TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is using his rising clout among conservatives to help candidates who have openly questioned President Joe Biden's win - even if it's something he doesn't like to talk about.
DeSantis on Friday will speak at a Pittsburgh rally for state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor who supported efforts to contest the 2020 results. Investigators with the Jan. 6 select committee have said Mastriano was involved in a plot to recruit alternate electors in Pennsylvania to give Trump an electoral college win even though Biden won the state. Mastriano was also outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 before the insurrection.
DeSantis' appearance with Mastriano comes five days after he campaigned on behalf of Kari Lake, the GOP nominee for Arizona governor, who made repeated false claims about the 2020 election the centerpiece of her campaign.
The candidates DeSantis is stumping for, including J.D. Vance in Ohio, have all been endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
"His entire political lens is a calculation of what it means for overtaking Trump," said David Jolly, the former Florida Republican congressman who is now helping start a third political party. "His previous eschewing of 2020 election fraud is less about personal conviction and more about not strengthening Trump. Similarly, his rallying with Lake, Mastriano, and others is about elevating his national profile on par with Trump - demonstrating his strength as a formidable heir to the GOP presidential nomination."
The governor's decision to help out several GOP nominees in other states comes during a relative slow period for his own reelection campaign, but it has added to ongoing speculation that he will run for president in 2024. The states where DeSantis has or will campaign include the key battleground states that will be vital if he mounts a White House bid.
Unlike Lake and Mastriano, however, DeSantis has avoided repeating or amplifying unproven allegations of voter fraud even as Trump - a part-time Florida resident - has continued to dispute the 2020 election results.
When asked by reporters whether the last presidential election was rigged, DeSantis has instead highlighted changes to election laws he has supported or simply changed the topic.
"I've been asked that a hundred different times. Anyone have a question on the topic of the day?" DeSantis said during a mid-June press conference. He then went on to criticize the Jan. 6 hearings that were being held at the time. DeSantis, however, condemned the Jan. 6 insurrection in the immediate aftermath of the riot.
DeSantis has also rejected calls to do a statewide forensic audit of the 2020 results in Florida, asserting that there was no need and that the election went smoothly in a state that delivered a win for Trump.
The DeSantis reelection campaign did not respond to questions about the governor's decision to join Mastriano on Friday. The Mastriano campaign also did not respond. One GOP consultant familiar with DeSantis's thinking, however, said the decision to campaign for fellow Republicans was "for the good of the country." The consultant said that DeSantis wants to help regain control of the U.S. Senate and stop Biden's agenda with the help of fellow Republicans in governor's mansions across the nation. The consultant pointed out that DeSantis waited until after the primaries to campaign for them, and it was ultimately voters who picked candidates such as Lake and Mastriano.
"He knows he has a brand that can cross over to independents and some Democrats," the consultant said. "They are on our team and we need them to win."
The Florida Democratic Party Jewish Caucus Board called on DeSantis to cancel his event with Mastriano, citing his ties to the far-right social media network Gab. Mastriano paid $5,000 to the site, which is where Robert Bowers made antisemitic posts before the deadly mass shooting at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue. Mastriano also participated in an interview with Gab CEO Andrew Torba, where he told him, "Thank God for what you've done."
Will Simons, a spokesperson for Josh Shapiro, the Pennsylvania attorney general and Democrat running against Mastriano, said that "DeSantis is holding a rally with the most extreme gubernatorial candidate in the country, one who has been condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike for his dangerous antisemitism…and DeSantis still wants to elevate him in a vain attempt to jump-start his presidential campaign."
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, one of the Democrats challenging DeSantis this year, also blasted the governor for standing on stage with "election deniers" and people who are "antisemitic" while there is a crisis in Florida over affordable housing, among other issues.
"What he's doing right now is a reason why he's going to lose in November," said Fried, who is Jewish. "He's off campaigning for other people across the country because he's running for 2024."