March 9 (Reuters) – Ken Cuccinelli, a former senior official in Donald Trump’s administration, on Thursday threw his backing behind Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in the 2024 U.S. presidential race, a move that could help DeSantis gain traction among grassroots voters so far loyal to Trump.
While Trump has officially launched another run for the White House, DeSantis has made no announcement yet that he plans to seek higher office, although he is widely expected to contest for the Republican presidential nomination.
Cuccinelli, who served as acting deputy homeland security secretary in Trump’s final year in office, said he has formed a high-dollar fundraising group, known as a super PAC, with the aim of getting DeSantis to enter the White House race.
“America’s future is Ron DeSantis. Ron DeSantis doesn’t just talk he acts, but most of all he never backs down,” Cuccinelli said in a video promoting the PAC, Never Back Down. “Governor DeSantis, today I’m asking you to run for president.”
While it was unclear how much of a financial impact the PAC will have, some Republican strategists saw the move as significant because it could prompt some core Trump supporters to consider DeSantis as an alternative. Cuccinelli’s hardline views on immigration and other issues made him popular with Trump’s base.
“He has a pretty big mailing list. The grassroots conservatives like him. So having someone like a Cuccinelli come in and beg DeSantis to run is significant,” said John Feehery, who was press secretary for former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican strategist, said Cuccinelli’s move could give some Trump backers “permission to be supportive of DeSantis” and described it as “another crack in the foundation” of Trump’s hold over the Republican Party.
DeSantis has been busy with a flurry of fundraising events and speeches around the country, suggesting he is ramping up to join the battle for the Republican nomination and take on Democratic President Joe Biden.
Public opinion polls show DeSantis as the strongest threat to Trump for the nomination. If he joins the race, he will also have to compete with former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, as well as other potential candidates such as former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who have yet to declare.
There was no immediate reaction from DeSantis or Trump to Cuccinelli’s announcement.
Reporting by Nathan Layne in New York; Additional reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Ross Colvin and Daniel Wallis
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