This spring, high-dollar Republican donors fired warning shots across the bow of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis after he flubbed a response to Donald Trump's first criminal indictment and declared the war in Ukraine a mere "territorial dispute."
Though DeSantis made an effort to paper over both missteps, a group of roughly 16 conservative donors met in late March to consider whether DeSantis was really ready for prime time. Perhaps, they wondered, he should wait for 2028.
But instead of heeding the warning signs DeSantis doubled down, signing a near-total abortion ban and extending free speech bans on LGBTQ+ issues in educational settings all the way through 12th grade.
By late April DeSantis backers were clamoring for a campaign shakeup, but the damage was already done. Top donors such as Thomas Peterffy were already closing their wallets, citing the governor's radical stances on abortion and book bans.
Instead of moderating, DeSantis plunged headlong into the buzzsaw of MAGA cruelty, searching for votes—a strategy that simultaneously alienated relative Republican moderates and suburbanites looking to move on from Trump.
In fact, DeSantis' favorables have shed several points among independents nationally in the past week alone. He's now 25 points underwater at 32% favorable, 57% unfavorable.
As we barrel toward the final few months for a 2024 candidate to make their mark in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, Republican donors—who had banked on a strong bid from DeSantis—are nearing the break-glass moment.
Enter Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is quietly out-campaigning more well known Republican hopefuls in Iowa, such as former Vice President Mike Pence and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. In FiveThirtyEight's aggregate, every Iowa poll over the last two months shows Scott outperforming both Pence and Haley by several points. That said, he's still in single digits and DeSantis remains a strong second while Trump continues to run away with it.
Nonetheless, GOP donors are now eyeing Scott, a natural retail politician with an inspiring biography and evangelical bona fides, as an alternative to the sputtering DeSantis.
According to Politico, the following donors are giving Scott the once-over as they try to determine whether he's for real or simply campaigning for a vice presidential spot on the ‘24 ticket:
Billionaire Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder makeup dynasty and a 2020 Trump supporter.
Andy Sabin, a metal mogul who shifted allegiances from DeSantis to Scott in the spring.
Stanley Druckenmiller, a billionaire investor who typically funds moderate Republicans.
Three unnamed New York donors who had backed DeSantis until spring.
“A lot of donors that I’ve met are all curious and want to meet Tim and see what he’s about,” Sabin told Politico. “He’s the one guy running who’s got some personality and charisma. His delivery is terrific.”
Scott may have also discovered what is as close to a GOP sweet spot on abortion as possible, at least in the Republican primary. After stumbling over the issue out of the box, Scott has now backed a 15-week national abortion ban while also saying he would sign "the most conservative" ban that could clear Congress. Supporting a 15-week ban is basically the bare minimum any serious GOP candidate can get away with in the primary. But Scott is also signaling that deep down in his fundamentalist heart, he'd happily ban abortion nationwide if Republicans had the votes for it.
To Sabin, it clears the GOP bar without entirely dooming Scott in a general election, demonstrating at least a modicum of moderation that has escaped DeSantis.
“No Republican, in my opinion, can win a national election unless they believe in at least a 15-week abortion window, because women vote,” Sabin said.
To be clear, Scott still has a ton of mileage to make up against DeSantis, whom he still trails in Iowa by double-digits. Plus DeSantis still has a substantial cash advantage after raising about $20 million in the second quarter to Scott's $6.1 million haul. The DeSantis super PAC has raised about $130 million since March while Scott's PAC has raised about $19.2 million this year.
That said, DeSantis has proven to be a spectacularly bad campaigner and Iowa's evangelical bent is conceivably promising terrain for a true believer like Scott.
At this point, Scott also has an expectations advantage. If he manages to place second or even a very close third in Iowa, his bid could catch fire. Whereas if DeSantis doesn't win Iowa or at least come extremely close, he will look very weak.
Finally, Scott is not custom-made for New Hampshire, host to the GOP’s second primary contest, but next up for Republicans is Scott's home state of South Carolina. Trump still polls strongly in the Palmetto State, but if the Republican field winnowed to a two-person contest, Scott might be able to make a race of it.
Whatever anti-Trump Republican donors decide to do, time is of the essence. If they don't think DeSantis has the juice—a reasonable conclusion at this point—they must coalesce around an alternative soon in order to give that candidate a fighting chance.