Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to headline Tennessee Republican dinner

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event May 31 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

Note: This story was updated on June 7 to correct Chris Christie's home state and the spelling of Nikki Haley's name.

NASHVILLE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican candidate for the 2024 presidential nomination, will serve as the keynote speaker for the Tennessee Republican Party's annual Statesmen's Dinner fundraiser July 15.

State Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden announced to Tennessee GOP State Executive Committee members this week by email that DeSantis would headline the event.

"We are proud of the Tennessee Republican Party's reputation as one of the premier Republican organizations across the United States," Golden wrote, adding that Tennessee has become a "must-stop on the road to the White House and the Republican nomination."

He noted that Tennessee has previously hosted such Republican notables as Chris Christie of New Jersey in 2013; U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina in 2014; then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in 2016; and then-Vice President Mike Pence in 2017.

All are now running for the nomination against former President Donald Trump.

An all-but-announced candidate for months, DeSantis formally launched his campaign last month.

A Quinnipiac University national poll released last week shows Trump leading with 56% support among Republican and GOP-leaning voters. DeSantis, who has already been attacked by Trump, was at 25%, the highest level of support after Trump.

Trump last week sought to ridicule DeSantis after the Florida governor's glitch-filled launch on Twitter with company owner Elon Musk. He's already hit DeSantis over an apparent change in how the candidate pronounces his own last name as he runs for president.

The former president declared DeSantis' announcement a "catastrophe."

"His whole campaign will be a disaster," he added on his own social media platform, Truth Social. "WATCH!"

DeSantis and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, also a Republican, are friends.

In February, Lee was in Palm Beach, Florida, attending a DeSantis retreat for Republican political leaders just four miles away from Mar-a-Lago, the private club and home of Trump, who had endorsed Lee in the businessman's successful 2018 and 2022 bids for governor. Trump had already announced a 2024 bid for his old job.

Politico reported Lee as being one of the estimated 150 attendees at the DeSantis event, described as a celebration of the "Florida blueprint."

"Gov. Lee meets with fellow governors and conservative leaders often and enjoyed joining Gov. DeSantis' summit for the second time to showcase how Tennessee and Florida are America's blueprint for opportunity, security and freedom," Lee Press Secretary Jade Byers said in response to an email inquiry from the Chattanooga Times Free Press on why Lee attended and whether it signaled Lee's support of a 2024 DeSantis bid.

Golden told the Chattanooga Times Free Press by phone Tuesday he didn't know whether Lee played a role or not in getting DeSantis to come.

The party chairman said his invitation to DeSantis to come address the Republican gathering was extended in May 2021.

"So at the end of the day, I don't know who played a role, again, the invitations have been in kind of Gov. DeSantis' orbit," Golden said, noting DeSantis had spoken to Alabama state Republicans during the winter. "So we just kind of were working to a yes."

Golden anticipates having a good crowd of attendees.

"I think people are generally getting interested in the general election," Golden said. "The first debate starts Aug. 23. People are starting to pay attention to that contest."

He said he expects even more interest in the dinner toward the end of June.

Tennessee Republican U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty are backing the former president's bid.

So are Tennessee U.S. Reps. Chuck Fleischmann of Ooltewah, Diana Harshbarger of Kingsport, John Rose of Cookeville and Mark Green of Portland. Andy Ogles of Culleoka most recently endorsed Trump.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.