Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t even declared whether he’ll run for president in 2024, and Donald Trump has tried to restrain himself from going after his top GOP rival, but the former president’s allies are already mounting an offensive—with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem now leading the charge.
Noem may be interested in running for president herself, and therefore would have good reason to go after DeSantis, but she also may be angling for a different role: Trump’s vice president.
Earlier this month, Noem’s press secretary, Ian Fury, took a shot at DeSantis seemingly from out of nowhere. Fury sent a follow-up email to the National Review for an article ostensibly about “the transgender lobby’s outsized influence in South Dakota.” Fury went on a tirade—against DeSantis.
“Governor Noem was the only Governor in America on national television defending the Dobbs decision,” Fury said, referring to the Supreme Court decision overturning federal abortion protections. “Where was Governor DeSantis? Hiding behind a 15-week ban. Does he believe that 14-week-old babies don’t have a right to live?”
After cruising to re-election by almost 20 points without facing a primary challenge or having to do a single interview with a non-friendly conservative media outlet, DeSantis is now facing his first real test from the right—this largely one-way feud with Noem.
“I think what Noem gets out of this is currying favor with Trump and raising her stock as a potential VP pick,” a Republican strategist told The Daily Beast, adding that Trump advisers see Noem as “the ideal person for them” to carry out the MAGA black ops mission against Florida’s governor.
DeSantis has consistently polled in the top two spots among GOP presidential primary voters, trading spots back and forth with Trump. The Sunshine State governor recently drew comparisons to John F. Kennedy—not for the first time—after Florida first lady Casey DeSantis wore a mint-green dress at his Jan. 3 inauguration, an eerily similar look to one of Jackie Kennedy’s outfits from the Camelot era.
And so, as DeSantis’ star burns brighter, Trumpworld is looking for someone to dampen the light—which is where Noem comes in.
According to three GOP sources with behind-the-scenes knowledge of the quarrel, Noem has Trump’s blessing to take some shots across the DeSantis bow. And Noem’s efforts haven’t been going unnoticed as Trump continues filling out his VP shortlist.
When asked for their thoughts on the DeSantis-Noem dustup, one source close to Trump responded simply with a popcorn emoji before later elaborating.
“Any experienced primary campaign operative will tell you arguments between potential opponents are best left to roil, fester, and spread,” the longtime friend of Trump’s told The Daily Beast.
“This is where you head to Costco to buy cases of microwave popcorn and distribute them to staff with instructions to pop, butter, and enjoy quietly.”
The seemingly random—and gratuitous—shot from Noem’s camp is understood in Republican circles to be about more than just a rogue spokesperson whose surname may be even a little over the top for Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Fury, who cut his political teeth as a spokesman for Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), did not return a request for comment.)
Beefing with other governors became something of a specialty for DeSantis during the height of the pandemic. But in this case, he’s facing incoming attacks from within the GOP in an effort to “wedge” his supporter base over abortion and “chip away at the governor from the right,” according to a Republican operative familiar with the tussle who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive internal conversations.
It’s also testing the DeSantis camp’s theory of the case on running an extremely online communications operation predicated on owning the libs and severing any access non-conservative outlets have come to expect from a Florida governor.
“This is a 2024 move, I think you’ve gotta see it through that lens,” the strategist said. “I think she’s showing here that DeSantis is flimsier than people think he is. He’s never been tested on the national stage, really. He’s had all controlled environments with conservative press.”
For Noem, the swipe at DeSantis offers “a VP play at max, at minimum currying favor with Trump.”
The strategist added there are worries around the DeSantis communications shop being “way too online” and more focused on Twitter fights than a more comprehensive messaging strategy.
Brad Coker, a longtime Florida pollster with Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, told The Daily Beast that while DeSantis hasn’t faced this kind of an affront from his right before—with the only comparable example being Roger Stone having a go at him ahead of the 2022 midterms—it’s something he’ll have to learn to cope with.
“Locally, it seems like ignoring Kristi Noem is the smart thing to do at this point. She’s not a Tier 1 candidate,” Coker said. “If I were advising DeSantis, I would just go back to trying to get Disney’s land from them and pay it no attention.”
Coker added that DeSantis still mixes it up with the Tallahassee press corps from time to time, but will eventually have to start facing the heat from major national outlets.
The abortion issue, however, could be a lingering sore spot for DeSantis, the veteran pollster said.
“The problem that Republicans have on the abortion issue is there are sort of mixed messages out there on what is the quote unquote ‘correct position,’” Coker said. “It’s a circular firing squad right now on abortion.”
One GOP source close with DeSantis said his reputation remains strong among party brass, and he couldn’t think of another conservative stepping out against the Florida governor in the way Noem has.
“When I travel with RNC folks from other states, I’ve never heard one negative thing about Mr. DeSantis ever,” the Florida operative said. “It’s incredible, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The Noem salvo also came with another warning sign, the first GOP strategist said.
“Politicians are terrified to answer the question on DeSantis and Trump—and a lot of them might be inclined to support DeSantis, but they’re not gonna cross Trump. But people will attack DeSantis publicly,” this strategist said, adding that Trump has vanquished, in their opinion, more talented foes such as Sen. Marco Rubio and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“DeSantis is gonna realize very quickly, the closer you get to the waters, you have to realize Trump is still the king of this party,” the strategist continued. “And he might be tucked away in Tallahassee with his Twitter trolls who pump him and breathe his praise. But you’ve gotta remember, people will line up for Trump and do things for Trump. DeSantis does not have that same type of following that Trump does.”
While there may be upside for Noem in raising her profile by going after DeSantis, Coker said Trump will have to pick a better proxy fighter to escalate things with the former president beyond his “scoreboard” comments post-midterms.
Representatives for Noem and DeSantis did not return a request for comment, but their feud may also be more genuine and less calculated.
DeSantis and Noem both served in the U.S. House of Representatives together. And while Noem was an ally to GOP leadership, DeSantis helped found the Freedom Caucus—the conservative group that’s been a thorn in the side of the last Republican speakers. Despite being elected governor in the same election, the two have never been close.
Still, where Noem clearly has something to gain from going after DeSantis—Trump’s favor—there doesn’t seem to be much advantage for DeSantis to get in a back-and-forth with Noem.
“He’s kind of sitting in the catbird’s seat, at least for the moment,” Coker said. “For now, Trump’s gonna try to bait him and he won’t take the bait. So if you won’t take the bait from Trump, why would you take the bait from Noem?”