Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis launches book in Venice ahead of likely presidential bid
Facing a crowd of about 2,000 at a Venice manufacturing warehouse Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis touted his vision for the country presented in his new book, in a precursor to his presumed presidential run.
DeSantis spoke for more than an hour in the solidly red area of Sarasota County about his response to COVID-19 and the underlying political mindset laid out in his book, “The Courage to be Free,” as he continues to tease his undeclared 2024 presidential candidacy. The governor's book release follows the pattern of presidential candidates such as Barack Obama to Mitt Romney on the eve of their campaigns. DeSantis recently won reelection by almost 20 percentage points and is widely viewed as the biggest rival to former President Donald Trump in the GOP primary.
DeSantis is expected to announce his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination soon after the Florida Legislature adjourns in May. Meanwhile, he has teed-up an array of culture war pushes for the Republican-controlled Legislature to endorse this spring, including new limits on socially conscious investing, and diversity and equity efforts at colleges and universities.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that DeSantis is expected to go to early primary state Iowa in March, with plans to stop in Nevada and New Hampshire in ensuing weeks, all viewed as a lead-up to his campaign kick-off.
DeSantis vs. Disney:Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis exacts punishment, takes over Disney district on eve of book launch
'Disaster for free speech':Florida defamation, libel bill alarms advocates
Ron DeSantis:14 things to know about Florida's governor
In his hour-long address at PGT Innovations, DeSantis said national conservatives had lost touch with their voters, pointing to the creation of the U.S. House Freedom Caucus and the increase in his margin of victory as factors he said show he is in tune with the people.
"We're not asking for anything revolutionary. What we're saying is you guys all campaign on all these things, and you get elected on those things, but you don't do those things," DeSantis said about his part in establishing the House Freedom Caucus. "So why don't we just say whatever we campaign on, we come in we do?"
DeSantis said upon entering office in 2018 he asked his staff for a summary of the executive powers he held, then touted the removal of Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher and later Democratic prosecutor Andrew Warren.
He said he worked to keep the state open during COVID-19 despite outside pressure to close it down. The governor did implement lockdowns in response to the pandemic and initially promoted the COVID-19 vaccines. In his speech, he said he was fine taking political heat for his COVID-19 policies because he said he knew he was right.
The governor pointed to the growth Florida has seen the last few years as evidence of support for his pandemic response and policies, but did not mention the more than 86,000 deaths from the coronavirus during the outbreak.
"People do vote with their feet, and they leave areas that are poorly governed," DeSantis said. "They're coming to Florida because we've really been centered on freedom."
The governor also raised doubts about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, though he had traveled the state touting their availability early in 2021. He said if his child’s pediatrician had recommended giving his youngest child a COVID-19 vaccine, his family would’ve found a different doctor.
"So are you telling me that this is the one pharmaceutical product that somehow there's no chance of any side effects?" DeSantis said, adding that health officials who pushed COVID-19 vaccines should be prosecuted.
The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to reduce deaths and hospitalizations in those who've taken it, despite contracting the virus. The vast majority of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are from unvaccinated patients.
DeSantis briefly touched on his removal of “woke ideologies” from the state’s universities and K-12 schools. Bridget Ziegler, chairwoman of the Sarasota County School Board and wife of Florida GOP Chairman Christian Ziegler, was in attendance with her husband. She was endorsed by the governor for her most recent reelection, and DeSantis appointed her to the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District overseeing Disney on Monday.
The book release event came a day after he signed legislation taking away Walt Disney Company's self-governing status in Central Florida, a move widely seen as punishment for the entertainment giant's opposition to his parental rights law last year, which was ridiculed as "Don't Say Gay," by LGBTQ organizations and allies.
Mike, a 67-year-old Ohio resident who declined to give his last name, came to Venice during the winters and attended the event Tuesday. Mike voted for Trump in 2016 and then Joe Biden in 2020, calling Trump an "ego-maniac."
He said if DeSantis runs against Trump in the 2024 GOP presidential primary, he'd vote for him. He said he felt DeSantis appealed to a wide range of voters, even moderates, pointing to DeSantis's speech where he said he went against some of the party's hopes in policymaking.
"You go into (governing) with the idea that you're going to work for the people, right? Not the party," he said.
Immediately following the speech, the Florida Democratic Party held a Zoom press conference to counter the governor's remarks. Newly-elected Chairwoman Nikki Fried described DeSantis' "Florida blueprint" as the "wrong path."
"The country cannot afford for him to even be considered as a presidential contender," Fried said. "If Ron DeSantis takes his Florida blueprint to the national stage. His results in Florida tell you everything you need to know about what will happen. Every day, hard-working Americans are the ones who stand to lose with this his agenda."
Inside the book
"The Courage to Be Free" doesn't address a possible presidential run, but covers many of DeSantis' past initiatives, including the clash with Disney, his focus on eradicating "woke," and his battle against school masks and COVID-19 policies, without mentioning the more than 86,000 Floridians who've died from the virus.
Instead, "The battles we have fought in Florida -- from defeating the biomedical security state to stifling woke corporations to fighting indoctrination in schools -- strike at the heart of what it means to be a Floridian and an American," DeSantis writes in the book.
The book, cast as a memoir, touches some on the governor's growing up in Dunedin on Florida's Gulf Coast, playing baseball on a team that made the Little League World Series, and taking those skills to Yale, where he captained the baseball team and met former President George H.W. Bush, himself a Yale baseball captain in post-World War II years.
DeSantis also tiptoes around his relationship with Trump, who now looms as a rival for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump now calls the Florida governor,"Ron DeSanctimonious," but the author is careful in his approach to the former president who still has a magnetic hold on many Republican voters.
In case you missed it:Meet the Trump-loving yacht lawyer who helped engineer DeSantis' New College takeover
Choice last words:Donald Dillbeck was executed by Florida. He used his last words to insult Ron DeSantis
DeSantis says Trump has "unique star power" and a "massive following." While DeSantis acknowledges his hopeful courting of a Trump endorsement when he began his uphill climb in the race for governor in 2018, in his book, the governor tries to throw cold water on the conclusion of many observers that he'd never have won without the former president.
"I do not think Republican primary voters are sheep who simply follow an endorsement from a politician they like without any individual analysis," DeSantis writes. "But I do believe that a major endorsement can put a candidate on the radar of GOP voters in a way that boosts a good candidate's prospects."
DeSantis also guardedly ridicules Trump for not doing enough during his first two years in office with Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. By contrast, DeSantis points to his own record in Florida, where a subservient state Legislature has effectively given him everything he wants.
In the New York Times review of "The Courage to Be Free," much of what the governor describes as his political North Star is seen as "chilling-- unfree and scary."
The book is also portrayed as "courageously free of anything that resembles charisma, or a discernible sense of humor." The reviewer also wrote that the book reads much like it could've been written by ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence software.
One element of the book with resonance in light of his putting a political dagger into Disney this week, was DeSantis' recollection of his wedding to wife, Casey, a former Jacksonville TV reporter, at Disney World. DeSantis mentioned the wedding in his speech, noting his in-laws were fans of Disney.
"My only condition was that no Disney characters could be part of our wedding," he wrote. "I wanted our special day to look and feel like a traditional wedding. I didn't want Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck in our wedding photos."
USA TODAY NETWORK Capital Bureau reporter John Kennedy contributed to this report
Follow Herald-Tribune Education Reporter Steven Walker on Twitter at @swalker_7. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.