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Trump’s South Carolina donors vet DeSantis

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — South Carolina remains Trump country, but if the former president doesn’t seek reelection in 2024, major Republican donors are eyeing another option: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis on Thursday will be in South Carolina for a fundraiser hosted by a collection of top-level Trump donors, each of whom supports Trump running for reelection, but sees DeSantis as the heir apparent if he does not. South Carolina holds special importance as the GOP’s “First in The South” presidential primary state.

“Everyone who is going to be around that table is a big Trump donor, and it has been communicated to the governor they will support Trump if he runs for re-election. He knows the checks are for his reelection,” said a source close to DeSantis familiar with the event. “But people here want to get to know him, in case Trump does not run.”

DeSantis has consistently downplayed rumors that he is considering a White House bid, even as donors in key primary states are eager to build a relationship with him and see the GOP governor as the front runner if Trump does not. In 2020, the South Carolina Republican Party canceled its primary to help pave the way for Trump to get the Republican nomination by preventing other lesser-known candidates from challenging him. The state remains a Trump stronghold, but DeSantis’ national ascent built on a conservative agenda and attacks on liberals is winning over South Carolina Republicans.

“There are other candidates and politicians that people like ideologically here, but none have the excitement that DeSantis does,” said Wesley Donehue, founder of Push Digital, a South Carolina-based Republican digital firm that does work nationally, including for Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker. “DeSantis has almost transcended politics to become a celebrity. There is that much excitement for him here.”

DeSantis’ campaign did not respond to requests for comment about the South Carolina event, which was first reported by The State newspaper. His campaign has repeatedly brushed off questions about his national aspirations, including highlighting that DeSantis has not done events in Iowa or New Hampshire, the two states that hold the first primaries in the country.

“People will have paraphernalia about me in the future, people always bring it up to me and stuff, but you know, I have never done anything along those lines,” DeSantis said earlier this month on The Truth with Lisa Boothe when asked about presidential buzz. “I’ve basically done my job.”

Donehue said no matter where he travels, there is a sense in Republican circles that DeSantis is the future of the Party — even in his home state, which features potential 2024 Republicans shortlist candidates Sen. Tim Scott and former Gov. Nikki Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.

“Here in South Carolina, it’s a weird spot because of that,” Donehue said of Scott and Haley also angling for national relevance. “Those two could also be running, and are both very popular here, but I can’t see anyone coming into South Carolina as the frontrunner beyond Trump or DeSantis.”

DeSantis is also no stranger to raising political funds outside of Florida.

He has attended Nebraska’s famed Steak Fry and raised money in Wisconsin, California and Kentucky. He campaigned in Nevada for GOP Senate hopeful Adam Laxalt, the state’s former Attorney General and one of DeSantis’ oldest friends. Beyond high dollar traditional fundraisers, DeSantis has become wildly popular with the GOP’s grass-root base, which has helped him raise more than 40,000 contributions from individual donors across the country of under $100, totaling more than $1.5 million. He has at least one political contribution from all 50 states.

He has notably, however, until now skipped the earliest primary states, a fact he has used to downplay chatter that he is looking past his reelection, where he is a major favorite, to 2024.

“I’ve never been to Iowa in my life. I’ve never been to New Hampshire, I may have been there in my twenties,” DeSantis said in March on The Guy Benson Show. “I’m not doing anything differently than I would do if people were buzzing about me or not.”

DeSantis’ national star power was amplified during the height of the pandemic as states across the country were shutting down. Florida went through a brief pandemic lockdown but opened much faster than most states, and the DeSantis administration went to court to fight local mask and vaccine mandates — efforts that quickly endeared him to Republicans nationally, who started dubbing him “America’s Governor.”

Most recently, DeSantis picked a fight with the Walt Disney Co. after the company opposed legislation he championed banning classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. As part of that push, DeSantis ordered Florida’s Republican Legislature to abolish Disney’s long-running ability to self-govern, an issue that has drawn political pushback and legal challenges.

Conservatives have started viewing DeSantis’ fight with the California-based company as a larger rallying cry in a fight they have long been waging against corporations and media companies they see as too liberal-leaning.

“He is leading a fight that goes beyond the state of Florida,” Donehue said. “They [conservative voters] see it as taking the fight to a woke company impacting kids.”

“It’s a message conservative across the country are hearing,” he added.