Gov. Ron DeSantis woos Tennessee Republicans at state party dinner

Florida governor faces uphill battle in Tennessee, as the state’s three statewide elected officials — two of whom have endorsed Donald Trump — stay home from event.

By: - July 17, 2023 6:02 am
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at the Tennessee Republican Party Statesmen's Dinner on July 15, 2023 in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at the Tennessee Republican Party Statesmen’s Dinner on July 15, 2023 in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, wooed more than 1,850 Tennessee Republicans at the state party’s annual fundraising dinner in Nashville, an event at which the specter of former President Donald Trump loomed.

State Republican officials said the event was one of, if not the largest events of its type to be held, yet none of the Tennessee’s three statewide elected officials — Gov. Bill Lee and U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty — attended the dinner. Blackburn and Hagerty endorsed Trump, who is also running to secure a third bite as the GOP presidential nominee, months ago, and all three lawmakers sent in videos rather than appearing in person.

DeSantis used the word ‘woke’ more than 20 times in his speech, in which he targeted President Joe Biden, the federal government, the U.S. military, the Walt Disney Co. —which he referred to as “a business in Central Florida” — and, without naming him, Trump.

“You cannot have an open border where millions and millions of foreign nationals can legally pour into this country. So on Day One, we will declare the border a national emergency,” said DeSantis. “We will marshal all available national resources, including the military to stop the invasion cold. Yes, we will actually build a border wall because I think that we need it. We will do something that no president has been willing to do: hold the Mexican drug cartels accountable.”

Trump has made construction of a border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border a central feature of his political career.

DeSantis made no reference to Tennessee beyond saying, early in his speech, that he appreciated being in “the state that Californians are fleeing to, besides Florida.”

Among the attendees were Antoine Bohannon, who is running for Congress in Tennessee’s 9th District against incumbent Steve Cohen, the only Democrat in the state’s federal delegation. Bohannon, a retired Navy submarine chief, was attending his first Statesmen’s Dinner and sported a “Trump 2024” lapel sticker.

“You see what I’m wearing,” said Bohannon, when asked for his thoughts on DeSantis.

Elizabeth Carson of Nashville said she is also a supporter of Trump but was willing to hear DeSantis out.

“I’m happy to hear what he’s got to say and he’s got a lot on domestic policy,” said Carson. “I’d like to hear more about his foreign policy.”

Of another presidential candidate, former Trump Vice-President Mike Pence, Carson showed less interest, characterizing him as “weak.”

Trump won Tennessee in both 2016 and 2020 and has already locked up support from many of the state’s Republican leaders. Speaking shortly after DeSantis departed, First Congressional District U.S. Rep. Diana Harshbarger said, “We need a warrior, someone who will fight the deep state . . . I know someone who’s done it once and who will do it again: Donald J. Trump.”



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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.