ORLANDO, Fla. — At the same time former President Donald Trump was declaring his third bid for the White House on Tuesday night, a ballroom full of GOP governors, donors and lobbyists were tuned in to the Republican many have indicated they would prefer: Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
DeSantis, fresh off a decisive victory that reinforced Republicans’ grip on power in his home state, made no mention of Trump, or the announcement taking place 168 miles away. The move by the party’s de-facto leader hardly appeared to register — though the next presidential primary was top of mind.
In interviews, attendees of the annual meeting of the Republican Governors Association said there were plenty of discussions about 2024, what lessons the party can take from the midterms and how they should adjust their messaging. Those Republicans said they felt additional contenders were present at the conference as both parties see a number of governors as attractive potential alternatives to Trump and President Joe Biden, should the president’s intent to seek re-election change.
“I have no doubt,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said when asked if there were GOP 2024 presidential candidates at the conference, adding that he thought DeSantis would run and that Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin might.
“People here are excited about a governor being president,” he continued, adding, “It’s clearly [what] at least this group of folks want to see.”
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine agreed: “I’m sure there’s more than one” Republican at the conference thinking of launching a presidential bid, he said.
Republican governors had a mixed midterm result, much like Republicans elsewhere on the ballot. GOP incumbents like Sununu, DeWine and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who all cruised to re-election, far outpaced Republican candidates they shared the ticket with. They were also able to flip Nevada with Gov.-elect Joe Lombardo defeating the Democratic incumbent, Steve Sisolak; Lombardo was the only Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate to win a state Biden carried in 2020. (Through a representative, Lombardo declined an interview request.)
But Republican nominees for governor fell short in critical battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona — where the party lost control of the governors’ mansion — with candidates who hugged Trump tightly. In deep-blue Massachusetts and Maryland, the GOP lost control of governorships after Trump promoted acolytes to succeed popular moderate Republican governors.
For attendees at the RGA conference, the lesson was less a departure from policies they promoted on the campaign trail and more a signal to move away from Trumpist-type messaging, even if governors were careful in how they phrased their takeaways. (Some were more direct: former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie received hearty applause at a panel that was not open to reporters after he blamed Trump for Republican failures in three consecutive elections, Axios first reported.)
Speaking at another panel, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said the lesson he took from the midterm elections was “that there is a real hunger in this country for competent leadership" but "that can be done so with a degree of civility that rarely exists in politics today.”
“I hope that we can, as a party … be those leaders for the people that are waiting for us to be,” he added.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who was on the panel with Lee, said the party was failing to inspire young voters and needed to re-evaluate how it messaged toward that demographic “because they’re just buying the propaganda that’s out there that’s in their classrooms.”
She added Republicans should stop trying to generate attention by saying “crazy” things.
Of 2024, Noem, who has generated some presidential buzz on the right and hails from the party’s more Trump-friendly wing, said the election will “be interesting to see.”
“I don’t think anybody can predict it right now,” she added.
Another focus of the conference was “electability,” with many Republicans expressing increased interest in making sure that candidates who emerged from primaries were best positioned to win in November.
Outgoing Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who just finished a term as RGA co-chair, suggested that the group could get more involved in primaries. The RGA did spend to defend incumbents facing primaries but now may consider spending in open races.
“Historically, the RGA has not been very involved in primaries, but that’s one of the things we’re going to have to examine as we go forward, as well,” Ricketts said.
Republicans here presented a united front on the issues they would seek to tackle, or continue addressing, over the next two years: cutting state-level taxes, boosting law enforcement, and further zeroing in on education and “parental rights” — a major theme of the 2022 campaigns. Republicans also discussed expanding vocational training opportunities in their states.
DeWine, who ran nearly 10 points ahead of GOP Sen.-elect J.D. Vance on the same ticket, said the disparity was likely the result of Democrats and independent voters rewarding him for how he handled pandemic policy — which, he said, showed voters will reward officials for “not being divisive.”
“They want someone to lead, they want someone to pull people together,” he said of voters. “I don’t think, by and large, they want someone to be divisive. Again, that doesn’t mean they’re not conservative, but they want action. They want results.”
“As a party, we have to nominate people who can win general elections,” he added. “That doesn’t mean they don’t have principles. But they have to be able to survive a general election. It does not make any sense to nominate someone who cannot win a general election. That’s not how we govern, that’s not how we get things done.”
The Ohio governor, who has served in elected office for more than 40 years, said his fellow Republicans are right now on the same page regarding electability. “The question is whether that lasts,” he said. “But certainly this week, that’s what people understand.”
On Trump’s announcement, DeWine said he did not think it would change the calculations for fellow GOP governors who might seek the presidency
“People who are in politics,” he said, “are always looking for presidential candidates who can win.”
Sununu said Republicans did make some important gains last week — namely recapturing the House. But with the results being underwhelming, he said it presents a great opportunity for a reset.
“I think a lot of people are saying: ‘OK, whether it’s a Trump thing or this extremism thing, we've got to move on,’” he said, adding, “Hopefully, [the message is] sinking into other folks like it’s sinking into at least the folks here. I’m already hearing it and feeling it right now.”
As for Trump’s announcement, Sununu said it barely registered and did not come from a place of strength.
“The idea that Trump would make an announcement yesterday — and I’ve been proven right, because it’s barely a story — it was just stupid,” he said. “It was really ill-advised. It’s clearly from a position of weakness, and for his own self-serving purposes, whatever they may be legal or otherwise. So I just think we have so far to go.”