‘We don't have a clear path to victory’: DeSantis exits presidential race

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Gov. Ron DeSantis ended his turbulent campaign Sunday after he was unable to convince Republicans to set aside their allegiance to the man who helped his own political career.

DeSantis’ run came to a halt following a dispiriting second-place finish in Iowa, a state where he and allies poured millions into an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort that featured the governor visiting all 99 counties. He spent week after week in the state instead of establishing a presence in other early voting states like New Hampshire and South Carolina.

DeSantis had initially been considered a formidable challenger to former President Donald Trump. But DeSantis was unable to gain traction in the primary, with Trump instead steadily consolidating support and rising in the polls before a dominant win in Iowa.

On Sunday, DeSantis also endorsed the former president for president.

"[Trump] has my endorsement because we cannot go back to the old Republican guard of yesteryear, a repackaged form of warmed-over corporatism that Nikki Haley represents,” he said. Shortly after DeSantis bowed out, Trump’s campaign released a statement saying it was “honored” by the governor’s endorsement.

Haley, addressing supporters at a stop on New Hampshire’s Seacoast, said, “I want to say to Ron: he ran a great race. He’s been a good governor. And we wish him well. Having said that, it’s now one fella and one lady left.”

Why DeSantis decided to drop out

DeSantis on Saturday night was supposed to fly from South Carolina to New Hampshire to hold an event the following day, but instead decided to fly to home to Tallahassee to huddle with a tight-knit circle of senior advisers and his family. He finalized his decision early Sunday afternoon.

Senior DeSantis advisers wanted to give staff and top donors a heads up of the governor’s decision, hoping to avoid what transpired in South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott’s campaign, when some aides learned that he was dropping out from an interview he was giving on Fox News. At around 2 p.m. Sunday, top DeSantis fundraisers received a message from Lauren Lofstrom, the governor’s finance director, informing them of the decision, according to two people familiar with the discussions who were granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

About an hour later, staff was informed through a staff-wide email that DeSantis would be withdrawing from the race and that an announcement would be forthcoming.

DeSantis initially began talking with his inner circle about his options on Monday, following his disappointing second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, where he had bet his campaign. The governor, it was clear from the conversations, was initially leaning in favor of remaining in the contest, said a Republican familiar with the deliberations granted anonymity to speak freely about the issue.

By Thursday, he was thinking seriously about exiting the contest, even though he had been encouraged by the reception he was receiving in South Carolina, said the Republican.

As the governor and his inner circle talked over his options, they concluded there simply wasn’t a path forward. Trump’s margin of victory in Iowa had been significant, and had helped the former president consolidate the support of the party.

Among those who were advocating for DeSantis to drop out shortly after Iowa was Texas Rep. Chip Roy, a frequent campaign trail companion, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions granted anonymity to speak freely. Roy told POLITICO that he doesn't discuss private conversations but "I fully support Gov DeSantis and his decision to put the country and people ahead of himself."

What’s next for the governor

The decision by DeSantis to formally end his campaign will immediately lead to speculation about his future. DeSantis, 45, has repeatedly ruled out serving as a running mate for either Trump or Haley and has said he would rather return to Florida and finish his term as governor for the remaining two years. DeSantis is in his second stint and will be term-limited from running again in 2026.

“I don’t think it’s a position that offers much,” DeSantis said earlier this month about the vice president spot.

DeSantis has previously said he would endorse the eventual GOP nominee, but the question is whether his decision to challenge Trump will hover over any future political moves including a possible run in 2028.

Trump has repeatedly gone after DeSantis for being “disloyal” and said DeSantis would have left politics completely if not for Trump’s help. DeSantis and Haley also repeatedly clashed ahead of the Iowa caucuses as her allies called DeSantis “weak.” Their animosity spilled over during a recent debate in Iowa, where Haley called DeSantis desperate and the governor said she’s “mealy mouthed.”

After winning the governor’s race in 2018, DeSantis rose to national prominence amid his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, where he pushed back against mask and vaccine mandates as well as lockdowns. He followed that up with high-profile battles over race and gender identity and a clash with Disney, one of the state’s biggest employers, after the entertainment giant criticized legislation that banned teaching about sexual orientation in lower grades that critics called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

He crushed Democrat Charlie Crist in his 2022 reelection battle by nearly 20 points and was seen by some Republicans and high-profile donors as the successor to the chaos of the Trump years. Another significant advantage was that DeSantis was able to raise tens of millions of dollars for his reelection effort that eventually wound its way to a super PAC that was set up to aid his presidential campaign.

But the campaign fell into disarray amid a series of missteps, including a decision to delay his entrance into the race so he could get the Florida Legislature to pass a series of contentious GOP red-meat pieces of legislation that DeSantis could use on the campaign trail. His initial campaign announcement held on Twitter, now called X, was a glitch-filled exercise. Then it turned out his campaign was spending too much money too quickly, which led to layoffs and a reshuffling of top staff.

DeSantis’ main reason for losing, however, was his inability to persuade a majority of Republican voters to abandon Trump, even as he tried to sell himself as a more competent conservative whose record in Florida proved he could “beat the left” as he constantly repeated on the campaign trail.

The criminal indictments against Trump — along with the poor numbers for President Joe Biden — led to a consolidation of support for the former president. He broke fundraising records off of his indictment and swept poll after poll. DeSantis was left to all but defend Trump, while attempting to persuade Republicans he had become a more viable option in a general election.

Ahead of the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, DeSantis argued that the media and Democrats wanted Trump to be the nominee because then the 2024 election would focus on Trump’s criminal charges, his unproven allegations of voter fraud in the last presidential election, and the January 6th riots.

“Let’s focus on your issues, let’s focus on Biden’s failures,” he said during a January campaign stop in Iowa.

Yet he also veered away from more direct criticism of Trump, telling a voter during an early January stop that he didn’t want to “smear” the former president even though the media wanted him to do that.

“I’ve never understood Ron’s approach,” said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who waged his own long-shot campaign to bring down Trump and said that DeSantis did not give voters a real reason to pick him over the former president. “If you present yourself as New Coke, and Coke’s still on the shelves, they are going to buy Coke not New Coke.”

Shortly after DeSantis posted a video to his account on X announcing his suspension, he began allies to thank them. Among those receiving a call was Roy Bailey, a national finance co-chair.

“I’d love to see him run again in 2028,” Bailey said in an interview. “I’ve got a lot of friends who are Trump supporters who would like to see him do that as well.”

Lisa Kashinsky and Kimberly Leonard contributed to this report.