TALLAHASSEE — Conservative social media influencers have flocked to Florida for "freedom," "liberty" and another reason: Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The Republican governor’s team has been courting popular conservative media and online figures, an effort that comes as former President Donald Trump appears to be turning on DeSantis. Some of those whom the governor’s staff are wooing are heavily involved in amplifying the anti-vax movement and downplaying the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
In early January — on the 6th no less — DeSantis hosted nine prominent social media stars in Tallahassee for a night that included stops at DeSantis’ office, dinner at the governor’s mansion and drinks at Level 8 Lounge, a popular downtown rooftop bar near Florida’s statehouse. Almost all of them have recently very publicly announced on social media that they moved to Florida.
“Thanks for dinner, @GovRonDeSantis. I’m no longer an enemy of the state!,” Dave Rubin, a conservative television host and YouTube personality, tweeted to his one million Twitter followers. He recently moved from California to Florida. “Florida is the Future.”
Rubin, who was among the group with DeSantis on Jan. 6, posted the tweet from the Florida governor’s mansion along with a photo of him next to DeSantis.
The gathering in Tallahassee came less than a week ahead of DeSantis’ State of the State address that opened Florida’s 2022 legislative session. DeSantis focused his nearly hour-long address on themes that energize the national Republican base, including the state’s hands-off pandemic response and criticism of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert who is regularly condemned by Republicans.
“Tune out from the clown show in Washington D.C.,” Jordan Schachtel, a conservative journalist who was at the get-together in Tallahassee, tweeted about DeSantis’ speech to his more than 167,000 followers. “The leader of the Free World is speaking.”
The meetings were set up in part by DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw, who sought to minimize the role of the influencers in a statement to POLITICO, saying they are Florida residents who “have consistently supported the governor's pro-freedom policies.”
“Turns out that a governor who stands up for individual rights against federal tyranny is popular among conservatives,” said Pushaw, known as the administration’s right wing whisperer.
Most of those on the Tallahassee trip did not respond to requests for comment, but Newsweek Opinion Editor Josh Hammer and Fox News’ Lisa Boothe, both of whom live in Florida, sent identical emails in response to POLITICO’s questions: “You can quote me as follows: ‘Florida rocks.’”
Many conservative media stars, most of whom have long been some of Trump’s most vocal supporters, have been hyping DeSantis in recent months for the governor’s rejection of Covid-related mandates and constant hammering of President Joe Biden. But the support has increased in intensity in recent weeks, a spike easily noticeable on social media and podcasts throughout the conservative media ecosystem. That support is key in helping DeSantis further expand his footprint with influencers in Republican primary politics ahead of his 2022 reelection and as he weighs a 2024 White House bid.
“It’s truly fascinating to watch the ascent of Ron DeSantis,” said Sara Gonzales, a host on conservative BlazeTV network who is based in Texas. “I say this of course, as a native Texan. Florida, under DeSantis’s leadership, has made even Texas look shaky on issues that really matter to the average conservative.”
That attention comes as DeSantis has also drawn Trump’s ire. Trump has repeatedly said he would beat DeSantis in a GOP primary, and just last week on the conservative One America News Network called politicians who will not say if they have gotten the Covid-19 booster shot “gutless” — a comment widely seen as directed at DeSantis, who has waffled when asked about the issue though has said he’s been vaccinated.
Trump’s team is also eager to highlight the role he played in making DeSantis a national Republican figure.
“The MAGA world has, in large part, followed President Trump to Florida as it readies for the future," said Taylor Budowich, a Trump spokesperson. "After introducing the world to Governor DeSantis in 2017 through a Tweet, Floridians have reaped the rewards of President Trump’s America First candidates."
"Now, with DeSantis up for re-election, it’s an all hands on deck effort to propel Governor DeSantis across the finish line once more," he added, referring to DeSantis running again this year for governor.
DeSantis, without naming Trump, on Friday also escalated the clash by criticizing the former president’s early handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. DeSantis said the administration listened too closely to Fauci on restrictions like lockdowns.
“People like Fauci panicked, they were following the data out of China, which is not trustworthy,” he said.
DeSantis also shut down Florida for a few months in the early days of the pandemic, but was one of the first governor’s to lift restrictions in mid-2020.
“I think it would be a mistake for DeSantis not to run. The more Trump makes the mistake of tying the success of the vaccines to his ego, the more he alienates and insults his base,” said Gonzales, the BlazeTV host. “Many people who supported Trump in the last election are hungry for someone with the guts to speak for them without fear of repercussions, but also without the obvious baggage that Trump carries.“
“DeSantis fits that mold perfectly.”