LYNCHBURG, Va. — To hear Ron DeSantis tell it, Florida is the greatest state that has ever existed. No. 1 in all the metrics. The very best at everything. The only thing Florida isn’t good at is being woke, because Florida is where “woke goes to die.”
Florida’s Republican governor extolled the unwoke virtues of the Sunshine State at one of the nation’s largest Christian universities Friday morning. But he sidestepped one very timely matter — the six-week abortion ban he signed into law not 12 hours earlier.
“Last night, after the legislature there passed the bill, he signed the Heartbeat Protection Act,” said Jonathan Falwell, a pastor at Liberty University and the son of Jerry Falwell, the university’s founder. Falwell introduced DeSantis at the university on Friday morning following a performance by a Christian rock band in a giant indoor arena. “[The law] will protect all unborn babies because he recognizes and knows that life is a gift from God.”
That, however, was the only mention of Florida’s new abortion ban, one of the most restrictive in the nation. DeSantis ignored the law altogether in his 20-minute remarks, except for a nod to the “sanctity of life.” The omission was glaring considering the timeliness (DeSantis had just signed the bill last night) and setting (a university with thousands of young evangelical voters who packed its weekly convocation).
Carla Nicole, a woman from outside Philadelphia who runs a fashion brand that “gives back to pro-life crisis pregnancy centers” and whose three children attend Liberty, said it didn’t bother her that DeSantis didn’t talk about the abortion law. “Maybe he didn’t mention it because he knows he’s on a very pro-life campus, and many of us were watching as that bill was passing,” she said. “We knew that he was going to be in favor of the heartbeat bill.”
DeSantis used most of his time onstage to pitch Florida, a formerly purple state now galloping toward the right, as the place where “we fight woke” to be the best at everything.
“We had the convictions to guide us and we had the courage to lead, and because of our efforts Florida is now leading the nation,” DeSantis said. “We are No. 1 in the country for net in-migration. We are the No. 1 fastest growing state in these United States. We ranked No. 1 in new business formations. Of course, we ranked No. 1 in tourism. We are No. 1 in economic freedom. We are No. 1 in education freedom. We are No. 1 for parental involvement in education.”
Many of the Liberty students who spoke with HuffPost said they were open to a new GOP presidential nominee in 2024, they’re just waiting for the right one to wow them. That person might be DeSantis, or it might be someone else.
“As much as I loved Donald Trump in 2020 and voted for him, I just don’t see that he’s the right fit anymore, just because he had his time in office and he did great,” said Tanya Henderson, a 21-year-old who said she’s already set on voting for DeSantis. Henderson’s friend, Lucy Wilson, 20, agreed the nominee needs to be someone other than Trump. “The younger generation, we’re just ready for a fresh face,” she said.
DeSantis hasn’t said he’s running for president, but that was the unspoken subtext of his appearance at Liberty, as well as a possible reason why he didn’t mention the abortion law: While it might help him win a GOP primary, it won’t help him win over more moderate voters in a general election. Instead, he focused on the other aggressively conservative actions he’s taken as governor, such as banning medical interventions for transgender minors, which he accomplished using executive powers.
“My view is very simple. I may have earned 50% of the vote, but that entitled to me to wield 100% of the executive power,” DeSantis said.
Liberty University routinely welcomes speakers on its campus who don’t share its conservative ethos, including President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). But the university has a special relationship with Donald Trump. Liberty had been run by Jerry Falwell Jr., the evangelical influencer and Trump ally who resigned from the university in 2020 amid a sex scandal. Trump was carried into office with the help of evangelicals, but it’s not clear whether they will stick with him in 2024 or opt for a candidate with less baggage, like DeSantis or even former Vice President Mike Pence, who just released a faith-focused book, “So Help Me God.”
“He was willing to share his faith. That was important to us,” Greg Holden, a 73-year-old retired civil engineer from outside South Bend, Indiana, said of Pence. Holden had traveled to Liberty from Pence’s home state to visit his grandson and happened to catch DeSantis at the weekly convocation, which features Christian music and guest speakers in an upbeat ravelike environment.
“I didn’t like everything that Trump did, but he certainly was the best of the candidates. I feel very positive about his leadership,” Holden continued. “I’m open to the other Republicans and I’m curious to see what the primaries bring out. Trump’s got a hard road ahead of him.”
DeSantis, who is trailing Trump in recent polls, swiped that “leaders aren’t captive to poll results.” And as much as Republicans crave someone new to lead the party, it’s not clear they’re ready to give up Trump.
“Ron DeSantis is my favorite governor,” said Liberty student Solomon Park, 24. Park was seated in the front row with a red “Make America Great Again” hat, feet from where DeSantis gave his remarks without moving an inch around the massive round stage in the center of the arena.
At one point during his remarks, a photographer tripped and fell on the floor in front of DeSantis, causing the governor to pause for a few seconds before asking, “We OK here?” and continuing. DeSantis, who’s not much for retail politicking, scooted off stage quickly after the event.
“Florida needs Ron DeSantis because there aren’t many great governors,” Park said. “We need Trump back in office to make America great again. But in 2028 and 2032, I want Ron DeSantis.”