ORLANDO — Gov. Ron DeSantis took the stage of the country’s largest annual gathering of conservatives Thursday, and he used it to amp up the stakes of the culture wars — saying that unless Republicans fight back against “wokeism,” they will become “second-class citizens.”
The left’s goal is to “marginalize the conservative half of the country. They want us to be powerless, they want us to be voiceless,” he said. “The woke is the new religion of the left, and this is what they have in mind.”
The governor’s roughly 20-minute speech began after the Conservative Political Action Conference hosts introduced him with a hype video, and he strode on stage to toss out ballcaps to cheering attendees with rock music blaring.
Billed by CPAC as “America’s Governor,” DeSantis’ rising profile has quickly catapulted his name among the potential front-runners for the 2024 Republican nomination for president, perhaps second only to fellow Floridian Donald Trump. The former president is scheduled to address the conference Saturday evening as its headliner.
DeSantis’ speech Thursday featured well-worn talking points about Florida taking the lead against pandemic restrictions and quickly touched on many of his actions as governor on hot-button election issues like immigration, voting integrity, education and increasing the penalties for unlawful protests after the 2020 summer of Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
But then his speech turned to the broader cultural battles of the day, using some of his harshest language yet to describe the fight of right vs. left.
DeSantis referenced how he first got into politics as an unknown congressman from North Florida “largely to stop Barack Obama.” Now, that time “almost seems a little quaint,” he said.
He framed his current battle as fighting for the very existence of Republicans’ way of life.
“They want to delegitimize our founding institutions and they want to replace that with their left-wing ideology,” he said. “It’s about tearing at the fabric of our society and trying to replace it with something that will be much, much more sinister.”
Thursday marked the start of the four-day CPAC. This is the second time it was held in Orlando after it shifted from outside Washington, D.C., in 2021 to avoid pandemic restrictions for in-person gatherings. This year’s theme is “Awake Not Woke.”
Multiple panels Thursday made it clear Republicans’ strategy for 2022 mirrors DeSantis’ longtime messaging on the pandemic: portraying Democrats as taking advantage of a virus that’s killed roughly 940,000 Americans to consolidate power over individual liberties.
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Speakers repeatedly railed against mask and vaccine requirements, as well as school closures, describing them as not only politically motivated, but also existential threats to Americans’ freedom.
But overshadowing that issue Thursday was the breaking news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Differences emerged among various Republicans who spoke at the event, revealing the impact of Donald Trump’s shift toward isolation away from the Reagan-style fight against communism abroad.
“Vladimir Putin doesn’t stop with Ukraine,” said K.T. McFarland, a former deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration who is now a frequent Fox News commentator. “China’s technology married up with Russia’s military capabilities ... is a threat that I think will really be the biggest threat to the U.S. in our history.”
She stressed the need for American strength and conservative grassroots efforts in the face of a “feckless” Biden administration.
In sharp contrast, just hours later, right-wing activist Charlie Kirk brushed off the invasion in Ukraine as far less important than the “invasion” of undocumented immigrants into the United States, a line that received raucous applause.
“I’m more worried about how the cartels are deliberately trying to infiltrate our country than a dispute 5,000 miles away in cities we can’t pronounce, places that most Americans can’t find on a map,” he said. “I’m not defending the actions of dictators. ... I don’t want to hear lectures about why we need to send our troops halfway across the world while we are being invaded.”
DeSantis did not mention Ukraine in his speech.
He also did not mention Trump amid rumors and news reports that the relationship between the two men has strained because of DeSantis’ growing star power.
Alex Patton, a Gainesville Republican pollster who’s been vocally against the populist swing of his party, said before CPAC that he’s noticed small shifts in responses of Florida voters that suggest a potential changing tide when it comes to DeSantis and Trump.
While both DeSantis and Trump enjoy strong favorability among Republican voters, the intensity of that favorability is changing, Patton said. More respondents say their view of DeSantis is “very favorable” while Trump’s numbers are shifting more toward people feeling “somewhat favorable” toward him.
For now, DeSantis has dismissed talk of his presidential ambitions as “nonsense.”
And his CPAC speech focused on 2022, saying that his reelection year can be “the year that America fought back,” using the “full armor of God” against the “flaming arrows” from the left.
“We are not going to back down,” he said. “We have only begun to fight.”