DeSantis at CPAC: Florida’s an ‘oasis of freedom,’ but no mention of Trump

Florida’s four most visible Republicans, DeSantis, Sen. Rick Scott, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Matt Gaetz, are all set to speak.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Orlando, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Feb. 26, 2021|Updated Feb. 26, 2021

The country’s largest annual gathering of conservatives began in Orlando on Friday, and Florida was front and center.

Gov. Ron DeSantis kicked off the event and touted his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and Florida’s relatively lax social-distancing protocols that enabled this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference to be held indoors and in-person in former President Donald Trump’s home state.

“We are in an oasis of freedom in a nation that’s suffering from the yoke of oppressive lockdowns,’' DeSantis said during a speech that mostly mirrored a stump-style campaign address. “Florida got it right, and the lockdown states got it wrong.”

Related: Year 1 of Florida’s coronavirus outbreak: 8 key DeSantis decisions

But while DeSantis espoused pro-Trump ideas like supporting a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and reigning in tech companies, the former president’s name wasn’t mentioned in the governor’s seven-minute speech.

“We will not go back to the failed Republican establishment of yesteryear,” DeSantis said, prompting cheers from the audience.

Trump’s influence

The former president turned Florida resident maintains his grip on the Republican Party and successfully morphed the Conservative Political Action Conference, traditionally a place for Republicans with different ideologies, into a Trump-only affair. The annual gathering, which usually takes place near Washington, was moved to Central Florida at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the first time the event was moved from the Washington area since it launched in 1974.

Trump is scheduled to conclude the event with a speech Sunday afternoon.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Republican in Washington, wasn’t invited after he blasted Trump’s conduct ahead of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot despite also voting not to impeach the president. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the only GOP senator to vote to impeach Trump twice, was “formally NOT invited” by conference chairman Matt Schlapp.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who spoke Friday afternoon, alluded to the internal divisions within the GOP during his speech but said he won’t get involved while he works to regain the Senate majority as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman for 2022.

“Many are saying it is my job to mediate between warring factions on the right and mediate the war of words between party leaders,” Scott said, alluding to the ongoing division between McConnell and Trump. “Well, I have news for them — I’m not going to mediate anything. Instead, I’m going to fight for our conservative values, and I’m going to do it boldly, and without apology to anyone.”

Scott and DeSantis were among a slew of Floridians participating in the conference this year, including Rep. Matt Gaetz and former state Attorney General Pam Bondi. Sen. Marco Rubio, who initially wasn’t on the schedule, will speak on Saturday morning.

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Gaetz used his speech to go after House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney, the highest ranking Republican who voted to impeach Trump.

“If Liz Cheney were on this stage today, she’d get booed off of it,” Gaetz said. However, House Republicans overwhelmingly voted to keep Cheney in her leadership post by secret ballot after voting to impeach Trump.

Scott lightly criticized Trump during his speech, though he muttered the line of criticism without pause to prevent any booing or shouting and then joked that Trump would complain to Scott about calling him flawed.

“President Trump has flaws, I have flaws, we all have flaws,” Scott said.

For Florida’s GOP leaders, Trump’s continued grip on the party presents political challenges. Most of their voters are ardent Trump supporters, and the former president, despite losing nationally, remains popular in a state he won by a comfortable 3 percent margin in 2020. Pro-Trump GOP leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise continue to make pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago and many attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference donned Trump paraphernalia and eschewed masks while they sat in a socially distanced ballroom on Friday.

Moving away from Trump

DeSantis, Scott and Rubio have all taken some steps to distance themselves from Trump, who continues to falsely assert that the 2020 election was “stolen.”

Scott in his role as the Senate Republican in charge of 2022 election races, released a memo this week declaring the “Republican civil war is canceled,” and Rubio has repeatedly said the 2020 election was not stolen.

But the conflict between pro-Trump and anti-Trump Republicans continues to play out in public. Donald Trump Jr., used his speech on Friday to bash Cheney and any Republican who stands in his father’s way.

“Donald Trump is still the future of the Republican Party,” Trump Jr. said.

When asked about Trump’s looming Sunday speech, Cheney said this week “I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.”

Standing next to Cheney were McCarthy and Scalise, who shook his head while Cheney spoke.

Florida’s Republicans have continued to defend Trump, noting that his popularity among the base remains high.

“Asking whether the man 87 percent of Republicans see as the leader of their party will play a big role in the future of the GOP is not a serious question,” Rubio tweeted on Friday.

Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.