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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Nevada, DeSantis sells Republicans on ending ‘Culture of Losing’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis campaigns at the Basque Fry, an annual barbecue fundraiser for conservative causes, at the Corley Ranch in Gardnerville, Nev. on Saturday, June 17, 2023.

By Neil Vigdor

In black boots, jeans and an untucked shirt — the fundraiser dress code specified “ranch casual” — Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida on Saturday tried to persuade Republican voters in Nevada still loyal to former President Donald Trump that the party’s formula for winning elections was beyond its shelf life.

Headlining a conservative jamboree in the swing state, where loyalties to Trump still run deep, DeSantis never mentioned his rival for the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination during a speech in Gardnerville.

But DeSantis sought to draw a not-so-subtle contrast between himself and the former president, a onetime ally who is the party’s overwhelming front-runner in a crowded Republican field. He described last year’s midterm elections as another disappointment in a string of defeats for the party, while touting his more than 1.2 million-vote margin of victory in his reelection in November.

“We’ve developed a culture of losing in this party,” DeSantis said, adding, “You’re not going to get a mulligan on the 2024 election.”

DeSantis spoke for nearly an hour at the Basque Fry, a barbecue fundraiser that supports conservative groups in Nevada.

Steven Cheung, a campaign spokesperson for Trump, hit back at DeSantis in a statement to The New York Times on Saturday.

“Ron DeSantis is a proven liar and fraud,” he said. “That’s why he’s collapsing in the polls — both nationally and statewide. He should be careful before his chances in 2028 completely disappear.”

The Basque Fry has risen in stature since it was first held in 2015, drawing a stream of Republican presidential candidates to the Corley Ranch in the Carson Valley with its rugged backdrop of the Sierra Nevada.

Past headliners have included Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who earlier this month entered the race, had been scheduled to attend in 2017 but canceled because Hurricane Harvey was bearing down on the Gulf Coast.

It’s an opportunity for White House aspirants to make an elevator pitch to rank-and-file conservatives in Nevada, a crucial early proving ground that in 2021 replaced its party-run caucuses with a primary. Republicans oppose the change, passed by the state Legislature, and are suing the state to keep the caucuses.

DeSantis’ visit to Nevada punctuated a week in which Trump dominated the news cycle with his arraignment Tuesday in a 37-count federal indictment over his handling of classified documents after leaving office.

As Trump’s chief Republican rival, DeSantis did not mention the indictment outright, but instead echoed GOP attacks on the Justice Department and pledged to replace the director of the FBI if elected.

“We are going to end the weaponization of this government once and for all,” DeSantis said.

In 2016, the last presidential election during which the GOP did not have a sitting president, Trump won the Republican caucuses in Nevada, where rural activists and Mormon voters wield influence. He finished 22 percentage points ahead of his closest rival, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

During the midterm elections last fall, Trump campaigned for Republicans in Nevada at a rally in Minden, which is next to Gardnerville. The elections turned out to be a mixed showing for the GOP, which flipped the governor’s office but lost pivotal races for the Senate and the House, including the seat held by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat who had been considered vulnerable.

Cortez Masto’s defeat of Adam Laxalt, a former Nevada attorney general who was the de facto host of Saturday’s fundraiser, helped give Democrats outright control of the Senate.

Laxalt, who was a roommate of DeSantis when they were both Navy officers, introduced him to the crowd of about 2,500 people.

“This is the kind of leader we need,” he said.

Laxalt began the Basque Fry in 2015, building on a tradition that was started by his grandfather, Paul Laxalt, a former U.S. senator and governor of Nevada who died in 2018.

Northern Nevada has one of the highest concentrations in the nation of people of Basque ancestry, a group that includes Laxalt, who also ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018.

Jim McCrossin, 78, a retiree from Virginia City, Nevada, who surveyed the ranch in a DeSantis cap, said that he had previously supported Trump but worried about his electability.

“I just think there’s so much hate for him,” he said, adding, “Trump’s been arrested twice, and that’s probably not the last time.”

He said that DeSantis “doesn’t have the drama.”

His household is divided: His wife, Jacquie McCrossin, said that she still favored Trump, even though she had on a DeSantis cap.

Shellie Wood, 72, a retired nail technician and gold miner from Winnemucca, Nevada, who sported a Trump 2020 camouflage cap, said that DeSantis would make a strong running mate for Trump, but that it was not his moment.

Still, Wood said DeSantis had made a positive impression on her with his record in Florida.

“He’s stood up against Disney, and that’s something a lot of people didn’t have the gumption to do,” she said.

DeSantis repeatedly reminded the crowd of his feud with Disney, which he and other Republicans turned into an avatar of “woke” culture after the company criticized a state law that prohibited classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity.

In the buildup to his formal debut as a candidate last month, DeSantis grappled with being labeled by the media and rivals as awkward at retail politics and in one-on-one settings with voters.

Before stepping up to the podium, with the snow-peaked mountains behind him, DeSantis mingled with a group of VIPs for about 30 minutes in a reception that was closed to the news media.

Outside the reception, Casey DeSantis, the governor’s wife, who has been an omnipresent campaigner and influence on the policies of her husband’s administration, took selfies and signed autographs for local Republicans. She had on boots, too.

While Ron DeSantis impressed many of the attendees, there was still a pro-Trump undercurrent at the event. Shawn Newman, 58, a truck driver from Fernley, Nevada, who hovered near a table with DeSantis campaign swag while wearing a ubiquitous red Trump cap, said Trump was still his candidate.

“Trump’s above their reach,” he said of the other Republican candidates.

As DeSantis worked a rope line after his speech, one man handed him a campaign hat to sign. In his other hand, he clutched a Trump cap.

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