The moves marked the latest swing among some Florida Republicans from DeSantis to Trump and served as a measure of DeSantis’s changing political fortunes at home. Once seen as well-positioned to challenge Trump for the GOP nomination after a landslide reelection win last year, DeSantis has struggled this year in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, falling well behind Trump in early state and national polling.
Spurned by moderates and MAGA: How DeSantis’s coalition has deflated
While home-state endorsements typically have little bearing on the outcome in early nominating contests, the moves were seen in Republican circles Saturday as another blow to DeSantis’s campaign. Trump, who spends the winter months at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, has sought to cultivate relationships with some local Republicans as he seeks the presidency.
Speaking to reporters after the news of the defects broke, DeSantis dismissed the endorsements as politics as usual. And his campaign pointed out that DeSantis still outpaced Trump in state legislative endorsements in Iowa and New Hampshire and still holds a far greater number of endorsements in Florida.
“This happens in these things,” he said. “Politicians do what they’re going to do. Taking a step back and looking across the country, we’ve gotten more endorsements from state legislators than any other candidate by far.”
Saturday’s summit came days ahead of the next Republican presidential debate, scheduled for Wednesday in Miami. Trump, who has forgotten the debates so far, is once again not expected to participate.
DeSantis avoided bringing up the former president in his speech by name, although he suggested the party could no longer accept losing. (DeSantis has previously said Trump lost in 2020.)
“You can sit there and talk about big game, you can have rhetoric, you can do this, you can make promises, but if you’re not ultimately winning elections, and ultimately not winning the big policy fights, it’s not going to matter “DeSantis said to applause. The reaction was more enthusiastic than any other candidate who had spoken to that point.
Florida state Rep. Randy Fine, who was the first Republican state lawmaker to announce his defection from DeSantis to Trump, citing dissatisfaction with DeSantis’s handling of antisemitism in the state, said Saturday that he has heard from other legislators who are considering following his lead and supporting Trump.
“I think people saw you can do it and the world won’t end,” Fine said. “I have not recruited people. But I’ve had most of my colleagues call me, and I would say the number one emotion they have shared is envy.”
The defects include legislators who had previously supported DeSantis’s most controversial actions, including state Rep. Webster Barnaby, who once called transgender people “mutants” and “demons”; state Sen. Debbie Mayfield, who has supported Moms for Liberty, a group with ties to DeSantis; and state Rep. Jessica Baker, whose district neighbors DeSantis’s former congressional district.
The defections make political sense, given Trump’s wide lead in the GOP race, even as a large share of Trump voters rank DeSantis as their second choice, said Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, a Florida-based polling firm. But endorsements will not change the minds of most voters, he added.
“This is all interesting theater but people aren’t looking at it from 30,000 feet,” he said.
All of the major Republican presidential candidates are expected to speak at the event, except former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and they will file to run in the Florida primary. Many attendees said that they were most excited to hear Trump, who will be last to speak. Trump’s dominating lead has put his rivals in the difficult position of either appealing to his voters by backing his positions or distinguishing themselves by criticizing him.
DeSantis and his allies have made the case to voters that Trump is not the same candidate he once was, criticizing him for sometimes making confusing or inaccurate comments off the cuff. Some Republican voters who have n’t supported Trump say they have concerns about his legal troubles, as the former president faces four criminal indictments encompassing 91 criminal charges.
But at the summit, the audience didn’t want to hear it.
Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, who has fallen far behind the other candidates in polling and fundraising, was booed when he said in his speech that there was a significant chance Trump would be found guilty and that his behavior was “destructive.”
“Go home!” shouted an audience member.
When former New Jersey governor Chris Christie took the stage, the crowd repeatedly shouted “Trump!” and booed him, especially when he said the former president was unfit for reelection.
“You can yell and boo as much as you want but it doesn’t change the truth,” Christie said. “The truth is coming.”
Sen. Tim Scott (RS.C.) took a different approach in his speech, praising his opponents, including Trump and DeSantis, to applause, but then also differentiating himself from those rivals to a more rapid response.
“I voted for him twice,” he said of Trump to cheers, adding that he “partnered with” Trump to spearhead a tax overhaul law and worked with him to confirm conservative Supreme Court justices, among other things. “But our party has underperformed in three consecutive national elections,” he continued to near silence.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) Got loud cheers when he referred to his recent endorsement of Trump in his speech.
“I made the decision because I don’t think there’s any question in my mind: He is the one person running that can really bring strength back to our country,” Scott said to applause.
Trump’s image was also ever-present throughout the summit.
The event kicked off with a falsehood-filled video that insisted the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, a claim Trump often repeats on the campaign trail. The hallway of vendors included one merchant selling mostly Trump-themed wares, including his mug shot on a sticker labeled “LEGEND” and a Republican elephant pin topped with Trump’s recognizable comb-over hairstyle.
Chuck Benoit, a representative of Florida’s Lake County Republican Party, sported a sticker that read “Florida is Trump country.” (DeSantis’s campaign gave out signs that read “Florida is DeSantis country.”)
Benoit said that he liked DeSantis as a governor, but anyone primarying Trump “should be ashamed of themselves.”
“Governor DeSantis is not doing himself any favors,” Benoit said.
Lori Rozsa contributed to this report.