Can the GOP Accommodate Two Rock Stars?

Fresh from his deft Martha’s Vineyard gambit, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis flew into Kansas on Sunday to rally support for Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, now running for governor against incumbent Democrat Laura Kelly.

Saul Alinsky, the acknowledged master of forcing poseurs to honor their own policies, could not have done better than DeSantis. No political stroke in memory has succeeded in exposing liberal hypocrisy quite so effortlessly and effectively. Had the Islanders taken the 50 illegal aliens in, they might have checked DeSantis’s move and saved a little face, but they didn’t. They lived up to their most ludicrous stereotypes, calling in the National Guard and deporting the hapless Venezuelans to some sterile Army base on the mainland. It will be years before “Martha’s Vineyard” is anything but a template for a meme or a punch line to a joke.

Both Schmidt and U.S. Senator Roger Marshall had fun with Martha’s Vineyard in the speeches they gave preceding DeSantis’s. The SRO crowd at the Olathe (O-lay-the) Civics Center ate it up. When DeSantis took center stage, the thousands in attendance were primed. They surged to their feet and roared their appreciation. If it wasn’t clear before this past week, it was clear to everyone in Olathe. Ron DeSantis has arrived.

Before Donald Trump descended the golden escalator at Trump tower in June 2015, the GOP had gone more than a quarter-century without a rock star. Now, it has two, and that is the challenge. Although he ran as the moderate candidate in the 2020 GOP primary, Marshall, a medical doctor, has been a pleasant surprise for conservatives. That said, he did not mention Trump in his speech. Schmidt has also been tagged as something of a moderate, but one would not have guessed that from his intense and impressively disciplined speech. He did not mention Trump either.

Halfway into his roughly hour-long speech DeSantis, too, remained mum on Trump. Nor did he mention Martha’s Vineyard. Leaving the thunder to Schmidt, DeSantis almost matter-of-factly walked the audience through a tutorial on effective governance. Unlike Trump or Obama before him, he began his sentences with “we,” not “I.” DeSantis spent much of that time discussing his evidence-based COVID policy and its extraordinary effect on the state’s tourist economy. He focused as well on the inarguable benefits of having kept the public schools open when other governors did not, among them Kansas’s Laura Kelly, or “Lockdown Laura” as the earlier speakers called her.

Like Marshall and Schmidt before him, DeSantis addressed the corruption of public schools through the imposition of the evil Marxist twins, Critical Race Theory and gender ideology. These are the social issues on which Republicans will focus in 2022. For the time being at least, certainly in Kansas, abortion is something of a hot wire. Gender is not. No issue provoked a more visceral reaction from the crowd than the idea of boys participating in girls’ sports. On this front, Kelly is particularly vulnerable, having twice vetoed bills proposed by the Republican-led Kansas legislature that would have banned biological males from competing against females.

I should add that I had wangled a press pass to event and was able to end-run the seemingly endless line of Kansans who braved the 90-plus temperature and occasional sprinkles to see DeSantis. I was eager to hear what the Florida governor had to say about Martha’s Vineyard, and I suspected the audience was too. Well into the speech, DeSantis eased his way into the subject. “It seems,” he said (and here I paraphrase), “illegal immigration has gotten a lot of attention lately.” Almost as one, the audience erupted in cheers and sustained applause.

I was equally curious to see how DeSantis spoke of Donald Trump. He did this smoothly as well, crediting “President Trump” with curtailing immigration through his stay-in-Mexico policy and the building of the border wall. He made the case that Biden undid these efforts for no other reason than to spite Trump. Throughout this part of the discussion, DeSantis referred to the people flooding across the border as “illegal aliens,” a much bolder turn of phrase than it ought to be.

Although the local media seemed oblivious to the inherent drama, DeSantis was walking a fine line in Kansas. In my conversations with Republicans here in Kansas City where I live, I have found that most prefer that DeSantis be the GOP nominee in 2024. None of the people with whom I’ve spoken are NeverTrumpers. As far as I know, all voted for Trump in 2020, many enthusiastically. The Martha’s Vineyard maneuver, however, has solidified their support for DeSantis.

If DeSantis chooses to run in 2024, he can blow off the Liz Cheney Republicans -- there are not enough of them to matter -- but he cannot afford to alienate hardcore Trump fans, especially if Trump also decides to run. Given what I’ve seen from afar and what I saw Sunday up close, DeSantis is ambitious enough to run and adroit enough to win. The attendees on Sunday would probably agree, and many of them came in MAGA gear. Here’s hoping that Trump is savvy enough to read the tea leaves.

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Image: Gage Skidmore

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