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DeSantis keeps looking like a Trump copycat

The Florida governor’s immigration platform shows how he’s struggling to articulate why he’s a better version of Trump.

Republican presidential candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaks during a campaign rally on June 26, 2023 in Eagle Pass, Texas.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis channeled Donald Trump in the immigration platform he announced Monday. In doing so, he seemed to hope winning ownership of an issue that defined the former president’s 2016 campaign would increase his standing in a crowded GOP field.

DeSantis’s immigration plan is reflective of his central pitch to voters: He is the MAGA candidate who lacks all the legal baggage that Trump brings, including two indictments and several ongoing civil and criminal investigations.

Some of the immigration policies DeSantis proposed are directly taken from Trump’s playbook: eliminating birthright citizenship, forcing immigrants to remain in Mexico while applying for asylum, and ending “catch-and-release” policies under which some nonviolent immigrants are released into the US while awaiting deportation proceedings.

DeSantis claimed in remarks Monday in Eagle Pass, Texas, that his platform is “more aggressive” than what Trump has pushed in terms of empowering state and local officials on border enforcement, as well as using “deadly force” on the border to stop drug traffickers and anyone else “demonstrating hostile intent.”

But while DeSantis is running to Trump’s right on issues including abortion and Covid-19, he hasn’t really broken new ground on immigration. And that might be a problem for the governor, who is struggling to carve out a unique lane in the primary and articulate to Republican primary voters who don’t seem all that concerned about the former president’s legal troubles why he’s a better bet.

“His entire image and brand levers off Donald Trump’s brand. To me, that’s not a road to success,” said Vinny Minchillo, a Republican strategist based in Texas. “I think voters are seeing through that. When they see DeSantis roll out essentially the Trump immigration platform, they say, ‘We already got that.’”

What DeSantis’s immigration platform means for the 2024 primary

DeSantis is trying to make a nuanced argument in response to the primary electorate’s love of the former president: that not only is he Trumpier than Trump on many issues, including immigration, but that he’s more effective than Trump at implementing a conservative agenda.

DeSantis argues this experience legislating to the right in Florida proves he’s the man to get conservative policy done. For example, he’s promised to follow through on what Trump started in constructing the southern border wall, which he noted Monday was unfinished. Trump allocated some $15 billion for its construction, much of which came from the Defense Department’s budget, but only completed 453 miles of “border wall system” across the entire 1,954-mile US-Mexico border.

Trump’s supporters frequently chanted “Build the wall!” on the campaign trail in 2016, and it continues to remain a popular proposal, as shown in an August 2022 NPR/Ipsos poll where 46 percent of Americans said they supported its construction.

“What we’re saying is no excuses on this,” DeSantis said Monday, without mentioning Trump by name. “Get the job done. Make it happen. We don’t want hollow rhetoric. We don’t want empty promises.”

Trump responded on TruthSocial, saying that DeSantis is a “failed candidate, whose sole purpose in making the trip was to reiterate the fact that he would do all of the things done by me in creating the strongest Border, by far, in U.S. history. A total waste of time!”

The interaction highlighted the challenges for DeSantis in stepping out from under the shadow of his one-time mentor, whose endorsement arguably won him the governorship in 2018. Essentially, though DeSantis’s pitch may be that he’s a more focused, professional Trump, Trump can always retort that he actually is Trump.

DeSantis has also tried to draw contrasts with Trump on Covid-19 and abortion, hitting back at the former president’s recent assertion that New York handled the pandemic better than Florida did, and suggesting Trump’s abortion policies are overly permissive.

But it’s not clear that those efforts to establish himself as the true conservative next to Trump are making a difference with primary voters, who still prefer the former president by more than 30 percentage points on average. And certainly, hardline positions on the pandemic and abortion won’t serve DeSantis among independents and swing voters if he were to win the nomination.

“When you get these speeches, what’s the message that pops with voters?” Minchillo said. “I just don’t think he has set himself apart enough from Trump to make a difference.”

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