DeSantis pledges to reverse ‘national decline’ at Nashville appearance

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Tennessee Republican Party Statesmen's Dinner, Saturday, July 15, 2023 in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Tennessee Republicans Saturday that he wants to reverse what he called a national decline under Democratic President Joe Biden, while also hammering "woke" as an ideology that "will destroy this country."

"I want to reverse the decline," the 44-year-old former congressman told some 1,850 attendees at the Tennessee Republican Party's annual Statesmen's Dinner in Nashville, criticizing trillions of dollars in debt he said has been racked up by Biden. "We know instinctively that somebody has to pay the bill.

"So who has paid the bill for what Washington has done?" DeSantis asked. "Average Americans, working class people, small businessmen who have to pay more for everything. The inflation that we've seen in the higher prices is an invisible tax that has affected each and every American in this country."

DeSantis touted Florida as a model for the nation in multiple areas, highlighting his legal battle with Disney after the mass media company sued the governor for stripping its ability to self-govern the 25,000-acre site of its Walt Disney World amusement parks in Orlando. Disney has said that was relatiation after the company objected to the governor's "Don't Say Gay" bill, which bars education about sexual orientation and gender identity in some Florida classrooms.

"In Florida we're the only place in the country where we beat the woke. We made the state where woke goes to die," he said.

The former Navy lieutenant who later served as a legal adviser to SEAL Team One said the "mission" is that in 2025 "woke ideology" is consigned to the "dustbin of history, where it belongs."

DeSantis' visit to Nashville comes in a state that heavily favors former President Donald Trump. A recent Beacon Center of Tennessee-sponsored survey of 1,114 registered state voters found Trump held a "commanding" 49-point lead over DeSantis, who had 12% support. Meanwhile, Politico reported Saturday that the DeSantis campaign is shedding some staff amid a "cash crunch" and is refocusing efforts on Iowa.

Neither Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee nor Republican U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty attended the Statemen's event.

Lee spokeswoman Jade Boyers said in a text the governor had a "personal commitment with the first lady."

"I want to welcome my friend and fellow governor Ron DeSantis to the Volunteer State," Lee said, adding they are "standing together pushing back against the federal government." The governor said people are "fleeing" some states over their policies to live in "free states" like Tennessee and Florida.

Blackburn and Hagerty, who are both backing Trump, had made other plans.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, who along with fellow GOP congressmen attended the dinner, said he is firmly on the Trump train.

"I had nothing to do with that choice. I'm a Trump person, I've got my Trump sticker on," Fleischmann told the Chattanooga Times Free Press before the GOP dinner began at Nashville Music City Center. "I'll just be very clear, Donald Trump's going to be the nominee, so anybody else is welcome anytime.

"We're always going to be very kind to anybody who comes in because I think that's what's great about our state. But it'll be Donald Trump" who wins the GOP nomination, Fleischmann added.

State Sen. Adam Lowe, R-Calhoun, said he thought DeSantis was wonderful.

"It resonates with Tennessee and much of the same things we've been contending with here, just trying to bring some reason back to a very divided" country, he said.

Tennessee Republican Party chair Scott Golden said preliminary figures show the Statesmen's Dinner featuring DeSantis raised close to $1 million, a record.

"It's going to come in handy," Golden said. "We always need to be ready."

In advance of the Saturday's dinner, Tennessee Democratic Party chair Hendrell Remus blasted DeSantis and state Republicans in a fundraising email.

"DeSantis has blatantly disregarded our democracy, suspending officials that wouldn't fall in line to his extremist agenda, enacting the 'Don't Say Gay' bill, and limiting how teachers address Black history and LGBTQ+ identities in the classroom, as well as enacting a six-week abortion ban across the state of Florida," Remus wrote. "We know this trip is a rallying cry for the right-wing movement in our state to support his extremist agenda."

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected]