Ron DeSantis was the clear loser in one fiercely fought — and it was fierce, at times — Republican presidential candidates debate.
It was not the big show aired on Fox, in which eight Republicans competed for the position of top alternative to former President Donald Trump for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination.
This debate, in South Florida, involved four drag queens — Rhonda Santis, Donna Trump, Michelle Pence, and Christine Christie — verbally slaying the candidates they were representing: DeSantis, Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence and former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
For the drag queens, who have felt increasing scorn and threats as conservative Republicans depict them as a threat to children, it was an opportunity to dish back.
“We are Republicans’ worst nightmare,” Santis said. “We want to let you know how we feel about these guys.”
Portrayed by Josh Ricks, who regularly performs as Layla St. Cartier, Santis said the country would be in a terrible place if DeSantis is elected president — and Florida would be in a world of hurt if DeSantis isn’t elected because he’d return home to serve his final two years as governor, angry over his humiliation.
“He’s going to come back to Florida pissed off at everyone. Things are this bad, and he wasn’t mad,” Santis said. “If he wins we’re (in trouble). If he doesn’t we’re (in trouble),” Santis said, using a more hard-edged word for “in trouble.”
Tyler Newell, who performs as Tyreisha Jones and represented Christie, urged political unity. “Strength in numbers is important,” Christie said. “We need to come together, to vote together.”
Drag queens have been pushed to the forefront of political culture wars, thanks largely to the controversy ginned up by DeSantis and others on the political right. DeSantis has championed conservative culture war positions as he geared up his campaign to appeal to Republican primary voters in states that will determine the party’s 2024 presidential nomination.
Hamburger Mary’s 14 locations around the country are independent and locally owned, according to the website. The Hamburger Mary’s in Orlando — where a similar drag debate was scheduled for Wednesday night — sued the state over a Florida law signed this year by DeSantis that punished venues for allowing children into “adult live performances.” Though it did not mention drag shows specifically, the sponsor of the legislation said it was aimed at those performances.
Regulators would be able to suspend or revoke licenses of restaurants, bars and other venues that violate the law. Also, it would prohibit local governments from issuing public permits for events that could expose children to the targeted behavior.
A federal judge blocked the law, and the DeSantis administration has appealed.
Three of the performers said the legal restrictions and the overall atmosphere have had an impact.
“All of these drag queens up here did not feel safe to be able to come from their house to the establishment we’re performing at,” Christie said, explaining it was too risky to be fully dressed and made up as drag queens when they weren’t in a safe space. “We can’t frolic along. We can’t just be us.”
In the current political environment, Christie said, “It’s not acceptable for us to be able to be yourself. DeSantis is basically putting all LGBTQ community back in the closet. … Why are we going to vote for someone who is just going to put us right back in and make it a living hell.”
Santis said during this year’s Pride month, drag queens who perform at Hamburger Mary’s in Wilton Manors — the unofficial capital of the LGBTQ+ community in South Florida — had to stay inside, and not be outside where they might be seen by passers-by.
“We couldn’t show who we are. We used to have the ability to go outside, express ourselves … and let the world know who we are. But it’s slowly being suppressed,” Santis said.
Though not understood or embraced by many, Pence said drag is important to many people. “If it was not for drag I would not be here right now. I’m able to express myself in a way that everyone may not understand,” Pence said.
The debate was sponsored by the Disney Defenders political action committee and held at Hamburger Mary’s in Wilton Manors.
Rocky Dixon, the manager on duty, said in an interview the establishment hosts a drag show almost every day. “Drag can be fun, unifying, exciting — and sometimes serious.”
“In 2023 you wouldn’t think this would be where we are, to think it went from something that’s all inclusive to being something that’s attacked,” Dixon said. “It’s something that we’ve all done. Drag is just basically put on your dad’s work uniform and pretend you’re a cop or put on your mom’s heels and pretend you’re a beauty pageant queen.”
Given that the debate was a drag show at a bar, there was plenty of double entendre and off color commentary, some of which worked and some didn’t.
“All these Republicans, they’re just running against Trump hoping they can be the next Mike. He ain’t nothing but a hung vice president,” Trump said.
(That refers to oft-stated commentary that the non-Trump Republicans are auditioning to be his 2024 running mate and to chants among some Jan. 6, 2021, insurrectionists calling to “hang Mike Pence.”)
Of her namesake, Trump said, “I think he’s just running from his convictions.”
Christie mocked her namesake, noting that Christie became an early prominent endorser of Trump after he lost his own campaign for the Republican nomination in 2016, unsuccessfully begged Trump to name him attorney general, and then turned on Trump after the 2020 election.)
Christie then added that she didn’t really want to attack the other candidates.
“We’re not here to break bridges.” (That was a reference to the infamous “Bridgegate” incident when the real Christie’s aides restricted access to the George Washington Bridge, snarling traffic in a community whose mayor hadn’t supported him when he was governor.)
Santis was especially scornful of DeSantis.
“DeSantis has made Florida a state of fear,” Santis said, citing a state anti-riot law championed and signed by DeSantis in response to 2020 social justice demonstrations the MAGA movement didn’t like; the Parental Rights in Education law, known as “Don’t Say Gay” to critics; and DeSantis’ recent defense of new state education standards that include instruction on “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
And when about three dozen people at the event — including some at the bar who might not have been paying much attention to the debate on stage — were asked to raise their hands to identify the “most ridiculous” Republican candidate, DeSantis was the winner.
This report includes information from The Associated Press and News Service of Florida.
Anthony Man can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @browardpolitics and on Post.news/@browardpolitics