December 2, 2022

While DeSantis excites crowds on stage, he’s avoiding the gladhanding that wins over donors

7 min read


Gov. Ron DeSantis The rock star has been welcomed at Republican Party functions since winning re-election this month, solidifying himself as a high-profile potential presidential contender. But the Florida Republican has left some influential party members wanting more.

He electrified the crowd. Conference of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas last weekend, but he arrived before his speech and spent a little time congratulating donors. A few days ago at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Orlando, DeSantis received a standing ovation, yet he already skipped the reception and the rest of the RGA program – despite the fact that, the home state governor’s As such, he was the unofficial host of the meeting.

“When DeSantis came on, all the little kids came out. It was like a celebrity showing up,” said one person at the RJC conference. “But he didn’t stay to grumble.”

The events could have been opportune moments for DeSantis. For major donors and operatives, the RGA meeting and the RJC conference were opportunities to find out. Possible opponents of Donald Trumpa few days later A resounding re-election win As governor, he made him the talk of the party. Instead, some were left wondering how the DeSens could compete on the national level, where much depends on negotiating with donors and fostering camaraderie among fellow Republicans.

“Does it need the RGA for funding? No, does it need it to spread acceptance for it nationally? Yes,” one donor told CNN last week.

“I think it matters,” said a GOP operative with ties to another potential presidential candidate. “Politics is a people business.”

Since his early days in politics, DeSantis has deliberately kept his party at arm’s length, choosing to align with outside movements rather than establishment forces. He entered Congress during the Tea Party era, joined the House Freedom Caucus and then allied with the Trump wing of the GOP during his ascent to the Florida governorship. Now, as some Republicans look for a new face to carry them into the post-Trump era, they are embracing someone who has never embraced them – and who has often gone it alone.

There are signs that DeSantis is keen to break away from his reputation as a loner. The governor, who avoided supporting Republicans outside of Florida during his first term, criss-crossed the country in the months leading up to the hard-fought GOP midterms and cut endorsement messages for a handful of others. .

DeSantis also held a summit this summer for his top donors and conservative media influencers, along with some Republican governors supporting candidates in Fort Lauderdale. Among those in attendance were Sarah Huckabee Sanders, now governor-elect of Arkansas, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, former Maine Governor Paul LePage and Nevada Senate candidate Adam Laxalt.

Bobby Kilberg, an RGA donor, acknowledged that DeSantis hasn’t always presented himself as a team player, but told CNN that his speech at an RGA meeting last week in Orlando Influenced a much more “composite” tone that acknowledged the work of other parts of it. Party supplies

“I think it’s a change from his earlier approach to his relationship with other governors, where it was mostly ‘I’m the center of attention,'” Kulberg told CNN the day after his comments. “I think last night was a welcome departure from that, and I think the governors took notice.”

And DeSantis allies rejected the idea that GOP donors are uncertain about the governor.

“He works all the time, he’s about doing things and not about pleasing donors. But donors have come to him anyway, checkbooks open, just because he’s the governor. What’s done with status,” said Nick Irossi, a DeSantis fundraiser who attended the RGA conference. “No one cares if they want to be at receptions and shake hands. They care more about what they do as governor to improve their lives every day.

But other allies have instead noted how DeSantis has done little to sustain some of his fellow Republican governors in their re-election battles this year, including Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp — who Trump has backed. There was — and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.

“He doesn’t have a good relationship with other governors,” said another GOP operative.

Several strategists pointed to his lack of involvement with RGA, a donor-driven organization that helps elect Republican chief executives across the country. Last week’s RGA meeting was only the second DeSantis has attended since being elected governor, after briefly attending the 2019 meeting in Boca Raton, Florida.

“He came for a speech and left,” said a former Republican activist. “Didn’t get along, didn’t get happy, and a lot of people didn’t meet him at the time.”

Nor does he have particularly strong friendships with GOP governors, an otherwise chummy bunch. During a panel in Orlando to discuss the future of the party, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sanono expressed his joy about the cooperation among Republican governors and the sharing of policy ideas and expertise. But in a later conversation with CNN, Sanono admitted he didn’t have that kind of relationship with DeSantis.

Asked about DeSantis’ lack of participation in RGA functions, Sanono replied: “Everybody engages at their own level, in their own way.”

And former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who remains a fixture at RGA events, told the Ruthless podcast earlier this year that he didn’t know DeSantis very well.

“I don’t think Ron hangs out with anybody, that I can tell. You know, like, when I’m at RGA meetings, Ron likes himself a lot with his entourage, ” said Christie, who is also a 2024 presidential candidate. “I don’t see him hanging with the other governors.”

DeSantis’ former colleagues in the House of Representatives said the 44-year-old was never too old for friendship.

“He held his own quite a bit in the House,” said Ryan Costello, a former Pennsylvania congressman who served with DeSantis. “He had friends, he had allies, but he was not the back-slapping person that some politicians are always characterized as.”

A decade ago, in a crowded Republican primary for a Jacksonville-area U.S. House seat, DeSantis was offering “bold conservative colors, not pale establishment pastels” as a candidate.

“A lot of them are really supported by the establishment system in Washington,” DeSantis said of Republicans in an interview with a local television station. “I feel like I’m someone coming in as an outsider. I want to change the system.”

David Jolley, a former Republican who served with DeSantis in the Florida delegation, said DeSantis gained a reputation as “an odd duck” after coming in. DeSantis helped found the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives that led the federal government shutdown over Obamacare funding and helped push House Speaker John Boehner into retirement.

In 2018, DeSantis faced off against then-state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, an establishment favorite, for the Republican nomination for governor. DeSantis characterized Putnam as a creature of the Tallahassee swamp and an “errand boy” for special interests. Buoyed by Trump’s endorsement, DeSantis easily defeated Putnam and went on to win the general election.

During his first term, DeSantis sought to strike a balance between capable administration in Florida and engaging in conservative culture war skirmishes that endeared him to the national base of voters. On issues ranging from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic to school curriculum to illegal immigration, DeSantis has embraced liberal piety, carefully portraying himself as a Trump-like culture warrior, only smarter and more effective. .

With the help of a close relationship with Fox News, DeSantis began to look for Trump’s successor after the president lost re-election in 2020. Notably, DeSantis helped the campaigns of many of Trump’s 2022 nominees — Arizona GOP gubernatorial nominee Kerry Lake and Senate nominee Blake Masters, Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano and Ohio Senate nominee J.D. Vance — but not incumbent Republican governors like DeWine, Camp and Sanono, all of whom have found themselves at crosshairs with Trump at one point or another.

At a March gathering of 2020 election skeptics in Orlando, DeSantis lamented that “a lot of these Republicans won’t stand up and actually do nothing” during the Obama administration. At a rally in Kansas this fall, he called out Republican governors who have “bowed to corporate pressure.”

“Even some weak Republicans attacked me” during the pandemic, DeSantis told supporters on the eve of his re-election bid.

But after DeSantis won re-election by 19 points, establishment Republicans began to signal their acceptance of him as the party’s leading figure who could unseat Trump. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who lost to Trump in the 2016 primary, congratulated DeSantis, tweeting that he had “done a great job as governor of my favorite state.”

And former House Speaker Paul Ryan, speaking to a Wisconsin TV station after the election, made sure to name-check DeSantis as he called for the party to move on from Trump.

“Ron was re-elected. I’m very happy to see him,” Ryan said.

But if the GOP establishment appears to be warming to DeSantis, it remains to be seen whether the Florida governor will need to retaliate if he runs for president.

“I don’t think DeSantis has ever shown that he can be affected,” Jolly said. “Part of his trick is that he does it his way.”

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