(CNN) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in a closed-door speech to donors Thursday, sought to cement himself as the governor who will go places other Republicans will not as he accused fellow GOP leaders of sitting back in the cultural fights “like potted plants,” according to audio of his remarks obtained by CNN.
“I’m going on offense,” DeSantis said at a retreat hosted by the conservative Club for Growth. “Some of these Republicans, they just sit back like potted plants, and they let the media define the terms of the debate. They let the left define the terms of debate. They take all this incoming, because they’re not making anything happen. And I said, ‘That’s not what we’re doing.'”
DeSantis’ remarks come as the Club for Growth searches for a new 2024 party standard-bearer to support over former President Donald Trump. In addition to DeSantis, the anti-tax group has summoned other potential 2024 contenders — including former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — to Trump’s backyard in Palm Beach to speak with its backers.
David McIntosh, the Club’s president who introduced DeSantis at The Breakers Palm Beach resort, told CNN that the governor “gave a great speech that was well received.” The 40-minute address received multiple rounds of applause.
DeSantis notably did not reference the 2024 presidential race during his lengthy remarks. However, he defined himself as a leader of not only Florida but the country as a whole, detailing what he saw as his “courage to lead” in a political environment when others are afraid to “step out and fight back.” It’s a theme that DeSantis leans into in his new book,”The Courage to Be Free,” which he released on Tuesday and has spent the week promoting on Fox News and in events throughout Florida.
DeSantis’ remarks to the Club for Growth were first reported by Fox News. A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A source familiar with DeSantis’ remarks told CNN that the governor showed up late to Thursday’s event and immediately left after his speech without talking to anyone. CNN previously reported that GOP donors have expressed frustration that DeSantis rarely lingers at gatherings, and he has earned a reputation for ducking out of events with guests still waiting for a photo. DeSantis hosted his own donor gathering in Palm Beach last weekend that was aimed at addressing those concerns.
In his speech before the traditionally business-friendly audience, DeSantis also defended his strong-arming of corporations and Wall Street, and criticized CEOs as being “just weak” for giving into what he described as the “woke mob” that pushes environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) policies, among other “leftist” issues.
“I think these companies should just stay out of this stuff. I don’t think it’s good for our economy,” the governor said. “I don’t think it’s good for society to have every decision that’s made in politics have corporate America weighing in.”
Some Republicans have bristled at DeSantis’ heavy-handed use of executive power to impose his ideology on private businesses. His moves to punish Disney for speaking out against a Florida measure to restrict certain lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools has especially attracted criticism from the right. Several potential 2024 rivals, including Pence and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, have seized on DeSantis’ top-down governing style to draw sharp contrasts with the popular governor.
DeSantis on Thursday dismissed the criticism from people who “claim to be on the right.”
“Republicans need to not shy away from these fights just because the media and the left are going to call you names,” he said.
Ahead of DeSantis’ upcoming visit this weekend to California, where he’ll appear at the Reagan Library and also deliver a speech at a fundraiser for the Orange County Republican Party, he took a shot at the state’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, for being “preoccupied” with DeSantis and Florida.
Newsom often posts criticism of DeSantis on social media and this past July 4, he took to the Sunshine State’s airwaves, paying $105,000 to run an ad on Fox News in Florida that declared, “Freedom is under attack in your state.”
“Literally, how many other governors does anyone even care about? I mean, when you go to California, they got all these problems there. Their governor’s preoccupied with me and what we’re doing in Florida. … It’s incredible,” DeSantis said Thursday. “And honestly, I just know that game. If they’re not shooting that means you’re not getting anything done. That they’re coming after me because I’m standing up for the people that I represent. I view that as positive reinforcement.”
DeSantis also spoke at length about his recent legislation giving him more control over Disney’s special tax district, and described the entertainment giant’s management as caving in to “woke ideology.”
“I believe woke ideology is pernicious. I believe what’s at stake is not just ‘My policies are good,'” he said. “We should not all be suffering under the cloak of wokeness. … This issue with Disney is a good example of that. … They were basically a law unto themselves, and they got away with it for a long time because they were so powerful. They were the 800-pound gorilla, but they made the mistake of trying to stick their nose into sensitive matters involving children, involving education, and involving family.”
DeSantis also went into detail about stacking Florida’s school boards with conservatives and his plan to fight “critical race theory” in schools.
“Gender ideology … not happening in Florida, critical race theory, not allowed in the state of Florida,” the governor said, garnering applause from the audience.
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