At the top of the Florida GOP, support for Trump eclipses DeSantis

By | November 4, 2023

KISSIMMEE, Fla. – In the state where Gov. Ron DeSantis is the most powerful Republican official, he faced a homecoming at a Republican Party rally Saturday that was overshadowed by an effusive welcome for his 2024 presidential rival. Donald Trump.

Many audience members wore Trump-themed clothing and the former president had the most prominent speaking slot at the event billed as the “Freedom Summit” at the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center. And seven Florida state lawmakers are expected to support Trump at the event, including five who previously supported DeSantis, according to a person familiar with their plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe decisions that had not been publicly announced. The Messenger was the first to report the news of the mentions.

The moves mark the latest swing by some Florida Republicans from DeSantis to Trump and serve as a measure of DeSantis’ changing political fortunes at home. Once seen as well-positioned to challenge Trump for the GOP nomination after a landslide reelection victory last year, DeSantis had a hard time this year in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, trailing far behind Trump in early state and national polls.

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While home-state backers typically have little influence on the outcome of early nomination contests, the moves were seen in Republican circles Saturday as another blow to DeSantis’ campaign. Trump, who spends the winter months at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, has sought to cultivate relationships with some local Republicans as he runs for president.

Speaking to reporters after the defectors were announced, DeSantis dismissed the endorsements as politics, as usual. And his campaign pointed out that DeSantis still leads Trump in legislative support in the states of Iowa and New Hampshire and still holds far greater numbers of support in Florida.

“It happens in these things,” he said. “Politicians do what they want to do. As we step back and look across the country, we have received more support from state legislators than any other candidate by far.

Saturday’s summit took place days before the next Republican presidential debate, scheduled for Wednesday in Miami. Trump, who has so far renounced the debates, is once again not expected to participate.

DeSantis avoided mentioning the former president by name in his speech, although he suggested the party could no longer accept losing. (DeSantis has previously said Trump lost in 2020.)

“You can sit there and talk a big game, you can have rhetoric, you can do it, you can make promises, but if you don’t win the election, and if you don’t win the big fights politically, it won’t matter,” DeSantis said to applause. The reaction was more enthusiastic than that of any other candidate who had spoken on this point.

Randy Fine, Florida state representative, who was the state’s first Republican legislator announce his defection from DeSantis to Trump, citing his dissatisfaction with DeSantis’ handling of anti-Semitism in the state, said Saturday that he had heard other lawmakers considering following his lead and supporting Trump.

“I think people saw that you can do this and the world won’t stop,” Fine said. “I didn’t recruit people. But most of my colleagues have called me and I would say the number one emotion they’ve shared is envy.

The defectors include lawmakers who previously supported DeSantis’ most controversial actions, including state Rep. Webster Barnaby, who once called transgender people “mutants” and “demons”; state Sen. Debbie Mayfield, who supported Moms for Liberty, a group linked to DeSantis; and state Rep. Jessica Baker, whose district neighbors DeSantis’ former congressional district.

The defections make political sense, given Trump’s wide lead in the Republican Party race, even though a large share of Trump voters rank DeSantis as their second choice, said Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, a Florida-based survey company. But the endorsements won’t change the minds of most voters, he added.

“It’s all interesting theater, but people don’t look at it from 30,000 feet,” he said.

All the great republicans presidential candidates expected to speak at the event, with the exception of the former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, and they will show up to run in the Florida primary. Many attendees said they were very excited to hear from Trump, who will be the last to speak. Trump’s dominant lead has put his rivals in the difficult position of appealing to his voters by supporting his positions or distinguishing themselves by criticizing him.

DeSantis and his allies have argued to voters that Trump is no longer the same candidate he once was, criticizing him for sometimes making confusing or inaccurate comments out of the blue. Some Republican voters who did not support Trump say they are concerned about his legal problems, as the former president faces four criminal indictments comprising 91 counts.

But at the summit, the public didn’t want to hear it.

Former Governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinsonwho is far behind other candidates in polls and fundraising, was booed when he said in his speech that there was a good chance Trump would be convicted and that his behavior was “destructive.”

“Go home!” » shouted a member of the audience.

When the former governor of New Jersey Chris Christie took the stage, the crowd repeatedly shouted “Trump!” ” and booed him, especially when he declared that the former president was not fit to be re-elected.

“You can shout and boo all you want, but it doesn’t change the truth,” Christie said. “The truth is coming.”

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) took a different approach in his speech, praising his opponents, including Trump and DeSantis, to applause, but also differentiating himself from those rivals with a more lukewarm response.

“I voted for him twice,” he said of Trump, adding that he “partnered with” Trump to spearhead tax reform legislation and worked with him to confirm judges conservatives on the Supreme Court, among others. “But our party has underperformed in three consecutive national elections,” he continued in near silence.

Meanwhile, Senator Rick Scott (R-Florida) received loud cheers when he discussed his recent support for Trump in his speech.

“I made this decision because I think there is no doubt in my mind: He is the only candidate who can truly make our country strong again,” Scott said to applause.

Trump’s image was also omnipresent throughout the summit.

The event kicked off with a lie-filled video that insisted the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, a claim Trump often repeats on the campaign trail. In the vendor aisle, there was a merchant selling mostly Trump-themed merchandise, including his mugshot on a sticker labeled “LEGEND” and a Republican elephant pin topped with Trump’s recognizable comb-over hairstyle. Trump.

Chuck Benoit, Republican Party representative from Lake County, Florida, wore a bumper sticker reading “Florida is Trump Country.” (DeSantis’ campaign distributed signs reading “Florida is DeSantis Country.”)

Benoit said he likes DeSantis as governor, but anyone who prioritizes Trump “should be ashamed of themselves.”

“Governor DeSantis is not doing himself any favors,” Benoit said.

Lori Rozsa contributed to this report.

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