Los Angeles Times

DeSantis to trek to California to woo GOP donors

Florida governor and possible presidenti­al candidate will test the waters on local swing.

- By Seema Mehta

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, viewed as the strongest GOP threat to former President Trump’s 2024 White House campaign, is visiting Southern California this weekend to promote his new book and curry favor as he raises money for Republican­s in conservati­ve stronghold­s.

DeSantis, who frequently tangles with California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, has not officially announced a presidenti­al bid. However, his Sunday appearance­s in front of nearly 2,000 well-heeled donors and influentia­l Republican­s in Simi Valley and Anaheim is yet another signal that he’s considerin­g a bid for the GOP nomination.

California is a well-worn stop for presidenti­al contenders because the state is a top source of campaign cash for politician­s in both parties. DeSantis’ visit also comes days after a poll shows he has overtaken Trump among the state’s Republican voters as their choice to be their party’s presidenti­al nominee next year.

GOP strategist Kevin Spillane argued that DeSantis is a perfect fit for California Republican­s who are tired of the drama associated with the former president and are looking for a seasoned politician who has a conservati­ve track record on issues such as taxes, regulation­s and COVID policy.

“You might not like him, but he’s smart, tough and competent. Most Republican­s are looking for a strong president, not a hug from our nominee,” said Spillane, who donated $6,000 to DeSantis’ gubernator­ial reelec

tion campaign last year.

Spillane said that while he admires former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has announced a presidenti­al campaign, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who is expected to launch a bid, he thinks DeSantis is the best choice to challenge the former president.

“I believe he’s the only one who can stop Trump, and he’s the one who could bring the party together,” said Spillane, who has opposed Trump since the 2016 election.

GOP strategist Rob Stutzman noted that while much of DeSantis’ track record in Florida would appeal to California Republican­s, he wondered whether some of his decisions — including his battle with Burbank-based Walt Disney Co. — would rub some the wrong way. After the company opposed a Florida law banning discussion of sexual orientatio­n and gender identity in kindergart­en through third grade, DeSantis signed legislatio­n ending the company’s system of self-governance over about 40 square miles that contain Walt Disney World and other properties.

“I don’t know that anyone wants to feel protective of Disney,” Stutzman said. “But that starts to bump up against the fascist idea of using government to bend speech to your point of view.”

DeSantis writes about his row with the company in his book, “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival,” which was released Tuesday. In a chapter titled “The Magic Kingdom of Woke Corporatis­m,” DeSantis said he advised then-Chief Executive Bob Chapek to stay out of the battle over the legislatio­n, which has been dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics.

He will discuss the book Sunday afternoon in front of about 1,000 people at the Ronald Reagan Presidenti­al Library in Simi Valley. Later that evening, he will headline a fundraiser for the Orange County Republican Party at an Anaheim resort. More than 900 people have bought tickets to the private fundraiser — ranging from $500 individual seats to $15,000 to be a platinum sponsor, which includes a VIP reception, photograph­s with the governor and an autographe­d copy of his book.

Protests are planned, including one Sunday afternoon by Trump supporters in Newport Beach.

Orange County GOP leaders would not divulge the location of DeSantis’ evening appearance. However, they said it was the biggest event in the county party’s history, a notable feat in a historical­ly conservati­ve stronghold that then-President Reagan described in 1988 as “where the good Republican­s go before they die.”

Fred Whitaker, the chair of the county GOP, expects DeSantis’ appearance to be followed by stops by other White House hopefuls because California moved up its presidenti­al primary to March 2024. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is weighing a presidenti­al bid, is scheduled to appear on March 20; Haley and Scott are expected to visit soon.

While California is overwhelmi­ngly Democratic, it is home to millions of GOP voters and many of the nation’s biggest political donors.

In 2020, the state was the top source of funds for Joe

Biden’s campaign committee as well as outside groups supporting his bid — all of which raised more than $300 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. California was the No. 3 source of financial support for Trump and independen­t organizati­ons backing him, providing more than $92 million. These figures are significan­t undercount­s because they do not include contributi­ons to political action committees or individual donations of less than $200.

While DeSantis is not raising money for himself during this visit, California­ns donated more than $800,000 to his 2022 reelection for Florida governor. He headlined a September fundraiser that cost up to $25,000 per couple at the $50million, 30,000-square-foot Newport Coast mansion overlookin­g the Pacific Ocean owned by “Undercover Billionair­e” star Glenn Stearns and his wife, Mindy, a former Los Angeles TV entertainm­ent reporter. Stearns made his fortune by founding a mortgage lending company.

DeSantis has been popular with smaller donors in California, including Gershon Luria of Alameda County, 71.

“I love him. I will donate to him as soon as I have some money available, and especially if he decides to run,” said Luria, who contribute­d $25 to a pro-DeSantis political action committee in 2021. He said he and his wife “live off our pension plus whatever else we can get. But I would donate as much as I could.”

California also has the most Republican voters of any state in the nation and the largest delegation in the nominating contest at the 2024 Republican National Convention.

“If you’re even thinking of running for president of the United States, you have to be present in California before that March primary,” Whitaker said. “You’re going to see these candidates spending time on the ground.”

State GOP chair Jessica Millan Patterson said California is a dual draw for candidates given the state’s wealth of donors and delegates.

“We’re going to see many if not all of these candidates coming through California not just for the purpose of fundraisin­g — though that’s an added benefit — but meeting with voters convincing them why they should be our nominee,” she said.

DeSantis is expected to meet with wealthy backers during his brief California visit. GOP strategist­s said his track record in Florida is attractive to donors opposed to Newsom’s liberal policies, including the pandemic restrictio­ns he enacted at the outset of the crisis.

“Gov. DeSantis brings a lot to the party in California compared to what we have here. Running a state with less taxes, less regulation­s, is really appealing to lot of California­ns,” said Howard Hakes, chairman of the New Majority, the state’s largest Republican political action committee.

Hakes said that DeSantis’ governance of Florida provides a clear contrast with Newsom.

“If we look at the two states, putting them side by side, it was a lot easier — especially during the pandemic — to get things done in the state of Florida than it has been in the state of California,” Hakes said.

The two governors, both easily reelected to second terms in November, have increasing­ly used each other as foils on issues such as abortion, immigratio­n and education.

Newsom’s first general election campaign ad aired in Florida on July 4, urging the state’s residents to fight DeSantis’ policies or move to California “where we still believe in freedom — freedom of speech, freedom to choose, freedom from hate and the freedom to love.”

DeSantis responded by accusing Newsom of treating California­ns like “peasants” because of the state’s pandemic lockdowns, and his spokespers­on said that Newsom had turned the state into a “hellhole.”

The discourse between the two men has devolved since then.

After battling over immigratio­n policy last year, DeSantis said Newsom’s “hair gel is interferin­g with his brain function.” Newsom countered that they should debate: “I’ll bring my hair gel. You bring your hairspray. Name the time before Election Day.”

 ?? Wilfredo Lee Associated Press ?? FLORIDA Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen as the strongest threat to former President Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination. He has also tangled regularly with Gov. Gavin Newsom over issues including COVID-19 policy.
Wilfredo Lee Associated Press FLORIDA Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen as the strongest threat to former President Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination. He has also tangled regularly with Gov. Gavin Newsom over issues including COVID-19 policy.

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