Can Republicans Rally Around DeSantis as an "Electable" Choice?Roundup
tags: Republican Party, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, 2024 Election
Robert Fleegler is an associate professor of history at the University of Mississippi.
Republicans face a serious political dilemma as long as Donald Trump remains a viable presidential candidate. Trump has lost one presidential election, contributed to significant Republican losses in 2018, the loss in the 2020 Georgia Senate runoffs, which cost the GOP control of the Senate, as well as the party’s poorer-than-expected showing in the 2022 midterm elections. Should he win the party’s nomination next year, the GOP’s odds of returning to the White House become dramatically lower.
At the end of the 1990s, the Republican Party faced a somewhat similar dilemma. Having twice lost to Bill Clinton and coming off a subpar midterm showing in 1998, the Republicans feared they were headed for a third straight loss in the 2000 presidential election. In response, the Republican establishment took aggressive steps to ensure its process produced a nominee capable of winning a general election — Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Might they try the same thing again this cycle with another big-state governor such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis? It might be their best chance to move on from the Trump era.
As in 2022, historical trends suggested a strong Republican showing in 1998. The “six-year itch” meant that Democrats should lose congressional seats in Clinton’s second midterm. The Monica Lewinsky scandal and Clinton’s looming impeachment seemed to increase the likelihood of this outcome. Instead, the backlash against independent counsel Ken Starr, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and their investigation of the president’s personal life cost the GOP five seats in the House, while their advantage in the Senate remained unchanged.
The loss prompted Gingrich to resign. Even so, the GOP went ahead and impeached Clinton, though the Senate did not convict him. The crusade damaged the party’s approval ratings, weakening its chances to win the 2000 presidential election.
One of the few GOP bright spots in the 1998 election was George W. Bush’s strong showing in Texas. Bush had only received 53.5 percent of the vote in his upset of incumbent Gov. Ann Richards in 1994, but he won a second term with an overwhelming 68 percent of the vote. The victory included a better-than-usual performance for a Republican among Hispanic voters — a very prized political constituency then and now.
Though Bush’s triumph came against a relatively weak opponent, he hailed it as evidence of the success of his “compassionate conservative” ideology. “The conservative philosophy doesn’t have to be confined to certain people,” Bush declared. He added that conservatism could “attract Hispanics if properly positioned. And the Republican Party needs to do just that.”
To many observers, Bush was a candidate who could appeal to a broad range of constituencies in a general election.
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