In black boots, jeans and an untucked shirt — the fundraising dress code specified « ranch casual » — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday tried to woo Nevada Republican voters still loyal to former President Donald J Trump that the party’s formula for winning the election was beyond its duration.
Heading a conservative jamboree in the swing state, where loyalty to Trump still runs deep, Mr. DeSantis never mentioned his rival for the 2024 Republican Party presidential nomination during a speech in Gardnerville, Nev.
But the Florida governor has been trying to draw a not-so-subtle contrast between himself and the former president, a onetime ally who is the party’s overwhelming leader in a crowded Republican camp. He described last year’s midterm elections as another disappointment in a losing streak for the party, while touting its margin of victory of more than 1.2 million votes in his re-election last November.
« We’ve developed a culture of defeat in this party, » DeSantis said, adding, « You’re not going to get a mulligan in the 2024 election. »
Mr. DeSantis spoke for nearly an hour at the Basque Fry, a fundraising barbecue supporting conservative groups in Nevada.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, responded to DeSantis in a statement to the Times Saturday.
« Ron DeSantis is a proven liar and cheater, » he said. “That’s why he’s plummeting in the polls, both nationally and statewide. He should be careful before his chances of him in 2028 disappear completely.
The Basque Fry has grown in stature since it was first held in 2015, drawing a stream of Republican presidential candidates to Corley Ranch in Carson Valley with its rugged Sierra Nevada backdrop.
Past headliners have included Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who entered the race earlier this month, was scheduled to enter in 2017 but canceled because Hurricane Harvey was making landfall on the Gulf Coast.
It’s a chance for White House hopefuls to take an elevator ride to the Conservatives base in Nevada, a crucial initial proving ground that in 2021 it replaced its party-run caucuses with a primary. Republicans oppose the change, which the state legislature passed, and they are sue the state to keep the caucuses.
DeSantis’ visit to Nevada punctuated a week in which Trump dominated the news cycle on Tuesday with his complaint in a 37-count federal indictment for his handling of confidential documents after he left office.
As Trump’s main Republican rival, DeSantis has not mentioned the indictment outright, but instead echoed the GOP’s attacks on the Justice Department and pledged to replace the FBI director if elected.
« We are going to end the arming of this government once and for all, » DeSantis said.
In 2016, the last presidential election in 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, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
During the midterm elections last fall, Mr. Trump campaigned for the Republicans in Nevada at a demonstration in Minden, near Gardnerville. The election proved to be a mixed race for the GOP, which flipped the governor’s office but lost crucial Senate and House races, including the seat held by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat who had been seen as 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 total control of the Senate.
Mr. Laxalt, who was a roommate of Mr. DeSantis when they were both officers in the Navy, introduced him to the crowd of approximately 2,500.
« This is the kind of leader we need, » he said.
Mr. Laxalt started Basque Fry in 2015, building on a tradition started by his grandfatherPaul Laxalt, former US Senator and Governor of Nevada, died in 2018.
Northern Nevada has one of the highest concentrations in the nation of people of Basque descenta group that includes Mr Laxalt, who also unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2018.
Jim McCrossin, 78, a retiree from Virginia City, Nev., who surveyed the ranch in a DeSantis cap, said he had previously supported Mr. Trump but was concerned about his electability.
« I just think there’s so much hate for him, » she said, adding, « Trump has been arrested twice, and it’s probably not the last time. »
He said Mr. DeSantis « doesn’t have the drama. »
His family is divided: His wife, Jacquie McCrossin, said she still prefers Mr. Trump, even though he wore a DeSantis cap.
Shellie Wood, 72, a retired nail technician and gold prospector from Winnemucca, Nevada, who sported a Trump 2020 camouflage cap, said Mr. DeSantis would be a strong running mate for Mr. Trump, but that it was not his time.
However, Ms. Wood said Mr. DeSantis had made a positive impression on her with his record in Florida.
« He stood up against Disney, and that’s something a lot of people haven’t had the courage to do, » she said.
Mr. DeSantis has repeatedly reminded the crowd of his feud with Disney, which he and other Republicans have turned into an avatar of « wake-up » culture after the company criticized a state law that prohibited classroom teaching on guidance sexuality and gender identity.
In the run-up to his formal debut as a candidate last month, Mr. DeSantis struggled with being labeled by the media and rivals as awkward in retail politics and one-on-one confrontations with voters.
Before taking to the podium, with the snow-capped mountains behind him, DeSantis mingled with a group of VIPs for approximately 30 minutes at a reception closed to the media.
Outside the reception, Casey DeSantis, the governor’s wife, who has been a ubiquitous activist and influencer on her husband’s administration’s policies, snapped selfies and signed autographs for local Republicans. She had boots too.
While Mr. DeSantis impressed many of the attendees, there was still a pro-Trump undercurrent at the event. Shawn Newman, 58, a truck driver from Fernley, Nev., who loitered by a table in DeSantis campaign swag while wearing a ubiquitous red Trump cap, said Trump was still his nominee.
« Trump is above their reach, » he said of the other Republican candidates.
As Mr. DeSantis worked a tightrope after his speech, a man handed him a campaign hat to sign. In the other hand he clutched a Trump cap.