Former Trump staffers have joined a pro-DeSantis super PAC as the primary season heats up.
Trump's campaign reportedly plans to blacklist anyone who works for DeSantis, but it may be an empty threat.
Regardless of who's backing who, one expert said the race will come down to the candidates themselves.
More Republicans are lining up to get Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis elected president in 2024 — even as reports say former President Donald Trump's campaign has vowed to blacklist anyone who does.
Though DeSantis has not yet officially launched a campaign, Trump has already gone on the attack, frequently criticizing his former ally, lambasting his record as governor, and even taking credit for his popularity. Polls currently suggest Trump, who declared his 2024 campaign in November, is leading DeSantis for the Republican nomination.
So far, only Trump and Nikki Haley have officially entered the race. But for the 2020 election, nearly every candidate had declared by May 2019, meaning DeSantis's announcement could be coming soon.
As the feud between the two heats up, with DeSantis recently taking a swipe at Trump over his potential indictment, the time for GOP insiders — including staffers, strategists, and donors — to pick sides is quickly approaching.
"It's a time for choosing," a source close to Trump told RealClearPolitics last week. "If you work for Ron DeSantis' presidential race, you will not work for the Trump campaign or in the Trump White House."
Several former Trump staffers have joined team DeSantis in recent weeks. Ken Cuccinelli, who served as Trump's acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security from 2019 to 2021, launched the pro-DeSantis super PAC, Never Back Down, earlier this month. In an interview with Fox News, Cuccinelli called DeSantis the "strongest Republican available."
Erin Perrine and Matt Wolking, top communications aides to Trump's 2020 campaign, have also joined the super PAC. In his announcement, Wolking wrote: "Trump was the president we needed 8 years ago, but to make America great again, our movement needs a disciplined leader who wins instead of loses, never backs down, fights smart, and puts the mission before himself. On each count, Governor Ron DeSantis is the strongest choice."
But although Trump is known for demanding loyalty, Republicans who end up backing DeSantis may not be taking much of a risk at all.
"I don't think he's going to blacklist anybody," Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University, told Insider. "What Trump really likes is when someone bends the knee to him — when someone comes back with their tail between their legs and apologizes."
In an especially overt example, Trump endorsed and campaigned for JD Vance, now an Ohio senator, who had been strongly anti-Trump before becoming a supporter. At a rally for Vance in September, Trump acknowledged the past criticism but said they had moved on, adding: "JD is kissing my ass, he wants my support so bad."
Dagnes said GOP insiders know this about Trump, and that if DeSantis lost the nomination, they could easily go back to praising the former president.
"What is obvious is how much they really, really do not want him, not only to run, but to win. They really don't. But they're absolutely going turn around and pledge fealty to him when he beats DeSantis," she said, adding they are not risking anything by backing DeSantis.
It's not uncommon for aides to work for different politicians, even at times joining another campaign after the candidate they were initially working for drops out of a race, according to Matt Terrill, a partner at Firehouse Strategies and the former chief of staff for Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign.
Terrill told Insider that the outcome of the election will ultimately come down to the candidates — not the staffers behind them. Voters aren't especially concerned about who's endorsing who or who's working for which campaign, something Trump demonstrated in 2016 when he won with very little establishment support.
"To be clear, advisers and staff and the ground game — all those things do matter," he said. "But ultimately it's the candidates that are going to win or lose these elections."
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