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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis makes California pilgrimage to woo influential Republicans

In this photo from Feb. 20, 2023, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves as he speaks to police officers about protecting law and order at Prive catering hall in the Staten Island borough of New York City. DeSantis, a Republican, is expected by many to announce his candidacy for president in the coming weeks or months.    (Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Seema Mehta Los Angeles Times Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, viewed as the greatest 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 strong-holds.

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 reelection 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 un-dercounts 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 $50-million, 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.”