GIRARD, Ohio — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ventured away from his home state on Friday to campaign for two fellow Republicans competing in critical races this fall.
While his speeches were ostensibly on behalf of the candidates there, they offered a window into what a DeSantis presidential bid could look like — a possibility frequently speculated on, especially if and when former President Donald Trump steps down.
At packed ballrooms in Pittsburgh and here near Youngstown, Ohio, DeSantis rallied behind Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania governor, and JD Vance, the GOP Senate hopeful. in neighboring Ohio. In Pennsylvania, DeSantis gave his version of a famous World War II speech given by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
“We cannot sit idly by while woke ideology ravages every institution in our society,” he said from the Pittsburgh stage. “We must fight the revival in our schools. We must fight revival in our businesses. We must fight the revival in government agencies. We can never, ever give in to awakened ideology.
The events – part of a tour sponsored by Turning Point Action, an emerging conservative juggernaut – aim to unite the party behind a slate of right-wing candidates endorsed by Trump. All of the candidates DeSantis has backed have advanced deadly primaries and faced backlash from some Republicans in their states, including Kari Lake and Blake Masters, the GOP gubernatorial and Senate nominees of the United States. Arizona for which he hit the stump earlier this week.
“There are primaries, people support one candidate or another and that’s fine. But once that’s over, it’s important that all Republicans get on board and support our gubernatorial candidates,” DeSantis said in Pittsburgh, adding that it’s ‘very important’ that Republicans also include Mehmet Oz, the GOP Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, who was absent from the rally.” And that doesn’t just mean Republican voters. It means Republican organizations in Pennsylvania and across the country must be invested in this race, they must dedicate resources to this race.
Hours later in Ohio, he praised Vance, a venture capitalist and author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” as “someone who is going to be a leader and not just a follower, and we we need more than ever in this swamp.”
That DeSantis is seen as a unifying force in the Trump-centric GOP is remarkable, given that the governor has thus far rarely campaigned outside of his home state. While DeSantis’ foray into provinces beyond Florida foreshadowed him more as a presidential prospect, it also crystallized several realities for a Republican Party still largely under Trump’s command.
While Trump’s endorsement is influential, candidates like Mastriano and Vance reside more on the fringes of the GOP, delighting right-wing voters with their lies and conspiracy theories that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. DeSantis has largely avoided Holocaust denial rhetorichas instead made his conservative credentials shine with his largely hands-off leadership during the pandemic and his eagerness to make Florida a testing ground for culture war legislation, such as an education bill that Democrats have called anti-gay.
DeSantis straddles both sides of the Trump divide. He is a legacy of Trump, whose endorsement propelled him into a 2018 gubernatorial primary that he likely would have otherwise lost. But he’s also a bridge to a new era in which Trump-weary voters might want to move on.
“He’s arguably the second most popular Republican in America right now,” said Corry Bliss, a national GOP strategist who advised a Vance rival in the Ohio Senate primary, adding that the issues DeSantis focused on in Florida “are key issues in races across the country, especially gubernatorial races.
DeSantis dwelt little on Trump in his Friday speeches, which mostly stuck to a script. At both stops, he complained that President Joe Biden had rolled back many Trump initiatives. He also briefly protested the FBI’s raid of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort last week in Florida. Between talking about his record as governor, he played on his local ties. Her father is from the Pittsburgh area, her mother from Youngstown.
“If you threw a dart at the map of Florida, you would run into Yinzers there very quickly,” DeSantis said in Pittsburgh, using the famous local colloquialism.
DeSantis has spent most of his time in both states talking about his handling of the pandemic, the legislation he has pursued to restrict what can be taught in schools, and efforts to unearth voter fraud in his state. .
“We haven’t just sat back and hoped the problems didn’t come to our desk,” he said. “We went on offense in Florida State. We made sure to address key issues and deliver victories for Florida State.
DeSantis also touched on his administration’s battle with Disney over legislation limiting how gender identity and sexual orientation can be discussed in school. He denounced “gender ideology” and what he called “a big understatement, gender-affirming care for minors.” Mainstream health professionals say caring for transgender youth is key to saving lives by reducing already high levels of depression and suicide.
Polls have consistently established DeSantis as a clear second choice to Trump when Republican voters assess the presidential race 2024. DeSantis has also grown closer to Trump in a couple of state polls on election battlegrounds, though Trump’s advantage on the map remains pronounced. And since last week’s FBI search, Trump feels more emboldened than ever about another 2024 presidential bid, NBC News reported Friday, with multiple sources saying Trump has reveled in recent investigations. showing him widening his lead over DeSantis in a possible Republican primary.
Terry Sullivan, who led Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, said DeSantis’ rallies “are not so much about unity as about the start of the 2024 presidential race.”
“He played a smart game here positioning himself as an alternative to Trump without disagreeing with Trump,” he said. “And it’s smart and well done. It’s a fine line to walk.
The candidates DeSantis rallied for Friday have so far been largely outmatched by their Democratic opponents and have yet to see the kind of polling boost one might expect in a year that should be favorable to the republicans.
On Thursday, a group aligned with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell announced it was buying $28 million worth of airtime to boost Vance – a purchase that comes amid concerns over his strength in a state GOP-leaning. And Mastriano, who was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 and led efforts to overturn Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania, has been called by Democrats and some Republicans too extreme to win this fall. He has been significantly overtaken by his Democratic rival, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who has seen his lead in the polls widen in recent weeks.
“They don’t want to talk about how hard it is for people like you and me to make ends meet,” Mastriano said Friday of Democrats. “So when they distract us with insults, you know, a hater, this or that. It’s just like, ‘Oh, shut up.’
Ahead of Friday, a group of Jewish Democratic leaders in Florida condemned DeSantis for siding with Mastriano, who has come under fire for his ties to Gab, a social media site whose founder expressed anti-Semitic views. Later, Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, chastised DeSantis and the candidates he supports as “extreme.”
Jake Wilkins, a communications strategist and Republican campaign veteran who recently left the party to become a Democrat, warned that DeSantis may regret siding with some of the candidates.
“So far, DeSantis is largely getting a pass from establishment Republicans and the media for campaigning for hardline Holocaust deniers,” said Wilkins, who most recently worked for Sen. Ron Johnson, R- Wis. “It may be because they prefer him to Trump and understand he needs grassroots support, but getting closer to more untested and extremist candidates may come back to haunt him.”
And DeSantis earlier Stop in Arizona showed how he and Trump are inextricably linked in the minds of top Republicans. The most eye-catching moment was an offbeat comment from Lake, who remarked on DeSantis and Trump’s “BDE,” an acronym she told rally attendees to ask their kids. She described it as “Big DeSantis Energy” – although the “D” traditionally stands for a slang description of male genitalia.
A Republican strategist working across multiple races said DeSantis is unlikely to unseat Trump as GOP leader in 2024, though building those relationships will prove beneficial regardless of his future plans.
“That’s what DeSantis should be doing no matter what. Whether he’s running in 2024, 2028, 2032, whatever he ends up doing in his career, he absolutely has to help those candidates,” this person said. , who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Overall, the candidates he’s helping are all the pro-Trump candidates Trump had backed.”
But Trump may notice the Florida governor’s growing ambitions.
Halfway through DeSantis’ speech in Pittsburgh, Trump made an announcement. He too would soon be campaigning in Pennsylvania.
Henry J. Gomez reported from Girard, Ohio, and Allan Smith from New York.