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Ron DeSantis leverages his Covid response for a foothold in Nevada

Ron DeSantis leverages his Covid response for a foothold in Nevada


GARDNERVILLE, Nev. — Even amid the star-spangled dresses, American flag-clad cowboy hats and “Let’s Go Brandon” baseball caps, Greg Cesarz stood out. 

Cesarz wore a custom-made “DeSantis 47” baseball jersey with “Yale,” which is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ alma mater, stitched across the front. Cesarz says he’s a diehard DeSantis fan for one overarching reason: Covid. 

“He didn’t let Covid ruin the state,” he said. “He’s a bad-ass. I want him to turn our country into Florida.” 

It was a sentiment heard again and again in interviews with more than a dozen people attending the Basque Fry, an annual conservative political event that drew about 2,500 people here Saturday. 

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They hail from a state that scrambled economically after businesses closed widely, including those on the Las Vegas Strip, leaving thousands in the service industry out of work. The closures were so unpopular that Democratic former Gov. Steve Sisolak, blamed for the shutdowns, was sent packing last fall, even as Democrats won other statewide offices. 

“We’ve had a lot of closures — mom-and-pops especially — that went out of business,” said Patrick Lewis, a Republican in the area who previously backed former President Donald Trump. Referring to DeSantis, he said, “I liked his response to the Covid crisis, because he looked at the actual science.” 

DeSantis and his allies put his response to Covid front and center Saturday in Nevada, an early primary state, which will hold the first presidential contest in the West next year. 

“Ron DeSantis is someone who stood up all by himself during Covid,” said Adam Laxalt, the longtime host of the Basque Fry, who also ran for the Senate last year and is chair of the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down. “He knew the consequences, and they came down on him with full force. And did he buckle like many Republicans would? He just stood stronger and stood taller.”  

DeSantis’ handling of Covid in Florida, including keeping businesses and schools open and not mandating wearing masks, drew some of the most applause in his remarks at the event. That it’s still a top-of-mind issue in Nevada could be an opening for him as he tries to sell himself as the alternative to Trump. 

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“We held the line during Covid, when freedom itself hung in the balance,” DeSantis said Saturday. “We refused to let our state descend into some type of Faucian dystopia where people’s livelihoods were destroyed and their freedoms were curtailed. No, we protected people’s rights. We protected their jobs, we saved their businesses, and we made sure our kids had the ability to be in school in person without having a mask forced on their face.” 

DeSantis had a captive, sprawling audience of conservatives Saturday at a popular event no other presidential candidates attended. He was joined by his wife and kids, who all also attended the Reno Rodeo and visited a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall Friday night.

The Basque Fry is a traditional festival that celebrates Basque culture, including the consumption of “lamb fries,” which are lamb testicles. Though it’s tradition, DeSantis wasn’t spotted consuming the fries. Trump’s team had ribbed DeSantis after it learned he was headlining the event.

In his remarks, DeSantis didn’t mention Trump, though he criticized a failure to build a wall on the southern border and at one point dinged Republicans in Washington, D.C., for helping run up the national debt. He also avoided the topic of abortion and his signing of a six-week ban in Florida. Nevada is more moderate when it comes to abortion, as evidenced by Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo’s having signed abortion protections into law.

At one point, DeSantis also talked about abolishing the IRS.

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“We should follow suit at the federal level, too, just get rid of the IRS and send it off into the sunset,” he said.

An area resident, Frank Gibbons, was sold on the Covid message, citing the pandemic as among the top reasons he was drawn to DeSantis. 

“He’s been very successful in Florida,” Gibbons said. “We want that here. And we can’t look backward, which is what Trump is doing.”  

Margaret Wilkinson, a Republican from the Reno area, expressed distress over the government’s push for Covid vaccinations and said she liked DeSantis’ message about having a choice in the matter.   

“He uses common sense. He evaluates the pros and the cons,” she said. 

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Still, this was a skeptical crowd, and many said they were open to DeSantis and willing to listen but not yet sold on him. 

Others vowed they wouldn’t budge from Trump. One group drove into the event with a giant flag waving from its white pickup truck: “God, Guns and Trump.” And MAGA hats, while not prevalent, still dotted the crowd here and there. 

“I want to address something: I’m sure a lot of you out there are fans and supporters of President Trump,” Steve Cortes, the national spokesperson for Never Back Down, said to cheers. “I understand that, because I was you. … I have now determined that Ron DeSantis is the right leader, the man who can both win the election and govern as a capable and highly effective conservative populist president.” 

Decked in a red “America First” cowboy hat, Susan Denson said that she was open to hearing out DeSantis but that “if Trump is in, I’m voting for Trump.” 

Still, others expressed fatigue over Trump. Lewis, who backed Trump in the past, said he liked his policies as president and admired the economy at the time. But, he said, Trump is too divisive, and “he just doesn’t know when to shut up.”

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Published: 2023-06-19 00:26:06

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