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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) sits next to former President Donald Trump during a meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House on December 13, 2018, in Washington, D.C.Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

NOTE: This article is based on pieces originally published on January 21 and January 31, now with additional information and observations from the past year, including Tuesday’s challenging midterm election results.

(LifeSiteNews) — The 2024 Republican primary is about to begin in earnest, and while a handful of other candidates with either delusions of grandeur or books to sell will likely jump in, practically speaking, only two names really matter: Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis.

Trump, who feels cheated out of his 2020 reelection and seems to think one endorsement in 2018 means DeSantis owes him a life debt, has been ramping up swipes at the governor in recent weeks, warning him to stay out of the race for a presidential nomination to which the 45th chief executive feels entitled. Behind closed doors, Trump has reportedly vented frustration with DeSantis’s popularity for a while now, and it’s clear he’s worried. In light of Tuesday’s midterm elections and the recent history leading up to them, he’s right to be.

Certainly, Trump did a lot of good across a lot of issues while president, including for life, the economy, religious freedom, foreign policy, gender reality, border security, and educational sanity. He retains a zealously loyal fan base. He called out media dishonesty like none of his predecessors. He seemed to have a special knack for driving the Left nuts. His Supreme Court nominees overturned Roe v. Wade, the enormity of which cannot be overstated. And he saved America from the nightmare of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Overall, he is clearly the best U.S. president since Ronald Reagan.

However, that title is deceptive for the simple fact that there have only been two other non-leftist presidents in the last 30 years, and both were from the same family. Outperforming two Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama was not exactly the toughest bar to clear, even while accumulating a list of missteps almost as long as his accomplishments.

Trump rubber-stamped most swamp budgets without a fight. He didn’t clean leftists out of the Justice Department (which is a big part of why it went after him but not corrupt Democrats and Planned Parenthood got away with selling baby parts) or social-justice warriors out of the Pentagon. He did almost nothing about vote fraud except convene a commission that was doomed from the start thanks to bad appointments. He didn’t come close to finishing the border wall. He undermined his own “law & order” messaging by embracing left-wing “criminal justice reform” legislation. His administration was frequently hobbled by bad advice and a steady stream of hires he came to regret.

Even his greatest outcome, overturning Roe, is complicated. While his Supreme Court justices (selection of whom was outsourced to conservative groups) delivered conservatives major victories on gun rights, environmental regulation, and Roe, along with narrower victories on other issues, they have also repeatedly handed down dismissive rulings on COVID-19 vaccine mandates, religious freedom, and LGBT accommodation, so often that Trump’s best justice, Neil Gorsuch, along with the great Samuel Alito, took the rare step of criticizing the others for lacking the “fortitude” to resolve such issues. (Even Gorsuch’s hands aren’t fully clean, having authored the Bostock ruling that redefined “sex discrimination” in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.) Trump’s lower-court appointments were mixed, as well.

And then there’s COVID-19. Anthony Fauci and the federal medical bureaucracy bamboozled Trump into endorsing lockdowns and away from clearly, consistently opposing them even after he began to realize his error, unleashing catastrophic damage on society.

As this was going on, he rushed development of the COVID vaccines, invoked the Public Readiness & Emergency Preparedness Act to give drug companies sweeping immunity for their side effects, and continued promoting them long after he was out of office. Trump has always opposed jab mandates, but that wouldn’t be an issue if there were no jabs to mandate. Fan backlash eventually got him to finally stop talking about them, something he lamented as recently as July.

Wishful thinking that the president will be different next time is belied by signs like his continued endorsing of unconservative and establishment candidates in GOP primaries, refusal to take responsibility for errors like listening to Fauci, and celebration of an (admittedly-poor) Republican Senate nominee losing to a Democrat just because Joe O’Dea said bad things about him.

DeSantis? He hit the ground running upon taking office, including slashing economic regulations, firing disastrous election administrators, and eliminating Common Core. When the pandemic hit, DeSantis did issue some restrictions like most governors (based on bad data and guidance from the feds), but upon reviewing the data for himself reversed course, resulting in COVID outcomes so good the Left had to invent a conspiracy theory about Florida cooking the books just to explain them.

From there, DeSantis has established a record as arguably the most proactive conservative reformers in the nation, taking on COVID insanity, vote fraud, transgender mutilation, classroom indoctrination, online censorship, illegal immigration, rogue leftist prosecutors, and woke corporations.

To be sure, DeSantis’s record is not without missteps or question marks. He was supportive of the COVID vaccines, though he later called out their ineffectiveness once it became clear, and his health department now recommends against them for young men after starting to conduct its own studies. He signed an extension of a medical liability shield that yours truly criticized in February, and which his office neglected to give a straight answer about, though in the months since our fears of unintended consequences seem not to have materialized. While DeSantis is pro-life, some have found Florida’s abortion laws less than ambitious; his office assured LifeSite more action will come after the midterms and pro-abortion lawsuits are taken care of, so time will tell whether or not this is something to be concerned about. His personal friendliness with same-sex “married,” surrogacy-exploiting conservative pundit Dave Rubin has sparked speculation as to what he really thinks of homosexuality-related issues. And nobody yet knows his full vision for major issues outside a governor’s scope, such as foreign policy.

The midterm elections America just witnessed add even more context to all of the above. Republicans fared far worse than expected despite the comprehensive disastrousness of the Biden administration and its allies, and while it appears they will retake the House of Representatives (thereby denying Democrats the power they needed to do their worst), the Senate remains blue, and Democrats have actually flipped some state legislatures and governor’s mansions.

Trump is currently touting a win-loss ratio of 219-16 for candidates he endorsed, though most of those were either incumbents or relatively safe picks. Of the more contentious and consequential races, there were some conspicuous losses, including Tudor Dixon for Michigan governor, Doug Mastriano for Pennsylvania governor, and Mehmet Oz for Senate. In at least some of these races, Trump helped his pick win the primary over alternatives critics argued would be either more conservative or more electable.

On the other hand, his Senate pick JD Vance did win in Ohio, and his ally Kari Lake could still win the governorship of Arizona, which along with a few other still-uncalled races could do a lot to help convince people The Donald’s still got it.

As for DeSantis, his reelection sent its own signal. After getting elected the first time by just 30,000 votes, he won another term by more than 1.5 million, including flipping former Democrat strongholds and making serious inroads with minority voters – proof positive that principled conservative leadership, competently administered and effectively argued for, can win converts and transform electorates.

Conservatives and Republicans have noticed all of the above, have already started to make 2024 decisions based on it, and are carefully watching where Trump and DeSantis go from here. Because make no mistake, there, not Congress, is where the most consequential long-term effects of the midterms will take shape.

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Calvin Freiburger is a Wisconsin-based conservative writer and 2011 graduate of Hillsdale College. His commentary and analysis have been featured on NewsReal Blog, Live Action, and various other conservative websites. Before joining LifeSiteNews, he spent two years in Washington, DC, working to build support for the Life at Conception Act with the National Pro-Life Alliance, then worked a year and a half as assistant editor of TheFederalistPapers.org. You can follow him on Twitter @CalFreiburger, and check out his personal website, ConservativeStandards.com.

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