DeSantis Meets With Republicans on Capitol Hill, to a Lukewarm Response

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida on Tuesday made a rare return trip to Washington, where he served in the House before his run for governor, to mingle with about a dozen Republican lawmakers.

But his journey to Capitol Hill failed to spark much momentum in his expected presidential bid among Republicans in Congress, an important group for White House aspirants.

Representative Dan Meuser, who attended the gathering of about 100 people and who remains undecided in the race, left with the impression that Mr. DeSantis was close to announcing. “It’s a big decision,” he said. “It’s up to him.” And another attendee, Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas, said, “I’m staying out of it.”

Representative Lance Gooden of Texas, meanwhile, sent out a statement endorsing Donald J. Trump — during Mr. DeSantis’s event.

“Due diligence was my motivating factor,” Mr. Gooden said in an interview after meeting with Mr. DeSantis at the gathering. “I love Donald Trump. But I didn’t want to just jump out and endorse him out of loyalty. I made a commitment to myself that I would meet and visit with every serious contender before I made a decision. I chose today and wanted to jump back on the Trump Train.”

Mr. DeSantis made time to have long conversations with every member who wanted to talk, according to attendees.

Mr. DeSantis is set to return to the nation’s capital on Friday to address a conference for the conservative Heritage Foundation before traveling to Austin, Texas, for an event.

From there, he will travel abroad on a trade mission that the governor’s office has not publicly announced. The itinerary includes Tokyo, where he’s scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, before heading to Seoul, Tel Aviv and London, according to people with knowledge of the planning.

Mr. Crenshaw said Mr. DeSantis talked on Tuesday mostly about Florida policy. The Texas congressman has been critical of Mr. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election but said he wasn’t planning to get involved.

Mr. DeSantis served in the House for six years before running for governor in 2018, but he has done little to maintain his congressional relationships. He has mostly eschewed gatherings in Washington in recent years for groups like the National Governors Association or the Republican Governors Association. While his event on Tuesday was billed as a meet-and-greet, several of the invited Republicans were former colleagues.

One of those lawmakers, Representative Darin LaHood of Illinois, said earlier in the day that he wasn’t ready to endorse Mr. DeSantis.

“Well, Governor DeSantis hasn’t announced that he’s going to run for president — that time will come,” Mr. LaHood said during an interview on Fox News. “Today is just an opportunity again to hear the great success story that Governor DeSantis has had in Florida and for my colleagues to get reacquainted with him.”

The event was held at an event space a short walk from the Capitol — and about three miles from the White House. The room was rented by a group called And To The Republic, which was formed by Tori Sachs, a Republican strategist from Michigan, and which has hosted other recent events for the Florida governor, as he has laid his presidential groundwork.

About two dozen protesters gathered outside, with bullhorns and loudspeakers to berate attendees with chants of “shame.” But Mr. DeSantis used a side door away from the protesters to enter.

The event was organized in part by Representatives Chip Roy of Texas and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, the two House Republicans who have endorsed Mr. DeSantis for president. A third House member, Representative Laurel Lee of Florida, endorsed Mr. DeSantis on Tuesday before the meet-and-greet.

Mr. Trump, the front-runner in the race, who opened his campaign five months ago, has collected 45 endorsements from House Republicans, including seven from Florida. Mr. Trump’s team announced three of those Florida Republican endorsements — Brian Mast, John Rutherford and Greg Stuebe — in the 24 hours before Mr. DeSantis landed in Washington.

Representative Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican, attended the Tuesday event but said his presence shouldn’t be viewed as an endorsement but as an opportunity to discuss policy issues in different parts of the country.

Mr. Buck said he sat next to Mr. DeSantis when both were members of the House Judiciary Committee and was “happy to be supportive in a general way.”

“Most of us who are attending are not publicly supporting him — I have gone to events for others and will continue to do that,” Mr. Buck said. “It’s just an opportunity for Ron to be in town and maybe raise his profile a little bit.”

Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.

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