“If I tell you I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it,” Florida governor Ron DeSantis told an overflow, standing-room only crowd of more than 600 Republican voters at a farmhouse in Gilbert, South Carolina on Friday afternoon.
He then proceeded to rattle off a litany of things he’d gotten done as governor of Florida – on the economy, on taxes, debt, education, immigration, abortion, Second Amendment rights and a broad swath of anti-“woke” flashpoints currently dominating America’s culture wars.
DeSantis also hailed his state’s refusal to bow to the “Faucian dystopia,” a reference to the repressive (and baseless) Covid-19 restrictions pushed by Anthony Fauci, the former director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
“We chose facts over fear,” DeSantis said. “We chose freedom over Fauci-ism. We decided to chart our own course.”
No right-of-center GOP ideological erogenous zone was left unstimulated by DeSantis. Indeed, the 44-year-old Jacksonville native made it abundantly clear he plans to bring the same energy level to the Oval Office that he has brought to the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee over the past four-and-a-half years.
“I’m going to be an active executive,” DeSantis vowed.
Oozing swagger as he strode to the stage to the strains of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger,’ the 46th governor of the Sunshine State had crowds eating from the palm of his hand as he treated them to a veritable smorgasbord of conservative red meat – including references to bans on ballot harvesting, ESG investing, land purchases by Chinese nationals, critical race theory and biological males participating in female sports, to name just a few of his hot-button bullet points.
Unlike most politicians campaigning for higher office, though, DeSantis was able to pepper his remarks with references to legislation he signed into law in Florida in support of these policies – a key distinction (and a key component of his pitch to Palmetto State voters).
Decked out in a navy blue blazer, button-down blue shirt, dark blue jeans and cowboy boots, DeSantis threw some shade at South Carolina’s fiscally liberal GOP establishment – most of which has already endorsed the race’s runaway GOP frontrunner, former U.S. president Donald Trump.
“We have no state income tax,” DeSantis said. “Y’all should try it sometime.”
Touting Florida’s low debt ratio, DeSantis added “the federal government should try that sometime.”
On education, DeSantis hailed a universal choice bill he signed into law back in March – bragging on Florida as being “No. 1 for education, No. 1 for education freedom and No. 1 for parental involvement.”
DeSantis’ education views earned him an endorsement from Lowcountry school board member Rachel Wisnefski, one of the Palmetto State’s foremost advocates for academic freedom.
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“I’ve followed education reform in Florida for years,” Wisnefski said. “I admire governor DeSantis and his success in providing educational choice for all students. As a mom to three very different daughters, I know how important it is to meet kids where they are, challenge them to be the best they can be, and provide them with the supports necessary for success. This requires options for each family’s unique situation. Governor DeSantis has made that happen for families in Florida and raised academic achievement in K-12 education, the benefit of which will undoubtedly lead to brighter futures for many generations.”
DeSantis and his wife, Casey DeSantis, drew big crowds across the Palmetto State during his first “First in the South” swing as an announced presidential candidate. In addition to his big Midlands lunchtime crowd, more than 1,000 people came to hear DeSantis speak in Bluffton, S.C. on Friday morning while an estimated 1,500 people showed up to hear him in Greenville, S.C. on Friday evening.
“Really good day,” one DeSantis strategist told me, referring not only to the crowd sizes but also the energy of those who attended the events.
DeSantis did not mention Trump by name during his remarks – but some of his supporters did. Prior to the governor taking the stage in Gilbert, state representative Bill Hixon – a former Trump backer – said he was endorsing DeSantis this go-round because he had “lost my excitement” for the former president.
“He needs to talk less and listen more,” Hixon said, referring to Trump.
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Greg Toll – a Lexington resident who attended the Gilbert rally – concurred with Hixson’s assessment, saying “we’ve lost the decency of the Oval Office.”
“I was a Trump guy,” Toll said. “He’s hurting himself. He’s killing himself with the name-calling.”
Toll’s advice to DeSantis? “Don’t get in the mud.”
DeSantis generally stuck to the following three-pronged messaging strategy during his “First in the South” swing:
- Identify conservative hot buttons and mash them … hard.
- Tout his accomplishments on these issues as governor.
- Appeal to his electability against incumbent Joe Biden.
Worth recalling? U.S. senator Mitt Romney frequently touted electability during his presidential campaigns in South Carolina – and GOP voters were having none of it. There’s a key distinction, though. Romney’s “electability” consisted of marching to the mushy middle of the GOP ideological spectrum – joining go-along-to-get-along Republicans whose repetitive failure to uphold conservative principles is what precipitated the rise of Trump.
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DeSantis’ electability pitch is vastly different. He touts himself as a winning option precisely because he has refused to go to the mushy middle.
“They told me ‘trim your sails when you get in as governor,'” DeSantis said. “I said I’m going to lead boldly.”
It wasn’t easy at first …
“I was getting hammered everyday,” he said.
Ultimately, the principled approach prevailed. After narrowly edging Democrat Andrew Gillum in the 2018 general election by roughly 30,000 votes (out of 8.1 million ballots cast), DeSantis cruised to reelection over former governor Charlie Crist last fall by 1.5 million votes – cementing his status as the top Republican alternative to Trump.
The moral of the story?
“Stand your ground – even if you have to stand all alone,” DeSantis said.
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DeSantis’ winning 2022 coalition in the Sunshine State would certainly be a dream come true for GOP strategists if it could be replicated at the national level in 2024. The Iraq War veteran, former federal prosecutor and former U.S. congressman won independent voters by 18 percent last fall, women by eight percent and carried 62 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote.
“I think he’s got a path to 270,” Columbia, S.C. resident Ben Inabinet told me, referring to the number of electoral votes necessary to capture the White House. “Electability is the key issue for me. I don’t think Donald Trump has a path to 270.”
DeSantis seized on that message during his South Carolina swing …
“We have to get rid of this culture of losing,” he said. “You’re not going to get a mulligan on this 2024 election.”
DeSantis also warned what would happen if Democrats were to maintain control of the White House, referencing the left’s desire to pack the supreme court, abolish the electoral college, repeal voter ID laws, mandate ballot harvesting nationwide and grant statehood to Washington, D.C.
Unsurprisingly, Trump took a dim view of DeSantis’ visit – and his prospects to win the “First in the South” primary.
“Ron DeSanctimonious’ poll numbers are dropping like a rock,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social page. “Looks like he’s in third place in the great state of South Carolina, heading for fourth. People don’t like the fact that he’s got no personality! I’m up by 41 points there. Thank you!”
Actually, Trump is ahead of DeSantis by less than half that margin – 20.3 percent – according to the latest average of recent surveys from RealClearPolitics. And if DeSantis is indeed suffering from a personality deficit – as some have alleged he is – he certainly hid it well on this trip.
“I’m sick of the excuses,” he told voters. “We will get it done. We will make it happen. Come 2025, buckle your seatbelts.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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