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Florida Republicans tether themselves to DeSantis — even without his support

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t endorsed a single Republican running for Congress in Florida this year. But that hasn’t stopped GOP candidates from tying themselves to him.

Republicans vying for Congress — and countless more in down-ballot races — are using DeSantis’ photo in campaign mailers and television ads and are dropping his name in debates ahead of the Aug. 23 primary. The use of DeSantis in Republican contests is rivaling, and even sometimes surpassing, that of former President Donald Trump, who has handed out congressional endorsements in several Florida elections.

“The country is running out of time and we need people with [DeSantis’] philosophy in D.C.,” conservative state Rep. Anthony Sabatini said during a recent congressional debate organized by the governor and held during the Republican Party of Florida’s summer conference in Tampa.

Sabatini, running in a bitter GOP primary for outgoing Rep. Stephanie Murphy’s (D-Fla.) central Florida seat, also recently sent out a mailer that featured a large photo of DeSantis with the words “Sabatini has been the most trusted ally of the Governor DeSantis agenda” splashed across it.

DeSantis’ brand is red-hot among Republicans in Florida due to his anti-lockdown Covid-19 stances, his combativeness with the Biden administration and the media and his battles on everything from critical race theory to gender identity and immigration. Many recent polls of GOP voters have him either neck-and-neck with Trump or the leading Republican contender after the former president. DeSantis has amassed a political war chest of roughly $130 million, including from many national donors who also give to Trump.

In Florida, DeSantis is viewed as something of a kingmaker among Republicans. He has used his influence to elevate his political allies in the state, with the goal of consolidating power within the GOP-led Florida Legislature and beyond, including in school board races.

Yet DeSantis has held off formally endorsing any congressional candidates, including his former secretary of state, Laurel Lee, who jumped into the race for a new congressional seat in the Tampa Bay area. Lee’s first introductory television ad was replete with flashes of the governor and starts out by saying: “For Congress, there’s just one candidate trusted by Gov. DeSantis to secure our elections: Laurel Lee.”

“It’s part of everyone’s pitch to voters, but in my case it isn’t fiction,” said Lee, who was appointed by DeSantis back in 2019 to be the state’s top elections official.

James Blair, a Republican consultant who is working on the congressional campaigns of Anna Paulina Luna and Cory Mills, said GOP voters want to know whether candidates stand with both DeSantis and Trump. Both Florida men are considered leaders of the party.

“Republican primary voters overwhelmingly approve of both President Trump and Gov. DeSantis and it certainly is important whether they are aligned with them,” Blair said. “That is a meaningful question the voters need answered.”

Florida’s congressional delegation is poised to get more Republican this year. Florida picked up a 28th seat due to growing population, and DeSantis muscled through the Legislature a congressional map that dismantled one North Florida district held by Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat. Republicans hold a 16-11 edge in the state, but the new map could yield as many as four more seats for the GOP to give them a 20-8 margin. The map is being legally challenged but the case will not be resolved prior to this year’s election.

The new map — paired with Democratic incumbents choosing to run for different offices or retire altogether — has created several wide-open seats that attracted a long line of candidates. DeSantis himself brought attention to the contests by staging four debates at the GOP’s Tampa convention. In two of the debates, DeSantis asked some of the questions.

DeSantis has not publicly refuted any of the congressional hopefuls. But in one Miami-Dade school board race, the DeSantis campaign stepped in to complain about a candidate name-checking the governor.

A lawyer for the governor’s campaign last week sent a cease-and-desist letter to the head of a political committee supporting a Miami-Dade school board member after a mailer was sent to voters showing a picture of the member, Marta Perez, with DeSantis.

The cease-and-desist letter, which was first reported by News Service of Florida, stated that the mailer created a “false representation” that the governor supported Perez. DeSantis had previously endorsed Perez’s opponent — veteran teacher Monica Colucci — who also once worked as a staffer for Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez.

In another case first reported by POLITICO, a candidate for a northeast Florida congressional district, Erick Aguilar, sent out fundraising emails that gave the impression that donors were giving to other Republican politicians including DeSantis. WinRed, an online fundraising platform used by Republicans, concluded the emails were misleading and suspended Aguilar from the service.

Asked about endorsements and those who are publicizing their ties to the governor, DeSantis’ re-election campaign said only that “voters shouldn’t be subjected to deceitful tactics that create a faux appearance of an endorsement.” The campaign declined to comment further.

While Republicans strain to stress their connection to the popular governor, Democratic candidates are using their opposition to the governor as a selling point.

Jared Moskowitz, the Democratic frontrunner in the race to replace outgoing Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), has repeatedly come under fire from primary opponents because he worked as the state’s emergency management chief under DeSantis during the first part of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The attacks don’t appear to have reduced Moskowitz’s momentum, but he acknowledged his opponents keep mentioning the governor.

“With all the issues that Americans are facing in their everyday lives, I wish my opponents spent more time telling voters why they should go to Congress rather than attacking my work in emergency management,” Moskowitz said in an interview.

At least one Democratic congressional candidate is also using cherished members of his party to boost his own electoral chances. Alan Grayson, a former House member who is running in a crowded Democratic primary in the race to succeed Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who is running for Senate, sent out a mailer recently that featured pictures and quotes from the late Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon, as well as President Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Grayson, who is running in a race that features several Black primary rivals, defended using the photos and quotes, including from Lewis, who died more than two years ago. He said that he decided to quote Democratic leaders with whom he previously worked and “who knew me well.”

“Congressman Lewis’ statements about me didn’t change simply because of his unfortunate passing away, any more than the Gettysburg Address disappeared upon Lincoln’s death,” he said.

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