Republican presidential contenders typically fight for prime speaking slots at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). But as conservative activists gather in suburban Washington this week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will be more than a thousand miles away in Texas and California.
Missing CPAC is nothing new for DeSantis, who has emerged in the early phase of the 2024 presidential election as one of the front-runners for the GOP nomination.
DeSantis’ unconventional approach is making the Republican establishment upset, insiders say. But supporters argue that DeSantis has gained the national spotlight because he ignores many conventions of modern politics.
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DeSantis is a frequent voice in conservative cultural fights, but he often avoids gatherings of fellow Republican governors and party leaders, who are quick to complain in private about his go-it-alone approach. He is the only top-tier presidential prospect yet to court voters in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, the states hosting the GOP’s opening presidential primary contests. And he is often at odds with the mainstream media, refusing even to notify local media of last week’s rare three-state tour with law enforcement.
Indeed, as DeSantis clearly positions himself toward a White House run, it is becoming increasingly clear that the 44-year-old Republican governor will manage his presidential aspirations in his own way, on his own timeline, with or without allies in national GOP leadership or relationships with the press.
“DeSantis has, in his style and the actions he’s taken as governor, shown a willingness to fight the traditional powers that be, the establishment,” said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative group based in Washington.
McIntosh described DeSantis’ style as “refreshing” and suggested the GOP is ready to move on from former President Donald Trump.
For now, DeSantis is perhaps the most potent threat to Trump’s effort to win the GOP nomination for the third time. The Club for Growth — a frequent target of Trump — will host DeSantis among a half-dozen presidential prospects at a closed-door retreat in Florida next weekend with top donors. Trump is not invited.
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Meanwhile, DeSantis has quietly begun to expand his political coalition on his terms just as he releases a book, “The Courage to be Free,” which comes out Tuesday.
He spent the weekend huddled behind closed doors at a south Florida hotel for a “Freedom Blueprint” retreat with more than 100 donors, elected officials, and conservative influencers. The attendees included former Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, and Texas-based donor Roy Bailey, a former member of Trump’s national finance committee.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee were also in attendance, along with Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, Texas Rep. Chip Roy, and Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham hosted a fireside chat with DeSantis on Sunday before he joined a “fighting back against woke” discussion with Chaya Raichik, who runs the “Libs of TikTok” social media account.
Details from the gathering were disclosed by participants who requested anonymity to discuss the the private event.
Trump was largely ignored throughout the weekend retreat, although conservative commentator Ann Coulter seized on his failure to build a wall spanning the entire U.S.-Mexico border during a Saturday panel discussion with DeSantis on border security, according to one person in the room. She accused the former president of never actually wanting to build it in the first place.
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In the coming days and weeks, DeSantis will use the release of his book to introduce himself to voters beyond Florida, having established his political dominance there last fall by winning reelection by more than 19 percentage points.
He is expected to make his first appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire in the coming weeks in addition to general election battlegrounds like Georgia and Pennsylvania. Last week, he made surprise stops in New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago to show supporter for law enforcement leaders, although the events were private and he did not notify local media.
The Florida governor is already scheduled to headline two Republican fundraisers in Texas on Saturday. The next day he’ll speak at a $500-a-head reception for the GOP of Orange County, California. He’ll serve as the keynote speaker for the Alabama GOP the following week.
While he has begun to expand his profile, DeSantis is still behind. He has done far less than most of the early 2024 class to connect with primary voters and would-be allies in key states.
He has long avoided gatherings of Republican governors or top GOP officials, and establishment leaders reportedly condemn his approach as arrogant in private. He’s never set foot in Iowa.
Former New Hampshire GOP chair Jennifer Horn noted that Republican primary voters often embrace anti-establishment candidates “who are willing to create their own lane or take their own path.”
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“But when you’re running for president, and in this environment, I think he has to be careful not to be a victim of his own arrogance,” she said. “He has this belief that he knows better than everyone about everything, and that’s never a good thing.”
Meanwhile, DeSantis’ team feels no urgency to enter the 2024 contest, which already features three Republican candidates. Trump announced three months ago.
He’s also shown no interest in responding to Trump’s increasingly personal attacks, which include recent social media posts suggesting that DeSantis behaved inappropriately with underage girls when he briefly taught high school in his early 20s.
Trump refers to the Florida governor as Ron DeSanctimonious” and “Meatball Ron.”
By contrast, DeSantis in his new book actually credits Trump for helping him win the Florida governorship in 2018.
“I knew that a Trump endorsement would provide me with the exposure to GOP primary voters across the State of Florida, and I was confident that many would see me as a good candidate once they learned about my record,” DeSantis writes, according to an early copy obtained by the Guardian.
Trump’s increasing focus on DeSantis may unintentionally help the Florida governor by defining him as the strongest Republican Trump alternative, according to Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide turned critic.
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“Look, Donald is worried, and if I was working for him, I’d say he needs to update the playbook,” Nunberg said.
In the meantime, DeSantis is focused on expanding his conservative agenda in Florida’s looming state legislative session, which runs from March through May.
Already, he has pushed to eliminate many “woke” diversity, equity and inclusion programs from Florida’s public universities and colleges. Among his other priorities: allowing people to carry guns in public without a permit; changing laws protecting journalists from lawsuits over lies; and cracking down on illegal immigration, including a plan to eliminate in-state tuition for college students in the country illegally.
In a nod to his political strength, DeSantis is under attack from a growing group of Republican rivals.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu publicly condemned DeSantis’ decision to use the levers of government to punish private businesses like Disney that push back against his policy priorities. North Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s team has criticized DeSantis’ record on abortion as insufficiently conservative.
DeSantis did himself no favors inside the Republican National Committee last month when he publicly sided with RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel’s challenger during her bitter reelection fight. McDaniel easily won reelection to her post.
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“We are going to move forward. And that’s what I’m focused on,” McDaniel said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” when asked about her relationship with DeSantis. “The one thing Republicans can do to make sure we don’t win is fight each other all the time.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article