Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at Liberty University. Screenshot.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at Liberty University. Screenshot.

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During a visit at Liberty University in Lynchburg Friday, Florida’s Republican governor and 2024 presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis cast himself as an unapologetic and defiant culture warrior who’s made it his mission to take on what he called the “woke” ideology.

“We fight the woke in the legislature, we fight the woke in the corporations, we fight the woke in the schools, we never ever surrender to the woke mob. We have made Florida the state where woke goes to die,” DeSantis said, referring to an adjective sometimes used in the Black community that means that someone is informed, educated and conscious of social injustice and racial inequality. Some conservatives, however, have been using the word as an insult against progressive values. 

“The woke mind virus represents a war on merit, a war on achievement,” DeSantis, the keynote speaker at the university’s Convocation at a packed Vines Center, said. “It’s a form of cultural Marxism that seeks to use identity politics to divide Americans. Because woke represents a war on truth, we must wage a war on woke,” he said, echoing remarks by former Vice President Mike Pence, who said during a visit at Liberty University in September that “wokeism has run amok.”

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at Liberty University. Screenshot.
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at Liberty University. Screenshot.
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at Liberty University. Screenshot.
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at Liberty University. Screenshot.

DeSantis hasn’t formally announced his campaign for president, but is widely expected to challenge former President Donald Trump for the GOP nomination. 

On Friday, he did not offer any hints, and he made no reference to Virginia, where his Republican colleague Gov. Glenn Youngkin is also toying with the idea of a White House run. Instead, DeSantis, dressed in a navy-blue suit and black cowboy boots, hailed his record in squashing the progressive political agenda in his home state and his administration’s resistance to federal guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“When freedom and our very own way of life and so many other jurisdictions throughout our land withered on the vine, Florida held the line,” DeSantis said. “We chose facts over fear, we chose education over indoctrination, we chose law and order over rioting and disorder. When the world went mad and when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue, Florida stood as a refuge of sanity, a citadel of freedom for people throughout our country and indeed throughout the world.”

But because of DeSantis’ laissez-faire approach, Florida has been among the worst-performing states when it comes to protecting its population from COVID-19 deaths. 

Oliver Johnson, a mathematician at the University of Bristol, England, noted in December that if Florida were a country, its virus-related death rate would put it at “10th worst in the world, behind Peru and various East European countries that got slammed pre-vaccine.”

A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, DeSantis served as a JAG officer in the U.S. Navy. He was deployed to Iraq as an adviser to a Navy SEAL commander in support of the SEAL mission in Fallujah, Ramadi, and the rest of Al Anbar province.

After active-duty service, DeSantis served as a federal prosecutor before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, representing Florida’s 6th Congressional District. In 2018, he ran for governor, defeating Democrat Andrew Gillum by just 32,000 votes out of more than 8 million votes cast. 

“I ran as an underdog, a lot of people had written me off,” DeSantis, 44, reminisced Friday, adding that his narrow victory was “nothing out of the ordinary for how these races had gone” in Florida in previous years. 

“I was told this state has a very precious political balance, you got in by the skin of your teeth, don’t rock the boat,” DeSantis said. “Bide your time, keep your head down, because you never know if you come out too hot on something, you could end up losing support and not be able to win elections in the future. I understood that advice, and it wasn’t crazy advice, but I nevertheless rejected that advice.”

DeSantis said that while he may have earned 50% of the vote, he was entitled to “wield 100 percent” of the executive power. “I intended to do that to advance an agenda that I believe was right for the state of Florida. We would not do that agenda based on putting our finger in the wind or looking at polls. In fact, to this day as governor, I have never taken a poll about any issue my entire time. Leaders are not captive to poll results,” DeSantis said – an apparent snipe at Trump, the current Republican frontrunner, who often cites presidential polls when they favor him.

In November, DeSantis was reelected governor by earning more than 1.5 million votes than Charlie Crist, the Democratic nominee – a landslide victory that he hailed as the “highest percentage of votes that any Republican governor candidate has ever received in the history of the state of Florida.”

DeSantis said that he also won 62% of the Hispanic vote, and that Republicans were able to secure supermajorities in the Florida House and Senate, in addition to electing 29 conservative school board members throughout the state of Florida. “For the first time since the Civil War era, there is not a single Democrat that’s elected to statewide office in the state of Florida.”

At the time of his 2018 victory, there were almost 300,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Florida, DeSantis added. “And there had never, in the history of Florida, ever been more registered Republicans than Democrats.”

But these dynamics changed when he was reelected last year. “We not only had more Republicans than Democrats, we had 300,000 more Republicans than Democrats,” DeSantis said. “But the train is still going, we now have 455,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. That’s people switching their registration, going from independent to R, going from D to R.”

During his time in office, DeSantis has often made national news not only because of his leadership during the pandemic – he received mixed reviews because he lifted restrictions earlier than most other state governors while implementing measures to protect the elderly – but also for his efforts to ban critical race theory in Florida’s public schools, 

In 2021, DeSantis announced the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act,  which allowed parents to sue school districts that teach critical race theory. The legislation was designed to counter “woke indoctrination” in Florida businesses and schools by preventing instruction that could make some people feel they bear “personal responsibility” for historic wrongdoings because of their race, gender or national origin.

DeSantis has also taken a strong position against tolerance of gender identity politics in public education.

“It is wrong for teachers in schools to tell second graders that they may have been born in the wrong body or that their gender is their choice,” he said Friday, earning thunderous applause from Liberty students. 

“In Florida, gender ideology has no place in our schools, and if that means taking on Disney to make sure that that’s the case, we will do it,” the governor said, referring to his feud with the multi-billion-dollar empire that began over one year ago, when then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek criticized Republican legislation that opponents derided as “Don’t Say Gay” because it restricts classroom instruction on issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. 

“It is also wrong for physicians to pump minors with puberty blockers or to perform sex change operations on them. In Florida now physicians who are doing those things to these minors will lose their medical license,” DeSantis said, basking in loud applause from the audience.  

DeSantis also lashed out against states and cities that are “governed by leftist politicians pursuing leftist ideology” that, as a consequence, have seen crime skyrocket. “They have seen their taxpayers abused, they have seen medical authoritarianism imposed, and they have seen American principles discarded,” he said. 

“The woke agenda has caused millions of Americans to leave these jurisdictions for greater pastures. This has been a great exodus of Americans. Florida has served as the most desired destination, a promised land of sanity in a world that has increasingly gone off its rocker,” DeSantis said. “We have embraced freedom, we have maintained law and order, we have protected the rights of parents, we have elevated the importance of family and promoted a culture of life, we have respected our taxpayers and we have rejected woke ideology.”

While DeSantis remains popular in his home state with a 59% approval rating, he would face a tough nomination fight against Trump, who has given him the interchangeable nicknames “Meatball Ron” and “Ron DeSanctimonious.” 

A recent CNN/SSRS poll shows a tight race, with DeSantis at 39% and Trump at 37% among registered Republican voters, while a Morning Consult poll found the former president with nearly a two-to-one lead, 52 to 28%.

DeSantis used a good part of his 20-minute speech at Liberty University to demonstrate how he would use his governance of Florida as a blueprint for a presidency. Florida, he said, offers a “ray of hope” that better days may still lie ahead. 

“I am proud of the achievements we have made in the state of Florida,” DeSantis concluded. “I am honored to be here, and I look forward to the battles ahead. I will fight the good fight, I will finish the race and I will keep the faith.”

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org or 804-822-1594.