DOYLESTOWN, Pennsylvania—Richard Tems was about as loyal a Trump supporter as you can get.
The Bucks County businessman and GOP committeeman has fiercely defended former President Donald Trump in editorials, interviews with reporters, and conversations with anyone within earshot. He voted for Trump twice and believed he was the right president at the right time.
However, eight years after the New York businessman and entertainer came down the escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015, Tems said he would move on in next year’s Pennsylvania primary. He plans to vote instead for Governor Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., for the Republican nomination for president.
“Why? Well, because DeSantis has done a brilliant job in Florida. He took a tiny little victory the first time, and he turned that state dark red by implementing good conservative policies. He brought in the right kind of people, and he turned that state from being purple, or occasionally blue, to very red,” Tems said.
Tems said what Trump did brilliantly was recognize the public was unhappy with the governing class. But “DeSantis knows that to win, you have to build coalitions, and that is what he did,” Tems said. “He spent four years governing conservatively and building a coalition that not only gave him a win last November, it had coattails for all Republican candidates.”
By the time the dust cleared in Florida last year, there were no statewide elected Democrats left standing for the first time in modern politics. DeSantis won reelection over former Gov. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., by a whopping 19 percentage points, even carrying Democratic Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
“It’s not just that he won—it’s that he changed the state and what people think is the way it should be run,” Tems said. “That’s why I believe he would be a better president than Trump . . . The problem I had with President Trump is he was lousy at staff,” Tems added. “They were backfighting, leaking, all having their own agendas, and he kept getting in the way of his own great successes. It was just horrible.”
The only way Tems votes for Trump again is if it becomes a choice between him and President Joe Biden.
In my two-week trip throughout Pennsylvania, talking to Republican voters ahead of next year’s closed party primary, there were several common, at times conflicting, themes coming from conservative voters. First and foremost, they want to win. They’ve lost three major elections in a row here, and they are very aware that Trump has been at the front of or at least behind each of those losses.
Second, they still like Trump and liked his policies and are furious at what they consider never-ending attacks from the political elite in both parties and in the press aimed at him.
And third, they may not say it out loud as Tems did, but there is much less resistance to them moving away from Trump than polling has captured. This may be in part because they don’t want to tell pollsters what they really think.
Carol Sides of Lycoming County was torn. “It’s just that I like both of them,” she said. “I like my association with Trump and with his family. They were fun years, to say the least. But then, with DeSantis coming up and reading everything that he’s doing for Florida. I mean, he’s unbelievable for his age and his background. I think that he did a wonderful job there, and he is a gentleman beyond words, so I am undecided,” said Sides, who sits on the local county Republican committee.
She admitted she is weary of the Trump drama.
Huntingdon County Republican Committee Chairman Arnie McClure said bluntly that he’s done with Trump. “I’d really like to move on from the drama, and I think that DeSantis gives us Trump policies without the drama,” he said.
McClure ran a poll during the county’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner two weeks ago at the height of Trump’s indictment sympathy. The former president received 112 votes, whereas DeSantis received 69. “In a county where 80% of the vote went to Trump, 80%, and DeSantis hasn’t even started running for office yet, those are pretty good numbers for the Florida governor,” McClure said.
McClure can’t wait to run the poll once DeSantis is actually in the race.
Although Trump leads DeSantis in every national poll, many of DeSantis’ supporters said that would all change once he jumps in and starts punching back.
“The press and some of these Republicans are measuring his worth before he even gets in the ring,” Tems said. “I think it’s too early to jump in. Trump didn’t just jump in until June of 2015, didn’t start leading in the polls until after that first debate.”
A survey conducted this week by Public Opinion Strategies, the gold standard of Republican polling firms, showed DeSantis leading Biden in Pennsylvania by a 3-point margin, 45 percent to 42 percent. The same poll showed that Trump trails Biden by 4 points, 42 percent to 46 percent.
A simultaneous survey also found that in Arizona, DeSantis would beat Biden 48 percent to 42 percent, while Trump would narrowly lose to the sitting president, 44 percent to 45 percent. Trump lost both states to Biden in 2020 and led the losses in the midterm elections in Pennsylvania in both 2018 and 2022 for the U.S. Senate contests, with Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and John Fetterman, D-Pa., defeating their Trump-backed opponents.
In January, Democratic state Senator Sharif Street proposed that Pennsylvania lawmakers move the 2024 presidential primary up by a month to March 19, 2024. The measure has bipartisan support. If it passes, Pennsylvania, always known for its importance in general elections, will become even more important in the primaries.
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