In a victory for former president Donald Trump and embarrassment for his chief rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the Florida GOP reneged Friday on plans to require GOP primary candidates to sign a loyalty oath.
The pledge would have required every GOP presidential candidate to promise to support the eventual nominee in order to be listed on the state’s primary ballot in March. Trump, who currently leads DeSantis by over 40 points, has balked at signing the oath, and his team lobbied to have it removed.
The change shows the power Trump has over DeSantis even in their shared home state, which re-elected DeSantis by a 20-point margin last November. DeSantis’s allies worked unsuccessfully to keep the loyalty pledge in place, the Sarasota Herald Tribune reported.
The vote was largely viewed as a referendum on DeSantis’s support within the party in his home state. “Right or wrong, it would be viewed as a f--- you to DeSantis,” a prominent Florida Republican told NBC News in advance of the vote. There were reportedly talks of a compromise measure in the works last week, one that would have kept the pledge requirement but given it more flexible wording.
The push to change the policy was led by Joe Gruters, a Sarasota state senator and Trump supporter. He said that the change passed on an “overwhelming voice vote.” “I think the party did the right thing," he said. "We do not want to create unnecessary road blocks for qualified candidates for president, and I think once again this shows the Republican Party of Florida and the base loves the former president." Gruters added that “the president is battling a lot of different fights on a lot of fronts, certainly it shouldn’t be with the party.”
In a statement to CNN after the vote, DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said, “Once Ron DeSantis secures the party’s nomination, we hope everyone in the field will join him in that fight.” “We believe anyone who wants to run for president as a Republican should be willing to pledge their support for our eventual nominee,” Griffin added. “It is surprising that anyone interested in seeing the defeat of Joe Biden in 2024 would disagree.”
This isn’t the only instance of a loyalty pledge serving as a campaign flashpoint. As part of its debate qualification standards, the Republican National Committee has required candidates to promise to support the eventual nominee in order to be admitted onto the debate stage. DeSantis signed the RNC’s pledge in August and criticized the former president for his persistent refusal to do so.
Trump, of course, declined to participate in the first debate in Milwaukee, and on Thursday told Megyn Kelly that he doesn’t plan to join any GOP debates. “I don’t see it,” he said, pointing to his gargantuan (and growing) lead over the rest of the primary field. “Why would I do it?”
DeSantis will likely need to capture his home state if he wants any chance at securing the nomination. Yet the majority of the state’s GOP congressional delegation has already endorsed Trump, and the latest primary polling has Trump dominating DeSantis among Florida voters by around 30 points.
Florida GOP primary voters will head to the polls on March 19.