In a blow to Ron DeSantis, a prominent ally of the rightwing governor was on Tuesday one of two Florida Republicans in Congress to back Donald Trump for president, the latest in a string of defections.
The news came amid reports that DeSantis’s team has pressured US representatives from his state not to endorse Trump.
Brian Mast told CNN he planned to endorse the former president and would chair a veterans committee in support of Trump’s re-election bid.
Peter Schorsch, publisher of FloridaPolitics.com, said: “Brian Mast has been DeSantis’s ally on environment and water issues in South Florida. Mast is at DeSantis’s hip during press conferences. They’re both veterans, too. Wow.”
Schorsch also said Mast’s decision was “right up there with Byron Donalds picking Trump over DeSantis”.
Donalds introduced DeSantis for his election night speech in November, after his landslide win over the Democrat Charlie Crist. Last week, though, Donalds told NBC he plumped for Trump because he was a candidate “ready for prime time”.
On Tuesday, Mast and John Rutherford were the sixth and seventh congressional Florida Republicans to endorse Trump. Rutherford announced his decision in a tweet.
“As a former sheriff,” he said, “I understand the importance of a fair and impartial system of justice. The systematic targeting of Americans with conservative ideals, especially our 45th president of the United States, disgraces our nation’s legacy.”
He was referring to Trump’s criminal indictment in New York this month, on 34 counts of falsification of business records relating to his hush money payment to the adult film star Stormy Daniels.
Trump also faces legal jeopardy over his election subversion and incitement of the deadly January 6 attack on Congress, his handling of classified material, his business and tax affairs, and an allegation of rape. He denies all wrongdoing.
His sheriff-turned-congressman supporter added: “As strong Republicans, we must restore law, order and justice to our country … under President Trump’s leadership, America was more safe, more secure and more prosperous.”
Trump lost conclusively to Joe Biden in 2020, a year of chaos amid the Covid pandemic and protests for racial justice.
For inciting an insurrection in his attempt to overturn that defeat, fueled by the lie that Biden won thanks to electoral fraud, Trump was impeached a second time. But he escaped conviction and is now the clear leader in the race for the GOP nomination, leveraging his legal predicament to boost fundraising and support.
DeSantis has not declared his candidacy but is widely expected to do so. He is Trump’s closest challenger but his numbers have stagnated as he has come under fire for extreme policies including a six-week abortion ban, school book bans and a drawn-out fight with Disney. Last week, a major donor said he was pausing support.
By Tuesday, Trump had secured endorsements from one governor (Henry McMaster of South Carolina), nine senators and 47 House members.
DeSantis was in Washington to meet members of Congress. At least one attendee was not sold. Emerging from what he called “a positive meeting” with the governor, Lance Gooden, a Texas Republican, released his endorsement of Trump.
Politico reported that Trump aides had placed calls before the Florida defections. One unnamed source said: “The amazing part of it is how easy it was.”
NBC first reported DeSantis allies’ calls to Florida Republicans. An unnamed source said: “There is clearly some angst from the DeSantis camp that so many members of the state’s congressional delegation are throwing their support behind Trump.”
Rutherford and Mast were not among Republicans named. The New York Times, however, cited an official “familiar with the effort” when it said: “Others in the 20-member Republican delegation from Florida are almost certainly on the call list.”
One Republican named by NBC, Laurel Lee, endorsed DeSantis on Tuesday. Another, Greg Steube, declared for Trump on Monday.
According to Politico, “other members are expected to back Trump in the coming days”.
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