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DeSantis brings war on ‘woke’ to Michigan, teases run against Trump

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on stage with a hall full of people
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis packed a convention hall in Midland on Thursday and teased a presidential run in 2024. Experts say he will need to appeal to the “normal wing of the Republican Party” to beat former President Donald Trump for the nomination. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis teases possible presidential run in Michigan
  • DeSantis touts Florida policies and his war on ‘woke ideology’
  • DeSantis did not mention Trump by name but referenced NY indictment

MIDLAND – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke to hundreds of Michigan Republicans here on Thursday, positioning himself as an unapologetic conservative who has developed a “culture of winning” in his state. 

“What we showed in Florida, is that if you show bold leadership, if you pursue a bold agenda, you can beat (Democrats),” DeSantis said at a Midland County Republican Party breakfast. “We've beaten them in the state of Florida.”


DeSantis has not yet announced a presidential campaign but is setting the stage for a possible run in the GOP primary against former President Donald Trump, who has led DeSantis by double digits in polls conducted before and after his arraignment on business record falsification charges in New York. 


The Florida governor did not mention Trump in his nearly hour-long speech, but accused New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat who sought the grand jury indictment of Trump, of “weaponizing the prosecutorial power to advance a political agenda.”

Speaking to a packed convention hall of roughly 700 Republicans, DeSantis railed against a “woke ideology” that he claimed Democrats are advancing across the country under the guise of acknowledging systemic injustices. 

DeSantis touted laws he has signed to limit discussions of race or sexuality in Florida schools, his fight against Disney prompted by the company’s opposition to a state law opponents have called the “Don’t Say Gay” and his decision to fly Venezuelan asylum seekers to Massachusetts in an apparent critique of Democratic immigration policy. 

“Yes, we fight the woke in the Legislature, but we also fight the woke in the schools, we fight the woke in the bureaucracy, and we fight the woke in corporate America,” said DeSantis, who received a standing ovation during his introduction.

"Our bottom line is we do not surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.”

It was DeSantis’ first visit to the state since 18 Michigan lawmakers in January signed onto a letter urging the Florida governor to run for president. 

A smaller group of seven state lawmakers formally endorsed DeSantis for president on Thursday, including Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, who told Bridge he thinks DeSantis would be a “great nominee.”

"We need a leader who is unafraid, strong in conviction, and will never back down,” Nesbitt said in a separate endorsement statement circulated by a super PAC supporting DeSantis. 

House Minority Leader Matt Hall also attended the Midland GOP breakfast speech, along with state Rep. Bill G. Schuette, former Attorney General Bill Schuette, other lawmakers and judges.

After the event, Desantis met with roughly 15 state lawmakers at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and then with supporters at the Pizza Sam’s in Midland. He did not take questions from the press, responding to inquiries by commenting on the brisk but sunny Michigan weather. He was scheduled at Hillsdale College later Thursday.

Roughly three dozen protesters gathered across the street from the Great Hall Banquet and Convention Center in Midland, where DeSantis spoke, holding up signs that included “Proud to be woke” and “We will say gay.”

Democrats held a series of media calls earlier in the week to criticize DeSantis ahead of his visit, including a Wednesday call highlighting DeSantis’ plan to sign Florida legislation that would ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, toughening a 15-week ban he signed last year. 

DeSantis “has shown that he’ll go to any lengths to out-MAGA 2024 GOP rivals with this dangerous agenda — even banning abortion in Florida before most even know they’re pregnant,” said state Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor. 

“He wants to implement this dangerous agenda nationwide, and it's far too extreme for Michigan.”

DeSantis touted his controversial policies during the Midland speech, arguing his bold approach has helped him win over independents and even some Democrats in Florida, where we won re-election last year by 19 percentage points last year, up from his 1-point margin in 2018 and Trump’s four-percent win in the state’s 2020 presidential election. 

“What we did was not just a big victory; it was really a fundamental realignment of Florida from being a swing state to being a red state,” DeSantis said. 

He touted his state as the “free state of Florida” that lured residents from states like Michigan by becoming a “refuge of sanity” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Florida largely shut down early in the pandemic but was quicker to reopen than most states and took steps to ban vaccine and mask mandates. 

“People around the world (moved) to Florida because they understood we were not going to let the state of Florida descend into some type of Fauci-an dystopia, where people's livelihoods were destroyed,” he said, referring to Dr Anthony Fauci, the former chief medical adviser to the president.

While DeSantis has not yet announced a presidential campaign, Trump has branded him "Ron DeSanctimonious" and questioned his accomplishments as governor in an apparent effort to discourage him from joining the race.

Michigan Republican Party Chair Kristina Karamo, who was endorsed by Trump in her failed 2022 bid for Secretary of State, attended the DeSantis speech but was not acknowledged by local leaders during introductions. 

DeSantis "did a great job as governor of Florida," Karamo said, vowing to remain neutral in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.  "I think there's a reason a lot of Michigan residents are leaving to Florida — a lot of my personal friends — because there is no opportunity (here).”

Michigan lost a net 9,517 residents to Florida between 2016 and 2020, according to a Bridge analysis of U.S. Census data. Experts have said warmer weather and traditional retirement patterns contributed to the population shift. 

While Trump leads recent national polls, DeSantis is taking steps that could position himself well in state primaries, said Dennis Lennox, a Republican consultant who attended Thursday’s breakfast.


Dennis Lennox, a Republican consultant who attended Thursday’s event, predicted DeSantis would win the Republican nomination, noting he attracted leaders of the “normal wing of the Republican Party” to the breakfast.

Midland is a logical place for DeSantis to share his message with "the more traditional, mainstream Republicans" he will need to build a coalition beyond MAGA and defeat Trump in the primary, John Sellek, a Lansing-based public relations professional and GOP consultant told Bridge Michigan this week. 

Sellek said, noting the county party is “one of the few” in the state that has “not been taken over by MAGA activists.”

DeSantis is going to need to pull those voters who are squishy on Trump but are still Republican,” he said. 

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