OLATHE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis worked to broaden his 2024 presidential foundation Sunday by traveling to Kansas to headline an endorsement rally for Republican gubernatorial nominee Derek Schmidt.
Emergence of DeSantis and other conservatives at Schmidt campaign events less than two months ahead of the November election appears to reflect competitiveness of a contest with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Schmidt’s strategy could be associated with the insurgent campaign for governor by right-wing independent state Sen. Dennis Pyle, who is expected to peel votes away from the GOP nominee.
DeSantis, who emerged on the stage after a flashy promotional video, said he was in Kansas to help Schmidt prevail in the governor’s race. DeSantis devoted much of his 50-minute speech to his own accomplishments as Florida governor and a roster of decisions made by President Joe Biden, but sprinkled those remarks with praise for elements of Schmidt’s campaign agenda.
“Part of the reason I’m here is because if you look over the last few years governors have been more important to peoples’ freedoms than ever before,” he said. “You saw this here in Kansas and they saw it in California, New York and Illinois and all these states where you had leftist governors locking people down. In Florida, we lifted people up.”
DeSantis said Kelly was in step with Biden’s agenda, including response to the COVID-19 pandemic, proclaiming there was “no daylight between them. Basically, it’s like having Biden as governor here.”
He touched on a campaign talking point favored by Schmidt about Kelly’s veto of two sweeping tax bills that included repeal of the state sales tax on groceries. Subsequently, Kelly advocated for elimination July 1 of the state’s 6.5% sales tax on groceries. The Republican-led Legislature rejected that idea and approved a bill signed by the governor in 2022 phasing out that regressive state tax over three years.
“Right when people needed her, she stood on the side of the tax collector rather than the taxpayer,” DeSantis said. “I think you need a governor like Derek Schmidt who is going to put taxpayers first.”
Midway through the speech, to the delight of the audience, DeSantis delved into his effort to throw a spotlight on influx of immigrants into the United States. He defended his stir-the-pot expenditure of $615,000 Florida tax dollars — $12,300 per person — to fly 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. He has said people boarded those two flights voluntarily. There have been calls for a federal investigation to determine whether the immigrants were misled and the flights approximated human trafficking.
“They were homeless. They were hungry. They were trying to get to places like Florida and others. They were given basically a lottery ticket to get to the wealthiest sanctuary,” he said to laughter from the crowd. “If you’re going to support open borders, then you should have to deal with the consequences.”
DeSantis referred to establishment of Martha’s Vineyard as a sanctuary jurisdiction and the hostility expressed by some in that wealthy enclave after unexpected arrival of immigrants. The governor said the position of those island residents amounted to “self-congratulatory virtue signaling.”
He also said immigration was one example of how elites and leftists in the United States wanted to impose an ideology on the nation while casting dissenters as second-class citizens.
The governor encouraged the audience to be culture warriors against the “woke mind virus,” but warned the stakes were high and the struggle would be difficult.
He illustrated that point while attacking Disney, pressing for greater scrutiny of school curriculum and library books, demanding transgender boys be forbidden from playing sports against girls, and denouncing The New York Times’ “1619 Project” regarding U.S. history and racism.
Schmidt welcomes support
Schmidt, who has served as Kansas attorney general for more than a decade, told more than 1,000 people at the “united and win” rally that support of DeSantis was welcomed. Schmidt also used the event to plow through a critique of Kelly’s work as chief executive of Kansas.
“My friends, here in Kansas, we are going to retire Laura Kelly in November,” Schmidt said. “We need a Kansas governor who didn’t hurt our kids by rushing to lock them out of school, who won’t trail far behind the nation in recovering jobs her lockdowns destroyed, who never again will lose hundreds of millions of tax dollars to unemployment fraud.”
Schmidt touted his work as attorney general, including his presence as a legal thorn in the side of Biden. He vowed to constrain state government spending approved by the Kansas Legislature and Kelly. He repeatedly asserted Kelly was wrong to send students home at outset of the pandemic by ordering school buildings temporarily closed and requiring instruction to be performed online.
“The truth is Laura Kelly has done more damage to more of our children than any other governor in the history of this state,” Schmidt said.
Democrats join fray
The Kansas Democratic Party staged a street protest outside the hotel in advance of the Schmidt-DeSantis event that also featured a speech attacking Kelly by U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican.
Emma O’Brien, spokesperson for the state Democratic Party, said Schmidt had again sought out-of-state support because of the presence of Pyle, a lifelong Republican who threated to attract conservative votes that might otherwise go to Schmidt.
“On the heels of his former boss, Republican Governor Bill Graves, throwing his support behind Governor Kelly, Derek Schmidt hurried to fly in an out-of-state, divisive politician for a ‘unity rally’ in a last-ditch attempt to stop the massive number of Kansas Republicans running from his campaign,” O’Brien said.
Kelly has modeled her campaign along lines of her successful effort in 2018 in which she promised to cross the political aisle and reverse budget and policy miscues by former Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican. Kelly has made reference during the campaign to Schmidt’s endorsements of Brownback.
Madison Andrus, spokesperson for Kelly’s campaign, said people rallying to Schmidt stood in contrast to the governor’s “bipartisan coalition” and “common-sense leadership.”
Pumped for rally
A long line formed in the parking lot outside the Embassy Suites hotel in Olathe before Turning Point Action, the Arizona political organization in charge of the event, opened doors to a conference facility with more than 700 seats. Those chairs filled and several hundred were left to stand in the ballroom.
Olathe residents Linda and Ron Schmidt, who weren’t related to the candidate for governor, said they didn’t frequently attend political rallies but wanted to get a glimpse of the GOP candidate for governor and a potential GOP candidate for president.
“We’re here to support Derek Schmidt and excited for the bonus of seeing the next president — DeSantis,” Linda Schmidt said.
Ron Schmidt wore a red cap with the “Make America Great” slogan popularized by Trump. He said the federal government’s deficit spending was driving too much borrowing and contributed to consumer inflation.
Judah Prince, also of Olathe, said he was a conservative who voted for Kelly four years ago because he was concerned GOP nominee Kris Kobach would be a poor choice for governor. Prince said Kelly had done reasonable well as governor and that he was prepared to support Kobach’s run for attorney general.
On a similar line of thought, Prince said he was hopeful DeSantis won the Republican nomination for president. He said DeSantis had the right values to lead the nation but would be less volatile than Trump. He said Trump had made a “lot of reckless decisions.”
Carrie Wallace and Nicole Vannicola, both of Eudora, were part of the throng attending the rally. Wallace said she was intrigued by DeSantis’ remarks indicating religion ought to take a more prominent place in the political environment.
“I’m very interested in his comments recently about how church and state should not be separated,” Wallace said.
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