TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A quiet lobbying fight between backers of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis is breaking out over a push from the former president's supporters to get the Florida GOP to scrap a loyalty oath requirement supported by the governor.
If Trump allies are successful in getting the state Republican Party to vote against DeSantis' political wishes, some of his supporters are concerned it will send a signal that even Florida Republicans who have been steadfastly loyal to their governor are abandoning his presidential campaign, which continues to trail Trump’s by significant margins in the polls.
“Right or wrong, it would be viewed as a f--- you to DeSantis,” a prominent Florida Republican said.
No state party officials NBC News spoke to knew whether there was enough support to rescind the loyalty pledge as lobbying efforts ramp up ahead of a likely vote Friday.
Florida GOP leaders voted this year to require Republican presidential candidates to sign a pledge promising to support the eventual party nominee to get on the state’s March 19 primary ballot. Trump supporters viewed the move as an attempt to protect DeSantis and go after Trump, who has publicly said he would not sign a pledge to support the GOP’s eventual nominee. The Republican National Committee has a similar requirement for candidates who qualify for its presidential primary debates.
Trump for months has had a commanding lead over the rest of the Republican field, prompting him to skip last month's first debate in Milwaukee and balk at other party efforts, like loyalty pledges, under the ingrained belief that he will undoubtedly be the nominee.
State Sen. Joe Gruters is expected to bring a motion to rescind the Florida GOP's loyalty pledge, said a source close to the decision. Gruters, a former Florida GOP chairman and longtime Trump supporter who has quarreled with DeSantis in the past, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The motion is expected to be made at the party’s quarterly meeting Friday in Orlando. The gathering was scheduled to coincide with the GOP's annual Statesman’s Dinner, one of the biggest grassroots and fundraising events of the year.
Once the motion is made, a fight between the two factions is likely to play out.
For now, DeSantis supporters, including Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez and state House Speaker Paul Renner, are calling key party leaders to try to whip their votes against passing a motion that would remove any loyalty oath.
“I can confirm I have been making phone calls,” Renner said Tuesday night. “The Republican Party’s purpose is to elect Republicans. I think you can expect those in the party to support the nominee, especially those in party leadership.”
Nuñez did not respond to a request for comment, and DeSantis’ campaign declined to comment.
Those backing Trump, whose campaign also did not respond to a request for comment, are not shying away from the fact they are pushing the state party to revoke its loyalty oath.
“Motion to revoke is guaranteed,” said Lee County Republican Party Chair Michael Thompson, who supports Trump.
Asked whether he thought the loyalty pledge was designed to go after Trump, Thompson said, "Of course." He nicknamed it the “Donald J. Trump rule.”
The rift between Trump and DeSantis supporters has put the Florida GOP in an awkward position. DeSantis is a home-state governor who has raised millions for the state GOP, and Trump is a Florida resident who won the state in both of his presidential campaigns.
The state party has pledged to stay neutral in the presidential primary.
“The Florida GOP is a grassroots-run organization, and the membership from across the state always has the opportunity to bring up, discuss and take action on issues impacting their Republican Party,” state GOP Chairman Christian Ziegler said of the expected fight.
As the tensions between the two camps grows, some are working to try to craft compromise language that would allow both Trump and DeSantis to appear victorious. In that scenario, a pledge would remain, but the wording would be changed to create some flexibility centered on the idea that Republicans might not have to formally endorse the eventual nominee. However, they also wouldn't be allowed to attack the nominee publicly or campaign against him or her under that scenario.
“I’ve been talking to some folks, and I think there are conversations today about a compromise,” a Florida GOP leader said. “At the end of the day, the ultimate outcome is to not be fighting.”
Because DeSantis is Florida's governor, the state party has amplified importance from a perception standpoint, but it is not the only state-level Republican Party that is seeing a fight between the two campaigns.
NBC News reported Monday that the two sides are also gearing up for a fight in California over the state party’s new primary rule allowing a potential winner-take-all scenario rather than assigning delegates by congressional district, a setup that allowed candidates to more easily target certain areas rather than fight over the statewide vote.
DeSantis opposes the California GOP's new approach, which Trump supports. NBC News reported last month that the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down cited the rule change when it decided to end door-knocking operations in California.
The group has also stopped knocking on doors in Nevada after the state changed its presidential primary system, eliminating caucuses in favor of a traditional state-run primary. The move prompted Never Back Down to call Nevada Republican Chairman Michael McDonald a “Trump puppet,” a characterization he denied.