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As GOP looks ahead to 2024, DeSantis builds national profile

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Conservative Political Action Conference, an activist jamboree that has long been a hive of anti-political correctness, helped launch and sustain Donald Trump’s political career. But another Republican took the CPAC stage this week to deliver indignation and defiance that left little doubt he sees himself as an heir to the former president’s role as the right’s commander in America’s deepening cultural wars.

Addressing thousands at CPAC’s Orlando confab, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis blasted what he called the country’s “biomedical security state” for encouraging vaccine and face mask mandates. He slammed corporations and universities for being “infected” with a “woke virus” that is trying to “tear at the fabric of society.” And the governor called on Americans to put on the “full armor of God” to combat liberals.

“They want us to be powerless. They want us to be voiceless. They want to delegitimize our founding institutions,” said DeSantis, who took a page out of Trump’s playbook and tossed campaign hats into the crowd as he walked on stage.

DeSantis’s turn at center stage Thursday was the latest indication that he is aggressively laying the groundwork for a possible presidential run in 2024, even as Trump talks up a political comeback and as polls consistently show the former president as the favorite for the GOP nomination.

The Florida governor has staked out a legislative agenda designed to bolster his GOP ideals on everything from critical race theory to covid lockdowns. He has become a mainstay on conservative news and talk shows, bypassing traditional media outlets to reach his party’s most loyal supporters. And he has crisscrossed the country in recent months, attending dozens of donor events in order to build up his campaign war chest of nearly $78 million.

Although some of DeSantis’s friends and advisers doubt he would run for president if Trump is also in the race, advisers to the former president say Trump has grown annoyed that DeSantis will not rule it out, suggesting that Trump sees the Florida governor as a possible threat. In recent weeks, Trump has told advisers that his 2018 endorsement of the Florida governor “made” DeSantis, and the former president is scheduled to give his own speech to CPAC on Saturday night.

In his fight against ‘woke’ schools, DeSantis tears at the seams of a diverse Florida

Both DeSantis and Trump have tried to silence chatter of a rivalry between the two, and DeSantis has fundraised recently with pitches that include pictures of him with Trump. But in recent months, donors, operatives and activists have begun expressing interest in DeSantis as a possible candidate. In conversations with more than 50 people at the national and state level, DeSantis’s name comes up more often than any other potential candidate besides Trump.

“People generally like what they see with Ron DeSantis,” said James Kofalt, a New Hampshire legislator and school board member who heads the 603 Alliance, a local conservative advocacy group. “A lot of people feel he has charted his own course, and has been a pretty independent-minded guy, and while a lot of politicians sit on the fence and try to appeal to everyone, I think Ron DeSantis has been pretty vocal on where he stands.”

Kofalt and other Republicans argue DeSantis has deftly positioned himself as a hard-edge fighter who can maintain the party’s appeal among rural voters while also wooing suburban residents worried about covid lockdowns and overreach in schools.

DeSantis, through a campaign spokesman, declined to comment.

But as DeSantis continues to raise his profile, some of his former staffers and other GOP activists have raised concerns about whether he has the personal charisma and retail campaigning skills needed to succeed in the national political spotlight.

DeSantis struggles to make small talk with donors and others, sometimes not even making eye contact at house parties, according to people who have met with him. One person who has worked closely with him in Florida described the Harvard-educated attorney as “incredibly aloof” while a donor who met him recently called him “painfully awkward,” speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe a private interaction.

DeSantis is “about as un-charming as it gets one-on-one,” said another person who has interacted with him, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the Florida governor. “There’s a lot of hand talk. No ability or seeming desire to relate. It’s difficult to have a conversation with him. He gives you kind of these dead stares. But when he’s on stage, it’s a totally different story.”

At times, some Republicans said, DeSantis has seemed more interested in flaming culture divisions in Florida than governing. He took dozens of out of state trips in 2021 to raise money, according to invitations and other people familiar with his travel, usually on private planes that donors or other allies provided when requested, people familiar with the matter said. The governor rarely flies commercial.

‘We’ve got to fight back’

Early in the pandemic, DeSantis won over Republican donors and activists with his fervent opposition to the covid restrictions that shuttered offices, schools and entertainment venues in many other states. He has also seen his popularity increase in Florida, and polls in the state have consistently shown him as a favorite to win reelection.

Florida has seen 321 deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 283 deaths per 100,000 residents, higher than most other states but not in the top 10 nationally. But in Republican circles, his handling of the pandemic has gotten rave reviews, with allies noting that unlike in many states, businesses and schools have largely stayed open. The state’s unemployment rate of 4.4 percent in December 2021 was lower than many other large states such as New York and California — but above the national average of 3.9 percent.

While the governor’s approach has delighted conservatives nationally, it has been criticized by many within the state, including local officials and medical experts who have questioned his moves to override local decision-making on mandates and his push to distribute monoclonal antibody therapies found not to be effective against the virus’s dominant omicron variant.

“He is making a calculation that the Republican base will support his nonscientific approach,” said a state health official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid personal reprisal.

DeSantis criticizes masks, restrictions as coronavirus roars to record levels in Florida

DeSantis has also scored points with rank-and-file Republicans with his combative media appearances and his well-publicized efforts last year to crack down on Black Lives Matter protesters, activists and donors say. More recently, DeSantis has emerged as a leading supporter of parental activists who are trying to ban school books and lesson plans that they disagree with.

Florida Democrats have been especially unsettled by DeSantis’s push for “anti-woke” legislation in Florida that would ban schools and businesses from offering lessons or diversity trainings that make someone feel discomfort, guilt or anguish, a policy proposal that Democrats and many Black leaders slammed as attempt to whitewash the nation’s history.

State Sen. Shevrin Jones, (D), who is Black, said he believes DeSantis’s policies “are racist,” and designed to push White identify politics even deeper into the mainstream of the Republican Party.

“It is being driven by race, and also being driven by Gov. DeSantis’s national agenda to bring this to Florida and hold this up to Americans and say look what we have done,” Jones said.

DeSantis, who served nearly three terms in Congress before he was elected governor and at the time was closely aligned with the tea party movement, told CPAC on Thursday he first ran for public office in 2012 “to stop” former president Barack Obama’s policies. He added he now considers his political mission to be even more urgent.

“The threats we face to freedom, the threats we face to a just society are much more pervasive than we faced just 10 years ago,” DeSantis said.

At fundraising events, DeSantis has highlighted his legislative agenda as a major selling point, and conservative activists have also praised his push against regulations and taxes. In an audio recording obtained by The Washington Post, DeSantis outlined his pitch to the party’s top donors, offering searing attacks against the media, covid restrictions, and “woke” businesses and big tech companies.

“We had to go against the media, we had to go against some of these phony experts and these elites that don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said last spring during a speech at a GOP fundraising retreat at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach.

“We have to stand up for ourselves, we've got to fight back, we've got too many people in this party that don't fight back,” DeSantis added, to raucous cheers. “You can't be scared of the left, you can't be scared of the media, you can't be scared of big tech, and you can't be scared of big business.”

DeSantis also bragged about suing Biden and the CDC over covid policies, and the governor relentlessly mocked White House covid adviser Dr. Anthony S. Fauci.

“His policies have destroyed the lives of millions of people,” DeSantis said on the recording.

Doug Deason, a prominent Texas Republican donor, said this message resonates with Republican donors. Deason held a fundraiser for DeSantis in the fall at his Dallas mansion and said the Florida governor has also attended events at several of his friends’ homes in recent months.

“His message is they are staying steady, not panicking over covid, not shutting down their economy, that Florida is leading the way,” said Deason, adding the governor’s messaging on the coronavirus is “really popular with Republicans around the country.”

DeSantis has been making a similar pitch to conservative media hosts and at informal gatherings of political activists.

When DeSantis appeared at Crabby Bill’s, a seafood shack in Florida for the “Ruthless” podcast last month, the hosts were surprised to see 1,000 people in attendance. As DeSantis spoke, some audience members started tossing personal possessions to the governor as if he was a “rock star,” said Josh Holmes, one of the hosts. Guests downed beers and did not wear masks, Holmes said.

“I was pretty blown away,” said Holmes, who is also an adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“You know that Gov. DeSantis is popular,” he said. “You know that the conservative grass roots like him. But that doesn’t always translate into getting people out of work into a restaurant and a bar in the middle of a Thursday afternoon.”

‘A well-oiled machine’

DeSantis’s national tour has been paying off, so far at least. Over the past two years, the Florida governor has built a campaign war chest that could help dominate his Democratic opponent for reelection in November, while also building a network that could help him quickly pivot toward a presidential campaign next year.

As of the end of January, DeSantis had about $77.8 million in his main political account, which is already more than he raised for his 2018 election. DeSantis has raised $122 million, and the governor has been telling allies he hopes to raise at least $150 million as a show of force for a possible presidential bid, according to two people with knowledge of his ambitions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of private discussions.

Meet-and-greets last year brought him in front of donors from Austin to Milwaukee to San Diego, and he even made multiple fundraising trips to the Hamptons in just one weekend last summer. A list of events from 2021 compiled by The Washington Post showed more than 30 stops in the country’s wealthiest enclaves, from the ritziest parts of the Northeast to the California coast, with the governor usually taking his entourage on a private plane provided by someone else.

One person who hosted DeSantis said he was able to raise nearly $100,000 from donors who signed up with only six days notice. He has sometimes told advisers that a fundraiser needed to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars to make it worthwhile. He often has left quickly after such events and has sometimes canceled events at the last minute, donors say.

Major donors include Trump backers, such as Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, the Midwestern packaging supplies magnates who have used their fortune to boost right-wing candidates all over the country. At the same time, the governor’s camp includes some who have sworn off supporting another Trump bid, such as Ken Griffin, the hedge-fund billionaire who contributed $5 million last spring to DeSantis’s political committee, its single largest contribution.

He recently met with Miriam Adelson, the wife of the late casino magnate and multibillionaire, during a trip to Las Vegas. Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, an Adelson-backed group, declined to comment on the meeting. “His fundraising operation is a well-oiled machine. You see that with the frequency of the events and the money they’re putting up across the board,” Brooks said.

‘He’s not a people person’

But even as DeSantis continues to lay the groundwork for a possible run, he and others recognize that challenges lie ahead.

Brad Coker, director of Florida-based Mason Dixon Polling & Strategy, said the Florida governor would likely struggle in a head-to-head match up with Trump, according to current polls.

DeSantis seems sensitive to this criticism. In recent weeks, he has sought to clamp down on speculation that a rift has developed between him and the former president, even sending out fundraising pitches with a smiling Trump on the cover of the envelope. Trump, meanwhile, has grown “bemused” over the attention that DeSantis has been receiving, but at least for now, Trump also does not see any advantage in going after him in public, according to the same advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

And even if Trump decides not to run, some are skeptical of DeSantis’s ability to win a national election — though he has emerged as a top-tier candidate in early polls.

Some in Florida and the GOP say DeSantis has taken hypocritical positions, such as using state taxpayer dollars to promote vaccines, but refusing to say if he has taken a booster shot.

One person who recently met with DeSantis said he was unimpressed by his insistence on trolling Democrats, which is useful for raising one’s profile but not for governing.

Some other critics say DeSantis is not doing enough to help other Republicans and has been reticent to commit to fundraising or political events that don’t benefit him, even as his national star rises.

DeSantis has argued that he’s helped the GOP by growing the Republican Party in Florida, a state that remains central in presidential elections. When DeSantis took office in January 2019, there were about 260,000 more Democrats than Republicans in Florida. Late last year, for the first time in history, state Republicans passed Democrats in voter registration. The GOP now has an advantage of about 67,000 registrants.

The same adviser also noted he raised $20 million for GOP candidates in 2020.

Yet, DeSantis also seems skeptical of embracing help from people outside of his political orbit. Two people who have worked closely with him said his wife Casey is his main adviser, and that he has churned through political and official staff, which would make a grueling national campaign even harder. He has grown incensed over even small slights, advisers say, and is fearful that “people are leaking on him,” according to one person who has known him for years. Some who have worked in his political orbit have been asked to sign nondisclosure agreements, according to a person with knowledge of the documents.

In Florida, DeSantis has been known to hold grudges and limit communication even with local Republican officials who cross him. “When I got covid, he called me and gave me his number, and we were communicating pretty often,” said Francis Suarez, the Miami mayor who was advocating for the governor to allow mayors to impose local mask mandates.

“But then I made some decisions, and I said some things that I am not sure he was too thrilled about, and the communication stopped,” he said.

Still, Suarez said he has not ruled out supporting DeSantis for reelection.

DeSantis seems to have no misgivings about his approach to covid and culture wars. When rank-and-file Republicans seized on a mantra to ridicule Biden, “Let’s Go Brandon,” DeSantis was among the first governors to use the slogan in a public setting. He even did an event in Brandon, Fla., to highlight it.

It now features prominently in his fundraising appeals, including a recent email reviewing Biden’s first year in office. His campaign is also selling a T-shirt that names high-profile Democratic politicians and media stars who visited Florida during the height of the pandemic.

“Escape to Florida,” the T-shirt reads. “The lockdown libs tour.”