Blake Masters, Kari Lake praise Florida governor Ron DeSantis at Phoenix rally

Gregory Svirnovskiy
Arizona Republic

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has a primary election in the Sunshine State in nine days, but he was in Arizona on Sunday as part of a swing that will take him to the Rust Belt as well, suggesting his eye is really on 2024.  

The Republican who is seen by many as a top alternative to former President Donald Trump joined the Arizona GOP's top hopefuls, Kari Lake and Blake Masters, at an event sponsored by Turning Point Action, an organization that aims to mobilize young conservatives.

DeSantis is billing his national tour as an effort to aid Republican candidates in competitive midterm elections. 

But his movements loom larger days after the FBI recovered top secret and other classified records that Trump took from Washington and failed to give back. 

“From the beaches of Florida to the deserts of Arizona, November 2022 is gonna be the day that America fights back,” DeSantis said during his 45-minute speech at the Arizona Financial Theatre in downtown Phoenix. “We're gonna be fighting back against Joe Biden's failed leadership. We're gonna be fighting back against lockdown politicians in this country who ruin people's lives.”

For Lake, the GOP's gubernatorial nominee, and Masters, the Senate nominee, approval from DeSantis further underscores their credibility with conservatives and could help them tap into a broader fundraising network.

Gov. Doug Ducey, the head of the Republican Governors Association, wasn't among the speakers at the event. He endorsed Lake after her primary victory after campaigning for her Republican opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson, but it remains unclear what role he will play in his state's two most visible races. 

Could Ron DeSantis run for president in 2024?

While DeSantis raises his national profile, he also is trying to boost Republicans in key Senate races in Arizona, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the GOP's hopes of winning control of the chamber for the next two years might well be determined.

DeSantis hasn't ruled out a presidential run in 2024, even if Trump runs again.

Recent polling has shown Trump remains the front-runner with Republican voters, but nearly half would prefer someone else, and DeSantis is the top choice of that group. In polling without the former president, DeSantis enjoys a comfortable lead over the likes of Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. 

DeSantis didn't speak directly about his intentions for 2024, or Trump's prospects at this point. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks on stage at the Unite and Win Rally organized by Turning Point Action in Phoenix on Aug. 14, 2022.

Instead, he focused on legislative successes in his own state. He talked about making the Walt Disney Company, with whom the governor has a simmering feud, “pay its fair share” and highlighted laws he's signed to bar Florida municipalities from defunding police departments and end state vaccination mandates. And he promoted legislation he signed that makes ballot harvesting a felony in Florida, which critics have said disproportionately stops majority-minority communities from voting.

DeSantis focused much of his energy on Democratic leadership, urging voters to “retire” Nancy Pelosi and cracking jokes about Joe Biden, who recently recovered from a two-week bout with Covid-19.

“Florida has led the way, fighting back against Biden,” DeSantis said. “And I think we've demonstrated the need to have strong governors across the country to be able to push back against what's going on in Washington, D.C. And I know Kari Lake will push back against Joe Biden. And I know Blake Masters in the Senate is gonna give Biden a lot of problems.”

Search on Mar-a-Lago mentioned

He mentioned the search on Mar-a-Lago, calling on Republicans in Congress to push for greater oversight of the FBI, the Department of Justice and other federal agencies.

“They're enforcing the law based on who they like and who they don't like,” DeSantis said, linking FBI officials to Democrats in the White House. “That is not a republic. Well, maybe it's a banana republic when that happens.” 

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that President Joe Biden was not briefed in advance on the FBI search, or aware of it when it occurred, because the Department of Justice conducts its investigations independent of political control. 

In addition to the FBI search for classified documents, the House select committee probing the causes of the riot at the U.S. Capitol continues to create new potential legal and political headaches for Trump.

And the Atlanta area district attorney continues to move ahead with a criminal investigation of Trump's call to Georgia's secretary of state in an effort to “find” enough votes to reverse his narrow 2020 loss in that state.

DeSantis could be a viable alternative to Trump for far-right Republicans whenever the former president no longer dominates the GOP. 

Blake Masters, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks during a Unite and Win rally held by Turning Point Action at the Arizona Financial Theatre on Aug. 14, 2022, in Phoenix.

Blake Masters stays focused on key concepts

Masters won the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate with Trump's endorsement and $15 million in support from Peter Thiel, a billionaire venture capitalist and Masters' mentor.

Masters brought an aggressive conservative style to the campaign. He welcomed the demise of constitutionally protected abortion rights, called Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman on the high court, “the affirmative action pick” and publicly questioned whether the government should privatize Social Security.

'It's time for something new':Blake Masters brings fire, more nuance to Senate race

Since winning the nomination, Masters has softened his political rhetoric. He's said he supports a federal personhood law that would only affect third-trimester pregnancies, said he is comfortable with Arizona's 15-week abortion limit and that he wants to protect Social Security while encouraging private investing by the young. 

He stayed away from politically radioactive topics at his rally speech, focusing on concepts that Republicans hope to make a theme ahead of November: inflation, education policy and the country's COVID-19 response.

And against Kelly, he went on the offensive.  

“We can respect that he used to be an astronaut,” Masters said. “I'm sure he was really great at it, doing all the experiments in space or whatever it is astronauts do nowadays. Let him do that. Because here on Earth he's failing. Here on Earth we have some big problems.”

Masters did not bring up the Trump endorsement that helped him win the Republican nomination on Aug. 2. He didn't talk about the FBI search on Trump's home. Instead, he stuck to openly praising DeSantis's leadership in Florida. 

“We know what to do, and you know why? Because Governor DeSantis is giving us the playbook,” Masters said. “He's showing how it's done. Florida is literally safer and richer and freer because that guy wakes up every day, and he puts the pedal to the metal on his bold, common-sense agenda.”

Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake makes her appearance on stage at the Unite & Win Rally organized by Turning Point Action in Phoenix on Aug. 14, 2022.

Kari Lake calls DeSantis 'gutsy'

Kari Lake, the former local news anchor and Trump-endorsed governor candidate, has spent the past two weeks looking to shore up support in a state Republican Party that was bitterly divided by her bruising primary campaign. Ducey's endorsement will help her case. So too, will support from DeSantis.

It was just over a year ago, at a Turning Point Action event at the same Phoenix venue, that Lake's campaign gained major steam when, with Trump the main attraction, she drew massive applause from the crowd after her warmup remarks. Now, Lake is described with nicknames like “Trump in a dress” and the “DeSantis of the West.”

On this stage, Lake used a crude term of admiration for Trump's potential challenger, then said, “He is gutsy.

“The guy has bigger, wait let me think about how I want to word this, my staff always says, 'Whatever you do, do not say balls.' So I'm not gonna say it. That guy has a backbone made of steel.”

The night was about DeSantis. But the presence of Trump was everywhere. In his speech at the top of the rally, Charlie Kirk, conservative activist and founder of Turning Point Action, defended the former president. 

He advocated for the impeachment of Attorney General Merrick Garland and criticized some elected Republicans for their “vanilla” responses to the FBI search. 

“The raid at Mar-a-Lago only makes me like Donald Trump even more,” Kirk said. “It shows that they can't win elections … We have a wonderful person, Donald Trump, that I think is gonna run again in 2024, and I think a lot of people are gonna be behind him.”

Gregory Svirnovskiy is a Pulliam Fellow at the Arizona Republic. You can follow him on Twitter @gsvirnovskiy or reach him by email at gregory.svirnovskiy@gannett.com.