In preparation for the 2018 debate, recordings show DeSantis feared becoming ‘mini version of Kavanaugh’ over racial issues

During his first run for governor of Florida in 2018, then-Congressman Ron DeSantis publicly struggled with some race issues that had plagued his campaign.

In one incident, DeSantis came under fire for a public remark he made prior to the election urging Florida voters not to “make this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda” — drawing strong rebuke from his African American opponent. , Democrat Andrew Gillum.

DeSantis pushed back at the time, saying the comment had “zero to do with race”.

Now, video footage obtained exclusively by ABC News of the DeSantis team’s mock debate sessions during that run for governor in 2018 shows him and his advisers candidly discussing how to handle their response to the “monkey” backlash — with DeSantis likening the issue to a “mini version of Kavanaugh,” a clear reference to the firestorm that erupted after allegations of sexual assault against then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which Kavanaugh vehemently denied.

“If I show any weakness in that, I think I’ll lose my base,” DeSantis said during the discussions, according to the nearly two-and-a-half hours of preliminary footage from the 2018 private debate obtained by ABC News. “I think I seem less than a leader, and so I think I should go full throttle and say it’s wrong.”

He wanted to crack down on the issue and “talk to those people” who felt that “political correctness has gone too far,” DeSantis said in the video.

At another time, his then advisor Rep. Matt Gaetz — who has supported former President Donald Trump’s third bid for the White House — told DeSantis that he was “too hot” on the issue.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at an event on May 6, 2023 in Rothschild, Wisconsin.

Scott Olson/Getty Images, FILE

“It deserves to be hot!” exclaimed DeSantis. “I mean, I’m sorry!”

“Kavanaugh showed that if you say ‘f—this,'” DeSantis said of the allegations against the then-nominee. “We’ve done such a terrible job pushing back all these stupid stories from the start. He’s going to scribble down a list.”

And behind closed doors, DeSantis said if he had meant the racist comment, he would have apologized.

“No one thinks that’s what you meant,” an off-camera consultant told DeSantis, who replied, “Okay, that’s one thing.” I mean, I’ll pull myself together.”

The newly acquired videos come amid recent ABC News reporting that DeSantis’ team has already quietly begun preparing for debate for the upcoming GOP primary, including reviewing past debate appearances, sources familiar with the matter said. preparations. DeSantis is likely to skip announcing an exploratory commission for now, despite previous reports, and instead is expected to launch a full campaign next month, sources said.

During the 2018 debate preparation sessions, DeSantis also appeared to downplay a comment that was criticized as racist by right-wing author David Horowitz, who had hosted a number of conferences at which DeSantis had spoken. “David has done such an amazing job…and I have been a great admirer of an organization that shoots straight ahead, tells the American people the truth and stands up for what is right,” DeSantis said in 2015 of Horowitz, who had been under criticized other black Americans for not feeling “gratitude” toward whites for their “sacrifices” in ending slavery.

During one of the public debates against Gillum in October 2018, DeSantis sidestepped the issue, responding to a moderator’s question on the subject by saying, “How on earth am I supposed to know every statement someone makes?”

But privately, according to tapes of the debate preparation sessions obtained by ABC News, DeSantis downplayed Horowitz’s comment, saying it was “stupid” but not racist.

“A lot of the things they say aren’t even racist. For example, David Horowitz said, ‘Oh, black people should thank white people for ending slavery.’ That’s a stupid comment, but it’s not the same thing,” DeSantis said.

Gaetz interrupted and said plainly, “You’re not going to win that argument”.

“I’m not going to get into that,” DeSantis agreed. “I know I’m not going – I can’t win that, I know.”

“The thing is they take things that have nothing to do with me, but they also make it much worse than they actually were, and then try to paint a story, you know. And it’s bull—-” DeSantis said , citing criticism he faced at the time for his “monkey it up” comment, his association with Horowitz, and reports that he served as an administrator for a racist Facebook group, which he denied.

“All this stuff, I mean it’s just a bunch of bullshit, I mean it really is,” DeSantis said on the tape.

During one of the prep sessions, the governor’s wife, Casey, tried to explain the governor’s “monkey up” comment: that DeSantis had only said “monkey” because he had read their daughter’s favorite book, “Five Little Monkeys”. Jumping on the bed,” to their children at night.

When Casey asked the room if that explanation “would matter,” Gaetz quickly replied, “Nobody cares.”

“Doesn’t anyone care?” Casey, off camera, replied.

“Not even a little,” Gaetz said.

A DeSantis representative did not respond to an ABC News request for comment.

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