Arizona's GOP primary for governor has already become a proxy battle between former President Donald Trump and his supporters on one side and former Vice President Mike Pence, Arizona's current GOP Gov. Doug Ducey and high-ranking state Republicans on the other.
And there's another national Republican leader former Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., would like to see get involved — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Salmon, a DeSantis ally who co-founded the House Freedom Caucus with the Florida Republican, said DeSantis should join Pence and Ducey in endorsing Republican contender Karrin Taylor Robson over Trump-backed Kari Lake to show his independence from the former president. Salmon ended his gubernatorial bid last month and backed Taylor Robson, who is running a close second behind Lake in the polls.
"We’re hoping he will. If he’s smart he will," Salmon told NBC News at a Taylor Robson event last week. "Kind of the dope on him from a lot of folks in the media is that he’s subservient to Trump. And that he won’t even make a move without asking Trump first."
"This would be a bold move from him, to come out and support a real conservative and show that he’s an independent thinker," Salmon added. "And he’s somebody that is willing to fight not just for the conservative ideals, but for the soul of America."
DeSantis has emerged as the leading alternative to Trump in early 2024 Republican primary polling, though he has not given any indication he will seek the presidency. He is up for re-election this fall in Florida.
Lake, who has Trump's backing, has vociferously promoted falsehoods about the 2020 election, threatened to arrest election officials, trashed leading state Republicans and suggested her race might be rigged before votes are even counted. She appears to have built up a dedicated base of support among Trump’s most faithful, which has carried her out to a polling edge.
Taylor Robson, who polling suggests is within striking distance, is winning over more traditional Republicans in the state and is backed by Ducey, Pence and others. Pence and Trump are holding dueling Arizona rallies for their preferred candidates on Friday.
As NBC News reported earlier this month, those familiar with DeSantis’ thinking say he is unlikely to wade into the Arizona race, especially because he doesn’t want to fuel public speculation about his White House aspirations.
Early last year, DeSantis became quietly involved in the race when he shepherded Salmon to meet with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida in the hope of securing an endorsement, two sources with direct knowledge of the meeting said.
The sources said Salmon felt the Trump endorsement would happen but that Trump’s attitude changed when Salmon refused to say the 2020 election had been stolen. Lake had no such reservations, the sources said.
Salmon also suggested he would like to see DeSantis seek the presidency in 2024.
"I certainly think that Ron would be able to embody the conservative credentials with no baggage," he said. "And my biggest concern is making sure that Joe Biden or whoever the Democrats select next to our country isn’t elected. And that means that we’re going to have to find somebody like Ron DeSantis."