Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is already attracting significant hype in the 2024 presidential race, even though he hasn't yet jumped in. But there are also skeptics who see similarities with another young conservative governor who eight years ago ran with lofty expectations only to drop out months before the first primary.
That doomed candidate, then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, isn't buying the comparisons.
In an interview Friday with NBC News, Walker said the dynamics for DeSantis heading into 2024 are “probably better” than they were for him in the 2016 race.
DeSantis responds to Trump criticism over handling of CovidJan. 31, 202301:15
“DeSantis is in a good position,” Walker said, adding that he has a strong case to make against former President Donald Trump. “Basically, DeSantis’ argument should be that if you want the same kind of toughness, if you want the same kind of pushback without the sharp edges, he’s your guy.”
Early polls show DeSantis in a stronger position than Walker was at this point eight years ago. And Trump — who romped through a historically large GOP field that year, shattering the presidential dreams of Walker and other more conventional Republicans on his way to the White House — is running again under much different circumstances, especially after losing in 2020.
“I wouldn’t write him off, but he’s not the new, completely different outsider that he was in 2016 that all of us were not able to overcome,” Walker, the president of the Young America’s Foundation, a national youth-oriented conservative group, said of Trump.
I think we as conservatives have got to be very careful that we don’t lose touch with the voters who were energized by President Trump in ‘16 and ‘20.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
Walker’s comments came at the end of a busy week of presidential maneuvering by GOP prospects. Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and South Carolina governor, officially launched her campaign, becoming the second declared candidate after Trump. Like Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina — both of whom are weighing White House bids — visited early voting states.
And DeSantis continued to stoke speculation about his intentions as details surfaced about his plans to headline Republican functions outside of his own state and to address a Chicago-area police union.
DeSantis took office in Florida the year Walker lost his bid for a third straight term in Wisconsin. Walker is closer with former governors who served at the same time as he did, like Haley and Pence, than he is with DeSantis.
“I talked to Nikki the other day before she got in,” Walker said. “She’s going to have a credible case, had a strong record as governor. I have yet to find a person who, at least right of center, objected to her time as ambassador.”
Walker said he does not plan on endorsing in the GOP race but will use his role at the foundation to help connect presidential candidates with younger voters. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another Republican believed to be preparing to run, addressed the organization this week, on the day Haley officially launched her campaign.
“It’s going to be a wide-open race,” said Walker, who believes other sitting governors and senators will run. “Eight years ago, there were already a whole bunch of people in or about to be at this point. Obviously, President Trump getting in, particularly as early as he did, kind of furrows things out for a while.”
Walker’s White House campaign began with considerable hype, too. In Wisconsin, he had won two terms as governor and beat a recall election, effectively winning three statewide elections in four years in an electoral battleground.
Like DeSantis is now with his tirades against “woke” culture and mainstream media, the Walker of 2015 was a star with the GOP base after tangling with public-employee unions. A well-received speech at an Iowa candidates forum rocketed him to top-tier status. But like every other Republican who ran, Walker could not outrun Trump. He dropped out in September 2015.
“People say I got out early. No, I just got out smart,” Walker said Friday. “I could see, after that second debate, the absolute and total fascination by the media on Donald Trump the candidate and didn’t see any way around that.”
“I joke that I got out before I got a nickname” from Trump, Walker added. “But seriously, we just could see where this was headed and decided it just didn’t make any sense.”
DeSantis already has at least one nickname from Trump: “Ron DeSanctimonious.” But Walker also said DeSantis has other positive attributes that he lacked in 2015. Walker, for example, spent 2014 fighting a tough re-election battle that prevented him from doing much 2016 spadework in the meantime. DeSantis, conversely, spent 2022 cruising toward a second term — he beat Democrat Charlie Crist by nearly 20 points — and honing his message for a national audience.
“It was clearer and clearer that it wasn’t a matter of winning or not — it was a matter of by how much,” Walker said. “I think the DeSantis camp was in a much better position, both in terms of talent on the team and in terms of things he did and said. Clearly even the things he did in his re-elect were things that were targeted far beyond Florida voters.”
As for Trump, Walker acknowledged how Haley and others have argued for a new generation of Republican leaders but said that the former president “because of what he accomplished … has earned the right to be in this race and understandably the front-runner.”
“The question becomes, not for me or any other insider, but really for the voters: Is he the right person to take the next step forward?” Walker added. “The other thing I would stress is, even if voters look to someone new, potentially someone of a younger generation, I think we as conservatives have got to be very careful that we don’t lose touch with the voters who were energized by President Trump in ‘16 and ‘20.”