday’s developments, since DeSantis’s supporters have greater sympathy for Trump than for Haley.
“They viewed DeSantis as a better version of Trump. That’s why they were with him. So I think those supporters will go to Trump,” said an influential DeSantis donor who requested anonymity to candidly discuss the campaign’s shortfalls. “They’re not Nikki Haley supporters. She’s just too much of a globalist and I think too beholden to corporate interests.”
“DeSantis has spent the last year trying to ‘out-Trump Trump’,” Lew Lukens, a senior partner at Signum Global Advisors, said in a note to clients on Sunday. “His relatively few New Hampshire supporters are much more likely, in our estimation, to turn to Trump.”
Trump was leading the New Hampshire Republican primary contest as of Sunday with 49.8 per cent support, compared with 36.1 per cent for Haley and 5.8 per cent for DeSantis, according to a FiveThirtyEight polling average. In South Carolina, which holds its primary in late February, Trump holds an even wider lead over Haley, which means her days could also be numbered, barring an unexpected upset.
“I don’t think anybody is going to catch Donald Trump here, South Carolina is Trump country,” said Mick Mulvaney, the former White House chief of staff under Trump and a former congressman from the state. “How does Nikki explain coming in second in her home state if that is the way it shakes out? It is just really tough.”
One factor over the coming weeks will be whether DeSantis donors revert to Trump or switch their support to Haley, even though her chances of winning are slim. Haley has received support from several high-profile donors, including the Charles Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity Action, in recent months.
But Texas business owner Roy Bailey, a co-chair of the DeSantis finance committee and a former Trump fundraiser, told the Financial Times that he would take a break from making campaign contributions. “We shall see,” he said. Another DeSantis donor who requested anonymity said: “Nikki doesn’t have a shot either. It’s Trump. We all know this.”
On Sunday afternoon, the Trump campaign’s senior advisers, Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles, sent a memo saying Haley was left with two options if she lost in New Hampshire.
She “unites behind Trump and commits to defeating Joe Biden”, they wrote, or she “prepares to be ABSOLUTELY DEMOLISHED and EMBARRASSED” in the coming primary races. “Now, for some important advice . . . choose wisely.”
Meanwhile, prominent DeSantis surrogates have already begun lining up behind the former president. Minutes after the Florida governor announced he was suspending his campaign on Sunday afternoon, Virginia congressman Bob Good said in a social media post that he was providing his “complete and total endorsement” to Trump, adding that he was the “greatest president of my lifetime” and that “we need him to reinstate the policies that were working so well for America”.
Just days earlier, Good, who chairs the rightwing House Freedom Caucus and previously endorsed DeSantis, had found himself in the Trump team’s crosshairs when LaCivita publicly threatened to destroy his career prospects.
Trump and his supporters have successfully ousted Republican rivals in the past — notably Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney — by mounting primary challenges against them in legislative elections.
As for DeSantis, Trump and his allies have turned from their mocking attacks on the Florida governor to gracious pats on the back.
“I’d like to take time to congratulate Ron DeSantis,” Trump told supporters on Sunday. “He ran a really good campaign. I will tell you, it’s not easy.”
Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican congressman who backed Trump over DeSantis months ago, summed up the mood towards DeSantis in the Trump camp at a rally in New Hampshire on Sunday: “All I can say is: Welcome home, Ron. Welcome back to the ‘Maga movement’ where you have always belonged.”