As DeSantis, Trump Eye Each Other, Florida Latinos Could be Kingmakers

With Donald Trump and Governor Ron DeSantis warily eyeing each other ahead of an expected 2024 clash for the Republican nomination, attention has turned to Florida, where Trump reigns but DeSantis currently rules.

A New York Times piece outlined how the spat began, with Trump calling politicians who refuse to reveal their vaccination status "gutless," seen as a shot at DeSantis, who has not said whether he received the booster.

DeSantis followed by appearing on a conservative podcast where he said he would have been much more vocal in opposing Trump's handling of the pandemic, but in March 2020 he didn't know the virus "would lead to locking down the country."

Trump and DeSantis are widely seen as leading the Republican field very early ahead of 2024, which means Florida with its large and motivated Latino electorate could have a major say in who wins the sunshine state jewel.

During the 2016 Republican primary, Hispanics made up 16% of voters. In 2018, DeSantis garnered 44% of the Latino vote in the governor's race, while Trump received 46% support from Hispanics in 2020.

Steve Cortes, a Trump advisor who has met with the former president at Mar-a-Lago since he returned to Florida after losing the election, called reports of a "political feud" between the two Republican leaders a "media creation," but made clear whom he believes will come out on top in 2024.

"Ron DeSantis is an incredible governor, the best governor in America and Trump would probably agree," Cortes said. "DeSantis will be president one day, but that will not be in 2024 if Donald Trump is running."

Nelson Diaz, the former chair of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, where Trump made big gains in 2020, echoed many Republicans in Florida who said they hope the Republican nomination doesn't become a Trump-DeSantis faceoff.

But he also avoided predicting who would come out on top with Hispanics, instead heaping praise on both men whom he said he "adores."

"I hope it wouldn't be one against the other. I hope it doesn't get to that because both of them are incredible leaders," he told Newsweek. "They both bring their own advantages, former president Trump with 70 years of life experience and Governor DeSantis with a fresh, bold approach to policymaking."

Unlike in other states with smaller or newer Hispanic populations, Florida has established Latino GOP leaders and power centers from Miami to Orlando to Tampa and everywhere in between.

Republicans who spoke with Newsweek said those leaders know they hold power in the state, so they will expect Trump and DeSantis to tell them they matter by showing up to events and fundraisers, and also to continue to be aligned on issues that matter to them from Cuba and Venezuela, to schools and COVID.

Latino Republicans with a history in Florida campaigns largely noted that Trump helped make DeSantis, endorsing him and putting him in his current powerful governing position.

But they also say DeSantis took the baton and sped off, enacting a litany of red meat legislation that has thrilled conservative Hispanics.

"There's no denying Trump birthed DeSantis years ago," a seasoned Florida GOP operative told Newsweek. "However, Ron DeSantis has proven himself as his own man and his own leader by showing up in support of the Cuba protests."

DeSantis hosted roundtables in south Florida as the protests unfolded, allowed demonstrations to proceed unimpeded, and was consistently sending out social media statements on the freedom of the Cuban people, Republicans and Cuban-Americans noted.

And the source said DeSantis' response to the pandemic was well-received in the Latino community.

"He's proven popular with how he's handled COVID," the source said, by allowing businesses to reopen and eschewing and fighting state mandates.

Nilsa Alvarez, who worked in faith outreach for the Florida GOP, is well-positioned to understand the draw of both men, having worked in Trump's campaign office in Hialeah in 2016 and in DeSantis' campaign office in Broward in 2018.

But having a connection to the grassroots means she also has heard feedback from pastors and ministers and Hispanic voters throughout the state. She said the same base is behind both men because they support issues Latinos and the faith community care about.

"One of the things Hispanic parents are absolutely cheering and quoting before school board sessions is DeSantis' parental bill of rights in support of parents right to choose how they want their children to respond to COVID," she told Newsweek.

But one Capitol Hill staffer for a Florida Republican member of Congress said COVID cuts the other way, too. While DeSantis is well-regarded in Florida, they argued the ongoing pandemic improves Trump's standing when compared to the current administration.

"What the hell is this administration doing for every American and the Hispanic community?" the staffer asked. "When they're filling up their gas tank, they're feeling it, and that helps Trump. When they're asking, 'What has Biden done for Cuba, substantively?' They think if 45 was in office the response would have been much better."

Trump's impact is still felt among Florida voters and even in the current administration, said Carlos Trujillo, the former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States under Trump, because "every single sanction against Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba is still ongoing."

While Trujillo declined to speculate on a Trump vs. DeSantis matchup, he lauded Trump's improvement from losing Miami-Dade county by 29 points in 2016 to just a 7-point deficit in 2020, which he said proved Latinos' "massive acceptance of foreign and domestic policy from the Republican Party."

Florida Democrats eager to jump into the fray said Trump has a branding advantage over DeSantis in a hypothetical 2024 matchup because he is a symbol for the Big Lie, and "when 70% of Republicans don't believe Biden is the president, he is poster boy for that."

They also argue that DeSantis has his conservative accomplishments as governor and will try to claim credit for an economic recovery hastened by Biden's policies, which they say takes a page from Trump's book when he claimed credit for things Obama put into motion on issues like the economy and helping veterans.

But others said it was simpler than that.

"Trump would dominate DeSantis in any matchup with Latinos," Fernand Amandi, Obama's former Hispanic vote pollster told Newsweek. "They support DeSantis because Trump told them to support DeSantis. And if Trump tells them to turn on DeSantis they will turn on him and vote for Trump in a heartbeat."

A new Harvard CAPS/Harris poll found that in an eight-way GOP primary, Trump holds a major advantage at 57% support, while DeSantis is second at 12% followed by former vice president Mike Pence at 11%.

If Trump doesn't run, however, DeSantis shoots up to 30%, while Pence stands at 24%.

Cortes said it's pointless to imagine such a scenario.

"It's such a fantasy, I don't want to get into the conjecture," he said. "No matter which state, or which demographic, Donald Trump is the absolute leader of The America First movement."

Still, a source with knowledge of the dynamics between both men suggested they could lock horns in the future.

"They don't like each other, 100%," the source said. "It's not hatred, but it's hard to have two bulls in a ring. Especially when you have a young upstart and an aging patriarch, it's natural there's tension."

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Former president Donald Trump is greeted by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at Southwest Florida International Airport October 16, 2020, in Fort Myers, Florida. Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images