Lost in all the shuffle of President Trump’s second indictment, Gov. Stitt made some interesting news in national politics when he endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the Republican Presidential Primary. This was DeSantis’ first endorsement from another governor, which makes it a big deal. It comes on the heels of 20 Oklahoma legislators endorsing DeSantis earlier in the week. DeSantis also was endorsed by Oklahoman Jim Bridenstone, the former NASA administrator under President Trump. What is happening on the GOP side here in the state?
The first thing to note here is that these endorsements are linked to Trump’s latest legal troubles. The indictment for President Trump is, and I do not use this word lightly, damning. You do not have to believe me either. Trump’s own former Attorney General Bill Barr described it as damning as well. There is a reason that many of the defenses of the former President have resorted to “Well what about…”
The release of the charges included pictures of classified documents in a bathroom and in open staging areas. I have no idea if President Trump is going to seriously face prison time for this. I am not a lawyer and I do not have a crystal ball. I do study politics though and I know that the image of the classified documents stored next to a toilet is going to be in numerous campaign ads over the next couple of years.
Endorsements are interesting things in and of themselves. If you are a candidate, you want as many endorsements as you can get. They strengthen your case as the best candidate for the position by showing that other prominent people support you. As a candidate, you also hope to pick up more supporters. Maybe there are voters out there who, like Gov. Stitt, now see DeSantis in a more positive light. Finally, it gets good press coverage. Gov. Stitt’s endorsement made national news and, coupled with Trump’s legal troubles, might even begin a narrative of stories about how DeSantis’ campaign is on the rise while Trump is floundering.
What does Gov. Stitt get out of this though? If DeSantis wins, then Gov. Stitt could be in line for some kind of appointment. The President of the United States makes a lot of appointments to high-level federal positions and it is possible that Gov. Stitt wants one. While he was just elected last year, he is term-limited out in 2026 and might be looking at his next job. Oklahoma is going to have two incumbent U.S. senators and you typically do not see established candidates like Stitt jumping in to prominently challenge a member of their own party. This is particularly true for Stitt given that he got fewer votes than either Lankford or Mullin in 2022. There were some reports a few years ago that Gov. Stitt wanted to run for president himself and maybe he sees a Cabinet position as a way to raise his stock nationally.
Alternatively, Gov. Stitt could believe that Trump is unelectable. January 6th killed Trump’s popularity among Independent and moderate voters in the U.S. President Biden is not particularly popular and his age is a potential campaign issue if the Republican Party does not nominate Trump, who is almost as old. Campaigns are not held in a vacuum. Biden being unpopular is not going to matter if the Republican Party nominates someone who is even less popular. My favorite example of that is 2016. In that race Donald Trump was the most personally disliked candidate for the presidency to ever get elected since we started tracking public opinion in the 1970s. How did he manage to do it? Hillary Clinton was the second-most personally disliked candidate by that same metric. It is possible that Gov. Stitt is looking at the tea leaves and has decided that Ron DeSantis is the best option that the Republican Party has for victory in 2024.
Endorsements are not all upside. Endorsing a candidate is risky because what if you endorse a candidate and they do not win? You may have just made an enemy of the leader of your political party. This is particularly true when you stand against Trump, a man who is known to hold a grudge. You also risk alienating your own voters. We have not had any polling data released since the indictments, but Trump was leading among Republican Primary voters before it happened.
Could Oklahoman Republicans sour on Stitt and view this as a betrayal? There are some Republicans, including former Senate candidate Jackson Lahmeyer, who are already trying to spin it in that direction. While the Republican Party has a supermajority in the state Legislature, it still took them until the last minute to get major education reform passed this year. If Stitt gets backlash from a chunk of his own party caucus, it could mean a long couple of years until the end of his term.
Gov. Stitt has just made a pretty big gamble. It will be interesting to see if it pays off for him.
David Searcy holds a master’s degree from Oklahoma State University and a PhD in political science from Southern Illinois University.