Florida governor enters race as top Trump rival
Florida governor Ron DeSantis formally launched his presidential bid Wednesday night, with the Republican pledging to restore “sanity to our society” and lead a “great American comeback.”
DeSantis’s message came in part through a one-minute launch video, during which the Florida governor hammered President Joe Biden for mishandling the southern border, crime, and the economy. That video’s release preceded a virtual conversation between DeSantis and billionaire Twitter CEO Elon Musk, though technical issues plagued the conversation’s start. Once the roughly hour-long discussion got under way, DeSantis highlighted his legislative accomplishments in Florida as a blueprint to replicate nationwide, and defended himself on hot-button issues such as his battle with Disney.
DeSantis enters the race as former president Donald Trump’s most formidable primary challenger. He is the only Republican presidential hopeful besides Trump who has routinely polled in the double-digits, a position that has brought attacks from both Trump and his allies—who have already spent millions on negative advertising against him and begun trashing his wife, Casey—and other GOP primary candidates such as former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who says he has no charm.
While DeSantis largely refrained from responding to those attacks—the Florida governor in November called the intra-party criticism “just noise” and months later said he’s “just not following it”—he used his formal announcement to say publicly some of what he has told allies privately over the past few months. DeSantis during his conversation with Musk called to “end the culture of losing that has infected the Republican Party in recent years,” a line that came roughly one week after DeSantis told donors that Trump would not be able to win the general election come 2024.
DeSantis’s decision to launch his campaign through an unorthodox online conversation with Musk, who has become a popular figure on the right, reflects the Republican’s media strategy. The Florida governor has spurned legacy media outlets in favor of conservative alternatives, though it was unclear whether he would continue to do so as a presidential candidate. Wednesday evening’s announcement, however, is followed by an interview on Fox News and a press call that appears to be limited to conservative media outlets, an indication DeSantis has no plans to change course.
After roughly 20 minutes of unreliable audio on Wednesday night, Musk ended the discussion, which he held through Twitter’s live audio platform, before restarting it around 6:30 p.m. “It seems we broke the internet with so much excitement,” DeSantis’s campaign tweeted.
The Florida governor emerged as a GOP star during his first term in office by rejecting COVID-era lockdowns, vaccine mandates, and school mask requirements, policies the Republican said made Florida the “freest state” in America. He cruised to reelection last November, defeating his Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, by a whopping 19 points—the largest margin of victory for any Florida governor in four decades in a year in which Republicans nationwide underperformed expectations.
“My view was I had to look out for the people I represented, for protecting their jobs over trying to safeguard my political hide,” DeSantis said Wednesday night. “There was an official narrative about lockdowns, about closing schools, about forced masking, about all these different things that we had to navigate during COVID.”
Beyond his COVID policies, DeSantis has shown an eagerness to wade into—and often popularize—cultural fights.
Last year, for example, the Republican signed legislation that prohibited public schools from providing “classroom instruction” on “sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten through third grade. While mainstream media outlets and national Democrats quickly lambasted what they called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill as “hateful” and “ugly,” everyday voters disagreed. Americans who were presented with the legislation’s actual language backed it by a two-to-one margin, according to a 2022 Public Opinion Strategies poll. Nearly 80 percent of U.S. adults, meanwhile, believe it’s “inappropriate” for teachers to discuss “trans identity” with students in kindergarten to third grade, a May Washington Post poll found.
“Our mantra in Florida is that the purpose of the schools is education, not indoctrination,” DeSantis said during his conversation with Musk.
In addition to his Fox News interview and press call, DeSantis will hold a tele-townhall with a national slate of voters before meeting in the coming days with top campaign donors at a Miami retreat. After the Memorial Day holiday, the Florida governor plans to hold events across several early primary states, according to NBC News.
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