Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis touted his conservative victories and hinted at a presidential run in a visit to one of Wisconsin’s political strongholds for former President Donald Trump.
DeSantis spoke Saturday at the Lincoln Day Dinner put on by the Republican Party of Marathon County. The central Wisconsin county gave 58 percent of its vote to Trump in 2020. It’s also part of the sprawling, northern Wisconsin 7th Congressional District — a mostly rural district that includes some of the state’s most heavily Republican areas.
DeSantis, who won reelection as Florida governor in a landslide in November, is widely expected to announce a campaign for president this month. He did not explicitly address those plans, but teased them in his closing remarks.
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“We are proud of all that we’ve accomplished in the state of Florida,” DeSantis told the room of about 560 attendees for the $75-per-plate dinner at the Central Wisconsin Convention & Expo Center. “But I can tell you this: I have only begun to fight.”
In addition to his visit to swing-state Wisconsin, DeSantis has recently appeared in Iowa and New Hampshire, which have the first presidential nominating contests in the Republican Party. A super PAC backing him has hired staff in those states as well as South Carolina, and he’s begun running political television ads in early primary states. This week he told reporters in Florida that an announcement would be coming soon.
At the central Wisconsin event, DeSantis mostly stuck to what has become a stump speech, extolling conservative policy victories against the “woke mind virus” in Florida and setting it out as a model for other states to follow.
“We recognize the woke ideology for the threat that it is, and in Florida we have resolved to fight them across the board,” he said. “We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. We’ve made Florida the state where woke goes to die.”
It’s the second Wisconsin visit by DeSantis in just under eight months. In September, he rallied voters in Green Bay in support of Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels. And for the second time in Wisconsin, DeSantis left out one major issue from his litany of GOP policies: abortion.
Last month DeSantis signed into law a ban on abortions in Florida after six weeks. The law amounts to a sharp limitation on abortion access, since many people do not know they are pregnant six weeks into pregnancy. That law and a 2022 Florida ban on abortions after 15 weeks are both the subject of legal challenges in the state. DeSantis did not mention either law or discuss his views or policy victories on abortion — an issue that is widely seen as politically perilous for Republicans since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the right to abortion access.
Among the biggest applause lines of the night were attacks on former Trump health policy adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was among the most high-profile advocates of protective measures during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. DeSantis received a standing ovation for saying Florida “refused to let our state descend into some type of Faucian dystopia where people’s livelihoods were destroyed and their freedoms were curtailed. No, we chose freedom over Fauci-ism.”
He also noted that he recently signed a law eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion programs from all public universities in Florida. That’s a policy that Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has called on the state’s universities to enact.
Wisconsin Democrats blasted the appearance. In a statement, Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler said DeSantis was running on the same “extremist, anti-freedom, pro-plutocrat political agenda (that) doomed Scott Walker in 2018, Donald Trump in 2020, Tim Michels in 2022 and Dan Kelly in 2020 and 2023.”
Wikler also noted that when he was a member of Congress, DeSantis “called for cuts to Social Security and Medicare.”
If DeSantis runs, his first task will be defeating Trump in a primary. After an initial polling surge, he has slipped in polls of Republicans, which now consistently show Trump in the lead. Before the event, the Waupaca County Republican Party on Facebook promoted a “rally to show Wisconsin is Trump country!” A handful of ralliers were outside the convention center Saturday, waving Trump flags.
Deb Alan came from Oshkosh to support the former president, who she said is the only one who can address high inflation, illegal immigration and a war in Ukraine that “we never should have been in.” She criticized DeSantis for changing Florida’s law to allow him to run for president without resigning as governor.
“I don’t think that’s the way he should have done it,” Alan said.
Inside the hall, some attendees said they supported DeSantis, but would vote for Trump if he were the GOP nominee. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump has directly attacked DeSantis in recent months, and the Florida governor has largely not responded. He didn’t mention Trump’s name on Saturday, and made only a muted, implicit criticism of the former president when he said that his own administration was drama-free.
“We don’t have any leaks in my administration,” DeSantis said. “We don’t have any palace intrigue. We don’t have any drama. What we do is execute the mission.”
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