TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — One of the Florida Republican Party's biggest annual events will be missing several of the state’s most prominent Republicans this year, including Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump. The absences have some in the party fretting that the event could be a fundraising dud and put an unwelcome spotlight on the presidential-level tightrope Republicans in the state have to walk.
The Republican Party of Florida’s Statesman’s Dinner, held next month in Orlando, is a gathering of the party’s highest dignitaries and grassroots leaders that offers both a boost of energy and a show of fundraising might.
Part of the reason that Trump was not invited is that Florida Republicans wanted the focus at the dinner to be on state-level party building, so they originally decided to try to get DeSantis as their main speaker, according to three sources familiar with the planning process.
During his 2022 re-election bid, DeSantis raised huge sums of political cash for the party. Those dollars were used to help fuel a dominating midterm cycle for Florida Republicans, including overtaking Democrats' long-held voter registration advantage in the state.
Despite the party holding out for the governor, DeSantis is skipping the Sept. 14 event to attend fundraisers for his presidential campaign in New York City and Buffalo.
“DeSantis was asked. He ended up saying no because he has a couple fundraisers in New York around the same time,” said a Republican official familiar with the event’s planning.
The DeSantis campaign did not respond to a request seeking comment.
Party Chairman Christian Ziegler had conversations with the Trump campaign about the dinner, but he never formally invited the former president. The state party is now left without the presence of the two of the biggest draws in state and national Republican politics.
“The Statesman’s Dinner and the potential of President Trump attending was discussed between the Chairman and the Trump campaign,” Florida GOP communications director Nathalia Medina said.
She added that both are likely to be in attendance a month later at the Florida Freedom Summit, hosted by the Florida GOP during presidential election cycles. The event in the past has drawn most prominent Republican presidential candidates. Candidates who attend this year’s summit have to pay $25,000 to participate in the state’s March 19 primary, while those who do not attend must pay $100,000. Candidates can also make the primary ballot without paying by collecting the signatures of more than 50,000 Florida Republicans.
“With the Florida Freedom Summit in early November, Florida Republicans will have an opportunity very soon to see President Trump,” she said. “Additionally, we are moving forward with individual events across the state, featuring many of the presidential candidates.”
The party has maintained it will remain impartial in the Republican presidential nominating contest.
“The Florida GOP will remain neutral, but we will work to support the entire Republican team by helping give all the Presidential candidates as many opportunities as possible to connect with Florida voters,” Medina said.
A Trump adviser said there was no real anger toward the Florida GOP, but there was “some confusion about the whole thing on our end.”
“I don’t mean to be a jerk, but they will do what they do and we will do what we do, and we will meet in the middle to the extent we can,” the adviser said of the Florida GOP. “The president won Florida twice, and I think he will win it a third time.”
Trump has had a commanding lead in most public polls, including in Florida. There has not been a lot of Florida-specific polling, but a Florida Atlantic University poll of registered Republicans in the state found in early July that Trump had a 20 percentage-point lead over DeSantis.
Trump and DeSantis are not the only Republicans skipping the dinner. It's set for the same weekend that the Florida state House Republican caucus scheduled a fundraiser in California's Napa Valley, meaning most state House Republicans will not be in attendance. State Senate Republican leaders had an event in Sarasota, though roughly a third of the Senate’s 28 Republicans are still expected to attend the dinner, according to a Republican source familiar with the guest list.
Medina, the Florida GOP communications director, said the Statesmen’s Dinner was scheduled to coincide with the state party's third-quarter meeting.
The event’s keynote speakers are conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott — who is running for re-election — and Riley Gaines, a former college swimmer who has become a prominent activist against the participation of transgender women in women’s sports after competing against Lia Thomas, the first openly trans athlete to win a NCAA Division I championship.
Two sources familiar with the event said that getting Shapiro was DeSantis’ contribution to the event.
“Ben Shapiro was secured by the DeSantis folks because they didn’t want to do anything else for the party and certainly didn’t want to help raise money,” the person said.
Medina said the “Florida GOP team” worked with Shapiro to get him to speak at the event.
There is concern among some party officials that the slate of candidates will be a huge draw for party activists, but not so much for prominent donors. Gaines and Shapiro are popular with grassroots Republicans but move the needle less with donors. Scott remains popular with Florida Republicans and is a heavy favorite to win re-election, but he regularly does county-level Republican events across the state and is not seen as a draw as a main speaker for one of the party’s biggest events of the year.
“The dinner will suck and make little money,” a Republican official said bluntly.
Despite some of the event-specific concern, Republicans will enter the 2024 election cycle as heavy favorites in nearly every race of importance. The party has a huge resource advantage over Republicans, and on Tuesday announced that its voter registration advantage over Democrats has grown to nearly 570,000.
In the process, Ziegler, the party’s chairman, took a shot at a recently announced $1 million voter registration effort Democrats are currently conducting.
“The fallout from the Democrat Party’s radical, anti-American, pro-socialism and anti-parent stance continues," Ziegler said, "with the Republican Party gaining 568,051 in our advantage over Democrats in registration."