NEBRASKA CITY, Neb. — More than 1,000 miles from Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis was selling red meat rhetoric for a red meat audience.
At the Fifth Annual Nebraska Steak Fry on Sunday, DeSantis was in his element: serving up conservative haymakers in front of a crowd of 1,200 heartland Republicans just across the Missouri River from first-in-the-nation Iowa, the traditional kickoff state for presidential elections.
DeSantis, though he’s up for reelection at home in 2022, gave a speech that made it clear he was running against President Joe Biden, barely mentioning his current campaign.
“My message from Florida is this: When Joe Biden violates the Constitution, when Joe Biden attacks the jobs of Floridians and Americans, when Joe Biden targets the livelihood of Florida families and American families, I am fighting back against him,” DeSantis said to cheers, criticizing the president’s executive order mandating mid-and large-employer Covid vaccines for workers.
DeSantis’s trip to Nebraska is part of his ongoing split-screen effort as he prepares for his reelection back home while laying the groundwork for a White House bid if former President Donald Trump sits out the 2024 contest. His emerging national presence has made him a top target for Democrats in 2022 as well as Biden — but so far he’s been basking in his moment.
His visit to the Midwest is one of at least a dozen out of state trips he’s taken since May. He has gone everywhere from Southern California to Kentucky to the outskirts of Milwaukee and to New Jersey. Since most are campaign visits, they are not included on his public schedule and the governor rarely informs the public of his out-of-state travel. He also visited the Texas-Mexico border in July with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, where they ripped President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.
DeSantis didn’t have the crowd on Sunday to himself, though, and was joined by two other possible 2024 presidential candidates: former Vice President Mike Pence and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Early Republican primary polling shows the three lead the potential field of candidates if Trump decides against a rematch run against Biden.
Another future presidential candidate may also have spoken Sunday: Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who hosted the event. His second and last term ends next year and Ricketts hasn’t ruled out a future bid for president.
Both Biden and DeSantis have attacked the other over managing Covid, to the delight of their respective political bases, and each has watched his job-approval ratings slide as coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths rose this summer due to the spread of the Delta variant.
Florida led the way. Its death rate from Covid since the pandemic began now ranks as the 12th-highest in the nation. It was 27th in the nation in February, before Delta variant spread and after prior doom-and-gloom predictions failed to materialize.
DeSantis’s forbidding of mask mandates statewide — along with his feuding with Biden and Democrats, and his constant criticism of national news media coverage of Florida — made him a GOP heartthrob nationwide and put him in the top tier of potential Republican White House hopefuls.
The most recent public poll, released by the Republican-leaning Echelon Insights last month, showed DeSantis marginally ahead of second-place Pence, by 25-23 percent, in a Trump-less presidential primary. That represents a 7-point loss for DeSantis in a month. Cruz was in third, with 9 percent of the hypothetical vote.
A more recent poll by Morning Consult Political Intelligence showed that DeSantis’ net approval rating in Florida had dropped 14 points between early July and late August. The poll at the start of the summer showed that 54 percent approved of the job DeSantis was doing while 40 percent disapproved. Now his approval ratings are split evenly, with 48 percent approving and 48 percent disapproving of his job performance.
A college football fan, the Florida governor knew his audience and commiserated with Nebraska about the decline of their Cornhuskers’ fortunes, which mirror those of Florida’s big schools.
But after that bit of levity, DeSantis the pugilist came out. Lacing his speech with folksy colloquialisms like “gimme a break” and saying “ya” instead of “you,” DeSantis rhetorically swung again and again at the far left and Biden. DeSantis twice mentioned Trump in favorable terms, but never referenced 2024.
DeSantis accused Biden of being “obsessed” with Florida and “mad” that Florida parents have the right to keep their kids from wearing masks in schools. [Biden and his administration say they’re just trying to stop the spread of Covid and keep kids safe and on Friday opened an investigation into Florida’s mask policies.] Though DeSantis underestimated the extent of hospitalizations and deaths that the Delta surge brought, he insisted that cases would decline almost as rapidly as they shot up, and preliminary figures show the summer surge appearing to crest in the state.
DeSantis has intentionally avoided setting foot in early primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, and a scheduled trip to Nevada in July was nixed because of a storm in Florida. Still DeSantis brushes aside any talk of 2024 given the unsettled nature of Trump’s future plans.
“I just do my job and we work hard … I hear all this stuff and honestly it’s nonsense,” DeSantis said last week about presidential chatter, calling it “purely manufactured.”
One adviser close to DeSantis also insisted talk about a presidential run was off-base, saying the out-of-state visits are necessary in order to build up a substantial campaign account ahead of his re-election effort.
David Kochel, a top Republican presidential campaign strategist based in Iowa, said, “It’s really smart” for DeSantis to stay out of the early states for now because he hasn’t needed them.
“DeSantis has built his brand in a really unique way,” Kochel said.
On the National Stage
DeSantis’s growing national fundraising footprint, out-of-state trips and hands-off approach to the pandemic have raised his profile across the country.
“DeSantis is high energy, he’s everywhere,” said Christian Ziegler, a Sarasota county commissioner and vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida. “Every time I turn on the television, he’s there.”
DeSantis has also taken on an evolving role as a loud critic of the Biden administration. He organized an effort to send more than 50 state law enforcement officers to the help secure the Texas-Mexico border, which he touted in July with Abbott in Texas.
But DeSantis is also doing something else: He’s building an organization to protect his 2024 prospects by ensuring that he sails easily into reelection next year. A defeat in now-red Florida would send his presidential aspirations into oblivion. So he’s on pace to raise as much as $150 million in case a self-funder or someone with enormous national backing decides that his current Democratic gubernatorial challengers aren’t viable.
The governor hit a pause on fundraising during the first few months of the pandemic in 2020. Since becoming governor, DeSantis has raised $55 million for his political committee, most of it coming since last October. That mammoth haul includes a torrent this summer from smaller donors from nearly every state across the nation, showing his appeal outside of Florida. The numbers show that in the last two and a half years his committee has raised roughly $23 million from donors listing out of state addresses.
DeSantis has built his brand methodically. First elected to Congress in 2012, he started out as a low-profile congressman who became a staunch defender of Trump through constant appearances on Fox News. That earned him a key endorsement from Trump as he was running against Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in the GOP primary for governor.
He flirted with being a moderate during his first year in office — following a win by a razor-thin margin in 2018 — but he has bolted back to his conservative roots during the ensuing Covid-19 pandemic. DeSantis has continually ripped lockdowns and eschewed mask mandates while at the same time pushing a legislative agenda in 2021 tailor-made for a GOP primary in 2024, including new laws that targeted tech companies, protesters and transgender athletes.
Attacking the Left
DeSantis’s speech on Sunday sounded more typical for a Republican primary candidate than a general election address for a battleground-state governor by touching on voter fraud, illegal immigration, critical race theory, funding for police, transgender athletes, Big Tech and “wokeness,” which he repeatedly mentioned.
“Just as Florida stands for law and order, we also stand as a brick wall to wokeness and its associated ideologies,” DeSantis said.
What DeSantis didn’t mention: Some of his top initiatives such as a measure cracking down on violent demonstrations have gotten bogged down in courts with judges stepping in and blocking them from being enforced.
Matt Towery, a long-time political analyst and GOP pollster who now lives in Florida, said that DeSantis appears to be “at a crossroads.”
“Clearly, he’s out and about and he’s taking on the president, and the president is taking him on, all of which raises his profile,” said Towery, a former aide to Newt Gingrich. But he says DeSantis “has to be careful” to make sure he remains engaged in Florida.
“You have to take care of business at home first,” Towery said.
For DeSantis, that means a constant state of battling the left and calling on conservatives to fight what he suggested was a vast left wing conspiracy involving the mainstream news media, social media companies, other large corporations and elite universities.
“When ya stand up for the right things, they will attack ya. The left will come after ya. The regime-controlled media will smear ya,” DeSantis told the Nebraska audience on Sunday. “So when you stand up, it is not cost-free in our country right now. You gotta have backbone. You gotta display courage. You gotta be willing to stand on a wall. You gotta be willing to walk the line. And that’s what we’re doing in the state of Florida. We do not let the bastards grind us down in the state of Florida.”