As he draws increased attention as a potential 2024 presidential candidate, Gov. Ron DeSantis focused heavily Saturday night on President Joe Biden while rallying Republicans for this year’s elections.
Twice in the first minute after taking the stage for a dinner speech at the Republican Party of Florida’s Sunshine Summit, DeSantis tossed out the name “Brandon,” a derogatory reference to Biden, as he contrasted Florida’s recovery from the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic to current federal economic policies.
“When you look at what we've done in Florida, we have stood up to the media, we have stood up to people like [federal infectious-disease expert Anthony] Fauci, and we have stood up to Brandon himself to keep Florida free,” DeSantis said to loud applause from a packed ballroom at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Broward County.
DeSantis also drew cheers when he compared Biden to a “stumbling” deer in the headlights unable to use a teleprompter and then facetiously wished the president well after testing positive for COVID-19.
“We should all extend our best wishes to President Joe Biden for a speedy recovery from his bout with COVID,” DeSantis set up the crowd. “And hopefully, the United States will have a speedy recovery from its bout with Joe Biden.”
DeSantis also drew another big crowd reaction when he brought up his clash with Walt Disney Co.
DeSantis has made the entertainment giant a centerpiece in his fight against “woke” ideology, pushing through legislation this spring to dissolve a special taxing district that benefits Walt Disney Co.
That move came after Disney opposed a controversial new law that restricts teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools — a measure that critics dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill.
“Big companies based in California do not run the state of Florida,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, who spoke before the governor, did not mention Democratic gubernatorial candidates Charlie Crist or Nikki Fried, who trail the GOP incumbent in polls. They also didn’t mention California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who recently targeted Florida in an ad campaign, or Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who last week in Tampa described DeSantis as someone “trying to pass off his covert racism, homophobia and misogyny as a more reasonable form of Trump Republicanism.”
Nunez hit on a record state budget surplus, tax cuts, reopening schools earlier than other states during the pandemic, and DeSantis’ appointments of conservative Florida Supreme Court justices.
Nunez also pointed to the GOP in recent months overtaking Democrats for the first time in numbers of registered voters, “making Florida red faster than you can say, ‘Thank you Brandon.’”
The pep talks also touched on electing Republicans to school boards and Congress, where Democrats hold majorities.
“In Florida, we don't just talk, we do. We get things done. We are not afraid to use our authority to advance the public interest and to protect people's freedom,” DeSantis said. “And so, if and when Republicans take majorities in the [U.S.] House or the [U.S.] Senate, we need to see some action to hold Biden and his minions accountable for our open border and his dereliction of duty.”
The speeches wrapped up a day that included a series of debates among candidates in GOP primaries in congressional districts 4, 7, 13 and 15.
Organizers limited the number of media organizations that had access to the summit. DeSantis told the crowd that Republican leaders weren’t going to allow “legacy media outlets to be involved in our primaries.”
“The left-wing media people are asking our candidates gotcha questions,” DeSantis said. “I want to have these debates moderated by people who actually believe in conservative principles.”
Among the most-notable debate moments came when Congressional District 4 candidate Erick Aguilar was asked about reports that he deceived people into contributing money to his campaign for the Northeast Florida seat. He dismissed the reporting as an establishment “smear” aimed at “MAGA” candidates like himself and “fake news.”
Aguilar’s response was one of the few that drew some jeers from a mid-day audience of around 400 people. State Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican running against Aguilar for the congressional seat, said he was “shocked” Aguilar showed up for the debate.
According to Politico, Aguilar used WinRed, a popular Republican campaign platform, to solicit donations. The requests, distributed nationally, didn’t mention Aguilar or other candidates in the congressional race, instead suggesting money would go to DeSantis, former President Donald Trump or U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, Politico reported.
Bean said Aguilar was blaming “everybody but himself” and should be viewed as an “identity thief who stole from seniors.”
Most of the questions from debate panelists allowed candidates to tee off on Biden policies involving the economy, foreign policy, immigration and Fauci, who has been a Republican target because of his views on COVID-19 issues.
Candidates were also asked their views on the U.S. Department of Education; assistance for Ukraine; the next U.S. House speaker if Republicans regain control of the House; and the need for states or the federal government to address abortion following last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.
DeSantis asked candidates for their views on congressional term limits and who is the “best” active U.S. Supreme Court justice. All of the candidates picked Republican appointees.
Radio talk-show and Fox News host Mark Levin, who questioned candidates in two of the debates, drilled into District 7 candidate Anthony Sabatini, a state House member from Howey-in-the-Hills who maintained his stance that the U.S. shouldn’t intervene financially or militarily in the Russia-Ukraine war.
"Our woke beliefs are destroying this country from within,” said Sabatini, who has often clashed with state House Republican leaders. “We cannot afford, we need to bring humility back to foreign policy. We can't be getting involved in all the world’s affairs when our own country is going to hell.”
Levin responded by calling Sabatini’s foreign policy “the most radical” he’s ever heard.