By James Oliphant and Joseph Ax
OLATHE, Kan. (Reuters) – Days after sending two planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flew 1,600 miles across the country to address voters at a ballroom at a Kansas hotel.
He ostensibly made the trip to stomp for a fellow Republican. But introduced as “the governor of America,” DeSantis’ hour-long speech sounded like a presidential-style campaign speech that was heavy on his Florida track record.
Hundreds of audiences roared in agreement, especially when he referred to the Martha’s Vineyard flights of migrants he choreographed last week to protest the immigration policies of President Joe Biden’s administration.
“He doesn’t back down, and that’s one of the things I appreciate about him,” said Bill Burns, 60, of Olathe.
DeSantis’ stop in the heart of America was part of a series of events that have taken him to states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as he builds a national profile and donor base. His actions have sparked speculation that if he wins a second term as governor in November, he will move quickly to a 2024 bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
The X Factor remains former President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican who has strongly suggested he launch another White House run. Trump and DeSantis were close allies during Trump’s four years in office, but the governor has since forged a clear political identity.
DeSantis, 44, became the national face of resistance to COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates. He has been at the forefront of current cultural issues, such as teaching race relations and gender identity in public schools.
When Walt Disney Co., one of Florida’s largest employers, opposed a new state law that curtailed discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools, DeSantis decided to strip the company of its autonomous status. When an elected Democratic state attorney said he would not prosecute anyone for abortion or transgender care, DeSantis removed him.
DeSantis’ Democratic opponent in Florida, former Governor Charlie Crist, has accused him of running the state in an autocratic manner and has encouraged voters to curb his national ambitions by denying him a second term.
Crist cut a TV ad in the wake of the Martha’s Vineyard incident accusing DeSantis “always putting politics above people’s lives.”
Conservatives, meanwhile, have encouraged him.
According to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that tracks campaign finance, DeSantis has raised nearly $180 million through September 9 between his reelection campaign and his state-level political action committee.
According to the site’s analysis, more than $70 million of DeSantis’ total comes from out of state. He has raised checks from several ultra-wealthy donors, including hotelier and space exploration entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, who contributed $10 million in July, and hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, who donated $5 million last year.
Trump, 76, has long been considered the favorite for the Republican nomination if he runs again. DeSantis, a former congressman who attended Yale University and Harvard Law School and served as a lieutenant in the United States Navy in Iraq, has changed that calculation.
A USA Today/Suffolk poll released Wednesday showed DeSantis Trump leads 48%-40% among Florida Republicans in a 2024 presidential primaries. That was a reversal of a Florida poll in January when Trump DeSantis defeated by 47%-40%.
Ready for Ron, a federal fundraising PAC wants DeSantis to run for president. The group has run television and digital advertising and has spent between $250,000 and $500,000 since its launch in May, according to Dan Backer, an attorney who works for the PAC.
“We think he’s the guy,” Backer said. “I love Trump – I think Trump was a great president. But that’s not our point. It’s about Ron DeSantis running and electing him so we can beat Joe Biden and save our country.”
A day before Sunday’s DeSantis event in Kansas, Trump held a raucous outdoor rally in Ohio in front of thousands of adoring supporters. The governor’s less publicized speech was much more subdued as he methodically compiled statistics to support his claim that Florida had prospered under his leadership.
However, he was not eager to excite the crowd when he turned to cultural issues.
“These are fights we have to have, and these are fights we have to win,” he said to applause.
John Thomas, a Republican strategist in California, said DeSantis was smart about positioning himself for a possible run in 2024.
“Obviously he’s catching the president’s wrath along the way, but I’d say just walk lightly, but definitely keep walking,” Thomas said.
Trump’s PAC has boasted that an FBI investigation of his Florida estate last month gave him a boost over DeSantis with Republican voters.
For his part, DeSantis has yet to say whether he is considering running for president or challenging Trump.
David Jolly, a former Florida congressman who left the Republican Party to help form an independent third party, believes DeSantis has no choice but to make an offer when his star burns brightest.
“He could also be a refugee in 2028,” Jolly said. “He has the best hand in politics right now in anyone’s country, red, blue or purple.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant in Olathe, Kansas, and Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey; editing by Colleen Jenkins and Howard Goller)