AKRON, Ohio — Republicans in Ohio — a state where Donald Trump won twice by healthy margins and has enjoyed enormous political influence — greeted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warmly here Thursday, signaling high curiosity in his potential 2024 presidential bid.
“This is a person that we can adopt here in Ohio as our own,” said Summit County GOP Chairman Bryan Williams, noting DeSantis’ family roots in nearby Youngstown while introducing him before an audience of several hundred at the county's Lincoln Day breakfast.
The event — one of two GOP functions DeSantis was scheduled to headline Thursday in the Buckeye State — is part of the governor’s national tour to promote a book and expand his profile beyond Florida. DeSantis has not yet launched a campaign for president, but polls show him as Trump’s closest Republican competitor, and he is expected to enter the race in May or June.
Curiosity about DeSantis ran high at Quaker Station, a banquet hall on the University of Akron campus — part a redeveloped complex that years ago was home to a Quaker Oats factory. Republicans from across the state made early-morning drives to catch his speech. And while DeSantis is known for his aversion to grip-and-grin politics and did not spend time working the crowd after his remarks, attendees instead posed for photos with a cardboard cutout.
Former Rep. Jim Renacci, who served with DeSantis in Congress, told NBC News that he was excited to see his former colleague visit Ohio. Renacci once aligned himself tightly with Trump, even hiring the former president’s past campaign manager, Brad Parscale, to lead his unsuccessful primary bid for governor last year. But Renacci offered a tepid response when asked where he stands on Trump 2024.
“If President Trump wins the primary, I will support him in the general election,” said Renacci, who chairs the neighboring Medina County GOP and is not ready to endorse a presidential contender. “I appreciate what former President Trump did in 2016. I appreciate his policies, his positions. I think he was the right person at the right time. Now, I just want to evaluate everybody that’s running.”
Others voiced similarly wary takes on Trump. Abigail Sadowy, who traveled from the Toledo area to hear DeSantis, said she was open to someone new, like DeSantis.
“It doesn’t mean that I don’t support Trump in any way, shape or form by any means, because I do love everything that we have come to through him,” Sadowy added. “However, I think we need some fresh perspective right now, especially with everything that’s happened after Covid. I think we really need to start pushing forward in a new direction, and I’d love for [Trump] to be a part of that process, whether as the candidate himself or supporting someone else.”
DeSantis did not mention Trump in his speech, but he appeared to allude to the former president when dwelling on Republican losses in recent elections. Trump-backed candidates lost elections last year in several battlegrounds, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania. DeSantis, meanwhile, won re-election by 19 points in Florida.
“Winners get to make policy. The losers go home,” DeSantis said. “Nationwide, the Republican Party has developed a culture of losing. I think that needs to end. No more excuses. Just get it done so we can save our country.”
Tom Zawistowski, a longtime tea party leader in Ohio and president of the Akron-based We the People Convention, gushed about DeSantis after hearing his speech.
“He’s just hitting all the key points for this crowd,” Zawistowski said. “My goodness gracious, I think he’s probably the most qualified person to be president I’ve ever seen.”
“I think he’s the future of the party,” Zawistowski added. “The question: Is that future now or is that later? And I’m concerned about that, because the last thing we want to do is have a murder-suicide, right? We don’t want to have a situation where he challenges Donald Trump and it doesn’t go well and then, at that point forward, he’s got some damage.”
Trump laid down his own Ohio marker Wednesday with a social media post encouraging Bernie Moreno’s soon-to-launch Senate campaign in the state. The GOP primary next year in that race could be as crowded and nasty as the 2022 primary, which was dominated by competition for Trump’s endorsement. Trump eventually went with JD Vance, who went on to win the primary and the open seat previously held by Republican Rob Portman.
Moreno was notably absent from Wednesday’s Lincoln Day breakfast and is not expected to attend another DeSantis-headlined event Thursday night in Butler County, near Cincinnati. But two other Senate prospects — state Sen. Matt Dolan and Secretary of State Frank LaRose — worked the room before and after DeSantis’ speech.
LaRose, who is from Summit County, was given a brief speaking slot before the governor. He accentuated their common ground: Both are Italian-American veterans.
LaRose is considering a run. Dolan, who finished third in the 2022 Senate primary after being the one candidate who didn’t aggressively court Trump’s endorsement, has been in the Senate race for three months. Unlike Moreno, who has endorsed Trump, both have yet to indicate their preferred presidential candidate in 2024.
In an interview after DeSantis’ speech, Dolan said he wants robust primaries in both races.
“I think they’re trying to circumvent the voters, the Republican voters in Ohio,” Dolan said when asked about Trump and Moreno signaling their early support for each other. “I think we need rooms packed to the gills with Republican candidates who are going to express their vision for tomorrow, for the future.”
CORRECTION (April 13, 2023, 4:50 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the person who introduced DeSantis at the breakfast in Ohio. It was Summit County GOP Chairman Bryan Williams, not Ohio GOP Chair Alex Triantafilou.