WESLEY CHAPEL — As sparklers shot into the air inside a resort ballroom, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stepped to the microphone Friday and launched into the latest round of his war of words with the president.
“I just want to say first and foremost,” DeSantis began, “if Joe Biden is violating the Constitution, if Joe Biden is coming after the jobs of our citizens, if Joe Biden is trying to destroy the livelihoods of our people, I will fight back.”
One thousand Republicans stood up and cheered.
DeSantis has sparred with Biden in press conferences, on Fox News and, on Friday, he brought the fight to the Saddlebrook Resort where he rallied Pasco County Republicans at the party’s annual Reagan Day fundraiser.
In front of the friendly audience, DeSantis said Biden was “obsessed with attacking the state of Florida” and he foreshadowed more clashes to come.
DeSantis didn’t say the word “vaccine” during his 20-minute remarks, which is what this latest spat is about. Biden proposed a rule change to mandate that workers at businesses with more than 100 employees be inoculated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly tests.
Biden offered his response to Republican threats earlier in the day. “Have at it.”
“I am so disappointed that, particularly some Republican governors, have been so cavalier with the health of these kids, so cavalier with the health of their communities,” Biden said.
Inside the Royal Palm room of the Saddlebrook Resort, there were few reminders that Florida remains one of the country’s hardest-hit COVID-19 hot spots. Guests, almost all unmasked, mingled amicably around cocktail tables and took pictures before shuffling into Grand Pavilion for a meal served at dozens of tightly packed tables.
DeSantis and his wife, Casey, joined the dinner at the front of the room just as reports emerged that Florida recorded its deadliest week since the pandemic began.
DeSantis focused much of his remarks outside the state he governed — at Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal, “woke” corporations and universities, big tech and “regime controlled media.” The remarks carried familiar themes to speeches he has recently delivered in front of conservative audiences across the country as his Republican profile has grown.
“We got a lot going wrong in our country,” DeSantis said. “But I’ll tell you, we’ve got a lot going right in the state of Florida.”
Friday’s Pasco dinner marked the first time DeSantis was the keynote speaker and the main attraction at a local Republican Party dinner, said state Sen. Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. DeSantis has nine more dinners planned in the next 34 days, and the expectation is each will raise more money for the local parties than the next, Gruters said.
DeSantis, unknown before running for governor, became one of the most recognizable politicians in the country for his less restrictive approach to the deadly coronavirus pandemic. His popularity among Republicans has led many to speculate he is laying the foundation for a future presidential run.
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But plenty of Republicans at home have only seen him on television or as the opening act at one of former President Donald Trump’s rallies. He rarely engaged in party politics during his first year as governor and the coronavirus halted campaign operations in 2020.
That is changing as his re-election fight approaches in 2022. Stephanie Smurr said she had little idea who DeSantis was in 2018; she supported his opponent, former Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, in the Republican primary.
Now Smurr is so pleased with DeSantis’ performance, she’s ready for him to move onto the White House as soon as 2024.
“I hope he’s there,” said Smurr, an office manager from Dade City.
DeSantis has recently dismissed any discussion about his political ambitions beyond Florida, but the topic was top of the mind for many attendees hoping to say they were among the first to hear from the prospective presidential candidate.
Margy Biggs of Zephyrhills said she hoped DeSantis might hint at his future plans.
“We have friends and relatives out of state — they want him to run,” Biggs said.
Rosie Paulsen said DeSantis is still needed in Florida and doesn’t want to lose him to a national campaign, but she added if he was Trump’s running mate: “I would work that campaign.”
The turnout was a record for Pasco and one of the largest local county fundraisers in Tampa Bay history. It may be the largest in the state since Trump’s 2015 keynote addressed 1,400 Republicans in Sarasota County before he was a candidate.
It’s a milestone moment for the Pasco County GOP that marks its growing significance in state Republican politics and demonstrates the party’s successes in suburban Central Florida.
The county is home to Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, who recently announced plans to run for state agriculture commissioner, and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. Former House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Pasco native, was recently named the new chairman of the University of South Florida Board of Trustees. Sheriff Chris Nocco is one of the most politically connected law enforcement officials in the state.
While Republicans are falling further behind Democrats in neighboring Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, the GOP is expanding its voter registration advantage in Pasco. The party’s lead over Democrats has doubled to 42,000 voters since the 2016 election. Trump lost Pinellas and Hillsborough, but carried Pasco County by 60,000.
“Can we do even a little better in 2022?” DeSantis teased.
In the past, Hillsborough County attracted the biggest Republican names to its fundraisers, including former presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. DeSantis notably elected to speak in Pasco before Hillsborough or Pinellas County, where he grew up.
“It’s our time,” said Shawn Foster, a state committeeman for Pasco County. “I have never seen the excitement and growth like I’ve seen in the last 12 months.”
Republican dominance here has local Democrats sounding the alarm. They fear that the Democratic Party’s statewide electoral failures will continue unless it can stop the bleeding in Pasco and other booming suburban counties.
Pasco saw its population explode by 20 percent in the last decade, according to the latest census figures, making it the third fastest-growing county in Florida with at least half a million residents.
“We can’t just have pockets of Democratic-leaning voters and citizens in urban areas,” said Kelly Smith, the newly elected chairwoman of Pasco Democrats. “We have to be looking at the state as a whole.”
Democrats held a protest on Route 54 near the event “mostly, for people to realize that there are Democrats in Pasco,” Smith said.
DeSantis urged more Republicans to get in the fight.
“The thing that we need from elected Republicans more than ever,” said DeSantis, “we need people that are going to stand on the wall, that are not going to back down, that are going to display courage under fire.”