Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) got a warm reception at the Heritage Foundation’s 50th-anniversary summit just outside Washington, D.C., on Friday, softening a difficult weak that featured a wave of Florida lawmakers endorsing former President Trump for 2024.
Facing a friendly conservative audience of around 1,070 that greeted him with a standing ovation, DeSantis, who has not yet declared for 2024 but is widely expected to, tested whether he could flaunt signing a six-week abortion ban.
DeSantis did not mention the abortion ban bill in a Liberty University speech the day after he signed the bill last week. The measure drew criticism and prompted Trump’s campaign to forecast apparent opposition to a national abortion ban.
But when running through his list of accomplishments to the Heritage crowd on Friday, DeSantis briefly mentioned he “recently signed the heartbeat bill to protect life,” drawing some of the strongest applause from the crowd during his speech.
Ken Cuccinelli, a former senior Trump official who recently launched a PAC to support a DeSantis presidential run, argued that kind of reaction shows DeSantis is resonating with the conservative voter base.
“He is the most popular Republican in America for reasons of performance. And people want to win,” Cuccinelli told The Hill. “He’s a winner. He’s never lost a race. And you know, he doesn’t complain about the close ones even.”
The wave of Florida members of Congress endorsing Trump and knocking DeSantis included scathing comments from Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) to Politico accusing DeSantis of keeping him out of press conferences and not reaching out after a serious fall put him in the ICU. But Cuccinelli brushed off the importance of congressional endorsements.
“Ask an Iowa voter. Go ask a South Carolina voter,” Cuccinelli said.
Dwight Johnson, a Heritage donor from Colorado Springs who was in the crowd, said although he supported Trump in the past, “everything that [DeSantis] said made him a great candidate for president of the United States.”
“I think DeSantis is very electable. I think he’s just not nearly as controversial,” he said.
But Johnson reacted with surprise when he was told several Florida members of Congress endorsed Trump this week — and then praised the former president
“Trump did far more than the things that he said he would do in the first year,” Johnson said. “Say controversial all you want — brilliant businessman.”
Electability is also a consideration for John Garvey, of Palm Springs, Fla., another Heritage donor who was in the crowd, when looking at the 2024 field.
“I just saw a couple of polls — one out of Arizona, one out of Pennsylvania — that had DeSantis polling ahead of Biden by massive margins, both those pivotal states that Trump didn’t take [in 2020]. So I think that’s maybe one of the better arguments for DeSantis,” Garvey said.
Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts praised DeSantis’s “radical candor.” And DeSantis focused much of his 40-minute speech on arguing in favor of his confrontational, aggressive political style.
“I look around and sometimes Republicans will get into office and they’re almost like potted plants. They don’t want to do anything with the authority they have,” DeSantis said.
And without directly mentioning Trump, one DeSantis line distinguished himself from the former president in a way that may have spoken to conservative voters’ and donors’ concerns about Trump being too controversial to win.
“We’ve been able to operate an administration that does not get consumed in petty controversy or drama or palace intrigue,” DeSantis said.