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Amid 2024 Speculation, Florida's DeSantis Tells Allegheny County Republicans 'Don't Back Down'

Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Even as Gov. Tom Wolf extended a disaster declaration to continue measures in response to the lingering coronavirus, western Pennsylvania Republicans were rallying around a state leader who has taken a very different path: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis didn’t directly address speculation that he might run for president in 2024 during his half-hour speech at the Republican Committee of Allegheny County’s Lincoln Day Dinner. But he didn’t sound like someone who had rejected the thought, either.

“When you had states through this last year like Pennsylvania [that] kept locking people down, Florida lifted people up,” DeSantis said in a half hour speech punctuated by enthusiastic applause from a full ballroom at the Wyndham Grand Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh.

He later castigated governors who issued shutdown orders on the recommendation of health officials. “They’d say, ‘Oh, the bureaucrats are telling me to close everything, the bureaucrats are telling me I have to do this,’” DeSantis said. “Your job as a leader is to make decisions. You can’t subcontract out leadership to health bureaucrats. And so when it came right down to it in Florida, we chose freedom over Fauci-ism.”

Florida has had lower rates of COVID19 infection and death than many other states, even as it has regulated economic activity with a much lighter hand. But other states who’ve followed a similarly laissez-faire approach have had much higher caseloads on a per capita basis. That has led to speculation among researchers that factors like weather may be playing a significant role.

But there were few such caveats on display Thursday evening, as DeSantis took credit not just for the performance of his state — whose unemployment rate is far lower than Pennsylvania's — but for conditions elsewhere in the country.

“At the end of the day, our state's thriving,” he said. “[I]f we had not led, I don't think you would have seen Texas and some of these other states [with fewer COVID19 restrictions] do what they did. And quite frankly, I think some of the lockdown states would have locked down even harder had Florida not done what what we did.”

DeSantis has roots in the region: His father grew up in Aliquippa and his mother is a native of Youngstown. It has not been lost on observers that Pennsylvania will likely play a critical role in deciding the 2024 presidential election.

DeSantis gave his audience red meat on a number of hot-button topics beyond questioning Democrats’ COVID19 response. He blasted “corporate media,” for example, advising Republicans, “Don't seek approval from these people. They don't like you, they will smear you, they will attack you. The way to win is to fight back and not take it anymore.”

He also took on social-media firms — whose leaders he derided as “pajama boys” — while touting Florida legislation that would punish tech companies who barred conservatives from social media platforms. (The measure was prompted by Donald Trump’s Twitter ban and other alleged efforts to diminish conservative voices, though the complaint that ignores contrary evidence, like the fact that conservative voices are often those most amplified on Facebook.) And he portrayed conservatives as facing a host of powerful foes in a culture war.

“We fight against this militant left, we fight against corporate media, we have Big Tech, universities doing all this stuff, even woke corporations now,” he said. “But I think there’s no substitute for having courage.”

DeSantis and other speakers referred to the importance of this year’s off-year elections in Pennsylvania: A seat on the state Supreme Court is up for grabs this fall, along with other statewide judgeships. And a number of hopefuls in next year’s elections for governor and Senator were also on hand in the crowd. But 2024 was clearly on many people’s minds.

Former Congressman Keith Rothfus, a friend of DeSantis’ from the days they were both in the U.S. House, introduced him by observing, “There's something that tells me that we're only in the middle of [DeSantis’] story, and there's a number of chapters left to be written.” DeSantis’ national ambitions may also have been reflected in remarks he made briefly about global politics, in which he struck a Trumpian note on China, immigration and military action abroad.

“We have to reject using our military in ways that lack a clear connection to our own national security. And we cannot allow our country to be dragged in endless wars,” said DeSantis, who himself had served as a legal advisor to troops in Iraq.

But he counseled a renewed commitment to the cultural and political struggle here at home. “My message to all of you is stand your ground, hold the line, don't back down,” he concluded. “And I can tell you this in the state of Florida with me as governor, I have only begun to fight.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.