Ron DeSantis tests the waters for 2024 White House run

The governor of Florida was greeted like a rock star by the Republican Jewish Coalition, foreshadowing his chances against Trump in the upcoming presidential primaries

Luis Pablo Beauregard
Ron De Santis elecciones presidenciales 2024
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis greets supporters during the annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition.WADE VANDERVORT (AFP)

Paul – who doesn’t wish to reveal his last name – looks both ways before telling EL PAÍS his opinion on the outcome of the recently-concluded midterm elections.

“I was very happy that the [election] deniers lost. There was no fraud in 2020… am I being frank enough?” the 52-year-old man asks mischievously. His view is controversial within the Republican Party – nearly 300 candidates in the legislative elections refused to acknowledge that President Biden legitimately won his presidency.

Paul is originally from Florida, but he flew to Las Vegas to attend the annual gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), held on November 19 and 20.

“Will the battle between DeSantis and Trump be disgusting? Of course. Everything in politics is,” Paul shrugs.

DeSantis – who was re-elected to the governorship of Florida by a 20-point landslide on November 8 – is headlining the RJC, a pro-Israel lobby group founded nearly 40 years ago.

“Florida shows that there is a way out of the disaster that the country has been living through for two years,” he told the 850 attendees. While Republicans lost the Senate, barely won the House and were defeated in gubernatorial races across the country during the midterm elections, DeSantis won supermajorities in both chambers of the Florida state legislature. Four of the congressional candidates he endorsed managed to knock out Democratic opponents. DeSantis himself got 4.6 million votes and became the first Republican governor to win Miami Dade County in two decades.

“We reject ‘woke’ ideology… we’re going to fight it and we will not give up. Florida is where ‘woke’ goes to die!” shouted DeSantis during his victory speech. He was likely referencing his long-standing opposition to pandemic lockdowns and the teaching of gender theory in elementary schools – two positions that he classifies as being part of the progressive (or “woke”) wing of the Democratic Party.

An attendee listens to Donald Trump’s virtual speech at the 2022 Republican Jewish Coalition’s conference
An attendee listens to Donald Trump’s virtual speech at the 2022 Republican Jewish Coalition’s conferenceRonda Churchill (Bloomberg)

Of the 17 Republican politicians who came to voice their support for Israel at The Venetian Las Vegas – a luxury hotel and casino resort founded by Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire Republican donor – the 44-year-old governor was the only one who managed to get a group of Yeshiva students to get up from their tables and approach the stage to take pictures on their phones.

The former governor of South Carolina and Trump’s former UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, also gave an address.

“Many have asked me if I am going to run [for the White House in 2024]. I’m thinking about it seriously… but I want to say that I’ve won very tough primaries and very close elections before. I’ve never lost an election and I’m not going to start doing so now,” said Haley, who oversaw the US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 during her tenure as ambassador to the international organization.

The Republican Party has been gaining ground in the American Jewish community for several years now. Historically supportive of the Democrats for their liberal social policies, many pro-Israel Jews have been shifting to the Republicans, who have promised them unstinting support for Israel in the midst of an ever-changing scenario in the Middle East. In 1988, 11% of American Jews voted Republican, but in November of 2022, about 33% supported the right-wing party, which is seen as more friendly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a key Trump ally.

Nikki Haley – the former governor of South Carolina – at the Republican Jewish Coalition event in Las Vegas
Nikki Haley – the former governor of South Carolina – at the Republican Jewish Coalition event in Las VegasCAROLINE BREHMAN (EFE)

The RJC meeting is seen as a rite of passage for Republicans who wish to seek their party’s presidential nomination. Candidates go there to show off their achievements regarding their “unconditional defense of Israel.” Former president Donald Trump spent more time discussing the Middle East than the outcome of the midterms.

“The most important thing I did was end that death certificate that was the nuclear agreement with Iran. It was a horror show,” said the former president, before going on to bash his predecessor, Barack Obama, who negotiated the agreement with Tehran.

Trump didn’t come to Las Vegas. He appeared via screen from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, just moments before Elon Musk announced that he was unbanning Trump from Twitter. The former president received measured applause from attendees.

Mike Pence – who used the RCJ as an opportunity to promote his recently-released memoir, So Help me God – insisted on the new need to renew the conservative narrative in the aftermath of the Trump era, even though he served as vice president during the administration.

“To win in the future, I think Republicans and elected officials need to do more than criticize and complain. We must unite the party around an optimistic agenda that shows us a clear path to victory in 2024,” Pence warned.

Other speakers – who appeared in-person or via video links – included Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state; Kevin McCarthy, who leads Republicans in the House of Representatives; New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and Senator Bill Hagerty of Tennessee. And Netanyahu – who just won the 2022 Knesset elections, after serving as PM of Israel from 1996-99 and 2009-21 – gave a warmly-received address.

Two governors in attendance were the most vocally anti-Trump voices. Chris Christie – the former governor of New Jersey, who was the first big name to endorse Trump in 2016 – broke with his former ally over his claims of election fraud in 2020.

At the RCJ, Christie claimed that Trump only used one criteria in selecting the candidates he endorsed in the 2022 midterm elections: “Not if they were eligible. Not experience, wisdom, or charisma. Nor the ability to govern. [He based his choice] on whether or not they considered the 2020 election to have been stolen.”

Christie – who governed New Jersey from 2010 until 2018 and competed in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries – was emphatic in his rejection of Trump.

“We (the Republicans) lose and we lose. And the reason is that Donald Trump has put himself before everyone else.”

Larry Hogan – the moderate outgoing Republican governor of Maryland – seconded this assessment of Trump:

“A party that has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections is in desperate need of a new direction... the voters have given a very clear signal that it is time to turn the page. It is time for the party to move forward and stop looking back.”

Hogan’s term ends in January – he leaves office with extremely high approval ratings. Over the weekend, he refused to say if he plans to run for president. Like everybody else at the RJC’s conference – except for Trump – he was playing coy. If, however, all the speakers decide to seek their party’s nomination, the 2024 Republican presidential primary could be very crowded indeed.

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