In Utah, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis kicked off the state Republican Party convention Saturday by saying, to enthusiastic applause, “Florida is the Utah of the Southeast.”

During his keynote address, DeSantis spoke about his principles, the GOP’s chances in 2024 and his governing style in Florida. He left immediately after his speech and didn’t speak to local media.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee introduced DeSantis, saying they first met over a decade ago when DeSantis represented Florida in Congress. As governor, Lee said DeSantis has stood up to tyranny and a “form of the deep state that existed for a long time in Florida.”

DeSantis is expected to announce a campaign for president in the coming months. He and former President Donald Trump are front-runners in early polls for the GOP nomination, but DeSantis didn’t directly reference Trump in his speech.

Convention delegates seemed to react positively to his message, especially when he spoke about the conservative values shared by Utah and Florida.

“As an objective observer, Utah is one of the best governed, best performing states in the United States,” DeSantis said. He said that was because of the Beehive State’s business environment, education and “budgetary stability.”

“Underlying the success of Utah has been a commitment to freedom. Like Florida, Utah proves that freedom works,” DeSantis said to applause from the over 2,000 state GOP delegates gathered at Utah Valley University.

In DeSantis’ address, he spoke of a number of his accomplishments from his time leading Florida that he said the country should follow — alluding to his tagline, “make America Florida.”

He also spoke about what he believes Democrats hope to accomplish if they win the presidency and Congress again.

“As I look ahead to 2024, I believe if the Democrats are able to sweep the offices again ... they will pack the U.S. Supreme Court, abolish the Electoral College and make Washington, D.C., a state and eliminate voter ID in every jurisdiction,” he said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to shake Sen. Mike Lee’s hand during the Utah Republican Party Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday, April 22, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News
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He said the Republican Party “needs to shake a culture of losing that has developed in recent years,” because “in times like these, there is no substitute for victory.”

DeSantis repeatedly said there was a need for a “restoration” of “constitutional government” led by elected officials and not a federal bureaucracy that he said was an “unaccountable, weaponized Leviathan.”

Speaking about freedom, he pointed to differences in his COVID-19 pandemic policies from those advocated by former chief medical adviser to the president, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“No governor in this country was attacked more ... but I was willing to let the chips fall where they may, knowing that we did the right thing,” he said.

DeSantis said his reelection win in 2022 showed that voters supported his leadership during the pandemic. Leadership “is about delivering results,” he said, adding that he believes his record is why people are moving to Florida more than any other state in the union.

He recently won a second term as governor by more than 1.5 million votes, winning over 60% of the Hispanic vote and flipping traditionally Democratic strongholds like Miami-Dade County. Pointing to Florida’s fast-growing population, DeSantis said this was also proof of the popularity of his policies.

Attendees raise their hands during the Utah Republican Party Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday, April 22, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

DeSantis spoke against politics as entertainment and doing things to “virtue signal on social media.” He credited his success to not being like “some Republicans, who get into office and are like potted plants — that’s not leadership,” he said.

DeSantis listed cutting taxes, passing school choice legislation and an anti-abortion heartbeat bill as some of the reasons people are moving to the Sunshine State. He also spoke about stripping the Walt Disney Corp. of self-governance status.

The Florida state legislative session is ending in a few weeks, but before it ends, he promised to sign into law legislation that will “kneecap” environmental, social and governing investing strategies.

Many of the delegates applauded DeSantis loudly after he said this, as well as when he promised to prohibit “the implementation of any central bank digital currency.”

DeSantis also called for more family policy legislation by following Florida’s lead in a “permanent sales tax exclusion” of all baby items for newborns. “Raise your kids tax free,” he said.

Although Florida’s population exceeds Democratic-controlled states like New York, he said, New York’s budget is twice the size of the budget of the state of Florida. “But yet Florida has better roads, better services and high performing K-12 schools,” he said. “Where is all that money going?”

DeSantis called on the federal government to abandon the fiscal “recklessness in Washington” and follow fiscally conservative principles. “If you want a well-managed budget and sound economy, you’ve got to embrace conservative policies Utah and Florida have shown,” he said.

A number of times, DeSantis criticized President Joe Biden directly, including over management of the nation’s southern border. “We have banned sanctuary cities in the state of Florida,” he said while calling for construction of a wall along the southern border with Mexico.

Attendees raise their credentials to vote during the Utah Republican Party Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday, April 22, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

During his term as governor, DeSantis has fought against what he calls “woke ideology.” He defined woke as “a form of cultural Marxism that tries to divide us based on identity politics.”

“Don’t tell me that babies are born racist, don’t tell me that men can get pregnant. ... We made the state of Florida the place where woke goes to die,” he said to applause.

DeSantis ended his nearly hourlong speech calling on Republicans to be courageous and to stand firm.

“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished in the state of Florida and I can tell you this, I’ve only begun to fight,” he said.

Other speakers and election results at the convention

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox praised DeSantis as a “good friend,” before thanking delegates for praying for water and conserving Utah’s resources.

Cox said he is proud to serve Utah as a “conservative Republican” and said that he has lost track of the number of lawsuits the state has filed against the Biden administration. He said he is also proud of leading the fight against the federal government over the removal of members of the National Guard who declined to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

A number of state elected officials also addressed the convention as well as Utah Reps. John Curtis, Blake Moore and Burgess Owens. The congressmen highlighted House Republicans’ efforts to tie federal spending cuts to a debt ceiling vote.

Utah’s 2nd District Rep. Chris Stewart and Sen. Mitt Romney did not attend the convention due to family scheduling conflicts, according to Utah Republican Party Chairman Carson Jorgensen.

Party leadership elections were held, with Rob Axson becoming the new chairman and Jordan Hess becoming the vice chairman by acclamation. They both ran unopposed.

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Stafford Palmieri was elected as the new state party secretary, beating out incumbent Livia Dawn. McKay Newell was elected as the new treasurer on the first ballot.

A resolution to support the traditional Utah flag was adopted overwhelmingly.

Presidential straw poll at the Utah Republican Convention

DeSantis won the presidential straw poll conducted among the delegates with 1,197 votes or 54.6%.

Trump came in second with nearly 30% of the vote. Former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence came in a distant third and fourth place.

Screenshot of 2023 Utah GOP convention presidential straw poll results.
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