By Steve Contorno, CNN
Coming off a showdown with Disney and a month of headlines for waging fights over hot-button social issues, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis introduced himself to Republican primary voters in Nevada during a Wednesday campaign stop for US Senate candidate Adam Laxalt.
DeSantis recounted for a packed Las Vegas bar his battles against the Biden administration and Disney and rattled off his conservative victories. He called Florida the “tip of the spear” — a hint at possible future fights — and said Laxalt “will represent my voice in the United States Senate.”
“This is our opportunity to rattle the foundations of this decaying administration in Washington,” DeSantis said.
The event here marks the first time DeSantis as governor has ventured outside the Sunshine State to publicly campaign for a fellow Republican, and it comes amid growing chatter about DeSantis as a 2024 presidential contender.
Nevada Republicans, used to presidential hopefuls making excuses to visit, were eager to get an early look at DeSantis. Ninety minutes before the event, more than 100 people were waiting outside Stoney’s Rockin’ Country near the Las Vegas Strip to hear from the Republican governor who took on Disney, helped enact a ban on certain school instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity, and opened Florida to tourists when many Vegas casinos struggled through Covid-19 restrictions.
“DeSantis is the future president of the United States, so I had to see him,” said Jamie Fulmer, a practice manager for a local orthopedic surgeon who had vacationed in the Jacksonville, Florida, area amid the pandemic “just to be in his state.”
“So if he supports Laxalt, then I figure I should give this guy a shot,” she said.
DeSantis is running for reelection, and his campaign, which has been reticent to engage in any discussion beyond November, declined to comment on his Nevada visit. DeSantis’ allies point out that he didn’t agree to leave Florida for just any candidate. Laxalt and DeSantis were bunkmates in the Navy, and they remain close friends. Only DeSantis’ wife has enjoyed that kind of staying power inside the governor’s notoriously tight political circle.
Nevertheless, DeSantis’ appearance in an early state on the presidential primary calendar will do little to tamp down speculation about the Republican’s 2024 ambitions. Those urging DeSantis on increasingly suggest he should enter the fray regardless of whether that puts him on a collision course with former President Donald Trump.
Indeed, in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the newspaper owned by casino magnate and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson before his death last year, columnist Victor Joecks penned some words of advice for DeSantis ahead of his visit, “Run, Ron, run.”
“There is four years of evidence that Trump’s policy successes don’t outweigh his personality foibles in the minds of swing voters,” Joecks wrote. “Go with a guy who has delivered Trump-like results but has superior message discipline and strategic thinking.”
Those results include contentious bills and actions cheered on by conservatives and drawing outrage from Democrats, including creating an election police force, banning schools and businesses from teaching about White privilege, and rejecting math textbooks for allegedly including concepts such as critical race theory.
“We need to continue to find leaders that emulate that kind of courage and conviction,” Laxalt said of DeSantis.
DeSantis also signed into law a ban on abortion in Florida after 15 weeks. His arrival in Nevada provided new fodder for Democrats to criticize Laxalt’s anti-abortion position. The Cortez Masto campaign blanketed the Review-Journal website before DeSantis arrived with digital ads tying Laxalt to Florida’s new law.
Democrats believe abortion politics will loom large in Nevada, where a woman’s right to the procedure is enshrined in state law.
“Adam Laxalt has never missed an opportunity to attack women’s reproductive rights, and now he’s campaigning with an anti-choice governor who just signed an abortion law without exceptions for victims of rape, incest or human trafficking,” Cortez Masto campaign spokesperson Sigalle Reshef said. “Campaigning with Governor DeSantis is part of Laxalt’s long record of working to roll back the clock on abortion rights in Nevada — and that’s exactly what he would do in the Senate.”
A potential Trump challenger
Like elsewhere in the country, Trump remains the most popular figure among Nevada Republicans and the heavy favorite to win the 2024 nomination if he attempts a third campaign for the White House. Robin Titus, the minority leader in the state Assembly and former co-chair of Trump’s Nevada campaign, said Republicans are waiting to see what the former President decides before looking for new horses to back.
But Titus said DeSantis is becoming a household name among even average Republicans. She said he had won over many supporters with his fight against pandemic-related mandates and restrictions, and they continue to follow him to see what issue he will take on next.
“People don’t have a guttural reaction to Ron DeSantis like folks who reach out to me about Trump,” Titus said. “I was a proud Trump supporter, but I might say that to someone and there may or not be a good reaction. It seems different with DeSantis.”
Trump has maintained his grip on the GOP, in part by playing the role of kingmaker in Republican primaries across the country. The results have been mixed, but the scramble among candidates to secure a Trump endorsement nevertheless demonstrates his perceived sway among primary voters.
Though polls indicate DeSantis’ clout with conservatives is growing, the Florida governor has spent little political capital sharing his new spotlight with other Republican candidates. While DeSantis participated in rallies for Trump in 2020, he didn’t venture outside the state to come to the assistance of other Republicans in tight races.
Similarly, his endorsement of Laxalt, who is the heavy favorite in his primary race 2,000 miles from Florida, is a rarity. DeSantis hasn’t weighed in on the heated gubernatorial primary across the border in Georgia between Gov. Brian Kemp and former US Sen. David Perdue, where the Republican Governors Association and Trump are on opposing sides of an expensive fight. Nor did he cross state lines in 2021, when there was an all-hands-on-deck fight over two Republican-held US Senate seats.
DeSantis’ campaign declined to say if the travel to Nevada signals he may be opening up his out-of-state political schedule to boost more Republicans ahead of the midterms, or if he’s simply doing a favor for an old Navy buddy. DeSantis had intended to headline a fish fry for Laxalt in Nevada last year but had to cancel because of a tropical storm.
DeSantis on Wednesday acknowledged he doesn’t often wade into other races, despite saying he gets requests “from people from halfway around the country that want me to support them.” But he said too many Republican politicians are unwilling to fight once they’re elected.
He trusted Laxalt would be different, he said, because, “I knew him before I was involved in politics … before he was involved in politics.”
The reception DeSantis received in Las Vegas suggested more appearances would be welcomed by Republicans, as would his input in contested primaries. Callers into a local conservative radio station heaped praise on DeSantis ahead of his visit, with one mentioning Florida’s new election security force as a model for the country. By 4 p.m. PT, several hundred people were already crammed into the country music hall, ordering drinks and checking out a mechanical bull. By comparison, a recent Laxalt event with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz drew about 140 people, according to local reports.
Christy and Barrett Adams of Las Vegas said they had come to see Laxalt because he had support from DeSantis as well as Trump.
“If these two superheroes support him, we figure we gotta listen to what he has to say,” Christy Adams said.
Joanna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the RGA, told CNN, “Obviously, we welcome (DeSantis’) support for any of our incumbent governors or nominees. But that’s a question for his team and the candidates.”
DeSantis has built up a “pretty rabid following” in Nevada without making frequent visits to the state, said Jeremy Hughes, a longtime GOP strategist in the state. It’s a strategy he believes is intended to “leave Nevadans wanting more.”
“When he does come out, it becomes a must-attend event,” Hughes said. “You don’t want overexposure, where people say, ‘I just saw this guy last week. Don’t you have a state to run?'”
This story has been updated with remarks from Ron DeSantis and Adam Laxalt.
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