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DeSantis woos donors in South Florida — and holds his fire against Trump

2 months ago 38

HOLLYWOOD, Florida — Ron DeSantis is making nice with his most loyal donors and, at least over the weekend, ignored Donald Trump.

During a retreat in South Florida for the governor's donors that featured golf, cigars and spa time, and little mention of the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, DeSantis thanked and wooed the people who most avidly supported his presidential run. Part of the weekend was also to brainstorm how he could keep Florida front and center in the conservative movement with more than 2 and a half years left as governor.

Robert Salvador, a DeSantis donor, recalled the governor’s team “said, probably 10 different times, that we still have three years here to do all this. We have three years to make this a beacon of freedom and keep it a beacon of freedom.”

Yet left unsaid throughout the weekend was DeSantis’ ambitions for another presidential run and any substantial mention by the governor of Trump, his one-time rival for the Republican nomination who was also holding a massive fundraiser at the home of a Palm Beach billionaire just over an hour’s drive away. Trump is still living in Florida and often remains the biggest news story of the day.

While DeSantis kept his promise to endorse Trump immediately after dropping out of the presidential race, he hasn’t aggressively made the case that Trump needs to defeat President Joe Biden in November. In fact, it’s been the opposite: In previous interviews and earlier virtual meetings with donors, DeSantis hammered Trump over using “identity politics” for choosing a running mate and over his general election vulnerabilities. Trump and his campaign have clapped back by mocking DeSantis in brutal and personal ways.

But over the weekend at the event held at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, DeSantis withheld criticizing the president and instead seemed focused on the remaining few years of his administration.

The Trump campaign declined to comment for this story, but the timing of the campaign irked some Republicans, who would like to see DeSantis embrace Trump more strongly as the former president tries to close a fundraising gap with Biden. Dennis Lennox, a Republican operative who helped organize a letter on behalf of Michigan state GOP lawmakers to get DeSantis to run for president, said the retreat’s timing — with part of it overlapping with the Trump event — “fuels a narrative that he is undercutting Trump.”

Another veteran GOP operative, granted anonymity to discuss the event without reprisal, said DeSantis' event was a bad look while Republicans up and down the ticket were working to beat Democrats, especially with a six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed into law in Florida set to take effect in less than a month, one Democrats plan to try to use against the GOP.

“The optics are nuts,” said the person, who isn’t attending the retreat. “We have a presidential election going on. [DeSantis] couldn't wait until after November? He’s starting his campaign for president in the middle of a presidential campaign. Another tone deaf move.”

DeSantis said in a recent press conference that he plans to help Republicans across the U.S. but hasn’t specified any races. On Saturday, DeSantis told the audience that they'd be raising money for Republicans, including in the presidential race. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), who endorsed DeSantis for president, also spoke on a panel Saturday and said that they wanted Trump to beat Biden in November.

The retreat, planned months ago, was ostensibly not about DeSantis running for president in 2028, though the governor said he hasn’t ruled it out and retreat attendees widely acknowledged they’d want to see the 45-year-old take another shot at the White House. Until then, they see an opening for him to lead conservatives as governor.

“Gov. DeSantis can lead with ideas and with legislation from a state level, setting the course for other states and the rest of the country,” Roy Bailey, who was one of three finance chairs for the DeSantis presidential campaign, said ahead of the retreat.

In a speech to donors on Friday night, DeSantis once again hit on familiar themes, boasting about Florida’s low taxes, “freedom” and “law and order,” per numerous donors who attended. State officials held a panel on Florida policies, covering everything from school vouchers to voting laws. The political action committee Fight Right, which sprouted late in the campaign and organized the retreat, set up breakout sessions with donors and ex-presidential campaign staff.

“I’ve been a little surprised at the lack of sexiness,” said one retreat attendee, granted anonymity to discuss the event, which was closed to the media. The person said that in breakout group Saturday morning, where DeSantis was present, attendees mostly discussed policy and how much the governor should be talking about Florida and whether DeSantis should be focused on trying to spread his conservative message more broadly.

“2028 has not been on the discussion at all, which I was surprised by,” the person added.

Donors encouraged DeSantis to be more available to the press, something the governor has also expressed regret over. Supporters and critics alike have voiced plenty of opinions about what DeSantis did wrong during his short-lived presidential run, including pressing too many right-wing policies that would turn off voters, using inexperienced campaign staff, poor management of his funds and a general inability to connect with voters.

Supporters disagree about whether he went after Trump too hard or not enough, and they worry he gave Never Back Down, the main PAC behind his presidential run, too much power over traditional campaign operations.

But despite the well-tread critiques of his campaign, DeSantis has returned to Florida and kept a busy schedule signing bills into law, traveling the state to tout his agenda and resuming day-to-day activities. Florida’s first family is even talking about getting a second dog for the governor’s mansion to accompany the rescue they brought in shortly after DeSantis got crushed by Trump in Iowa.

On Friday night, DeSantis mingled with the 150 retreat guests who attended looking relaxed, friendly and in his element, donors said. DeSantis has made overtures to donors since dropping out of the presidential race in January, after cultivating a reputation of failing to give them the show of appreciation and attention they usually get from politicians.

“He’s not on the campaign trail anymore,” said Miami-based donor George Heisel. “He’s just serving Florida.”

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