When greeting the crowd at Brownwood Paddock Square, Gov. Ron DeSantis asked if they were glad to live in "the free State of Florida," a question that sparked cheers.
"Are you going to make sure on Nov. 8 we keep it that way?" he asked, prompting more cheers.
DeSantis' visit Sunday afternoon was for a "Keep Florida Free Pit Stop" campaign event. The rally marked another large political event in Brownwood, but it also helped underline how the 2022 midterm elections are in their final stage.
The visit drew a flood of sign-waving, cheering supporters who filled the square and gathered outside it. The governor, who is running for re-election, came on stage with his family.
"Aren't you proud of all 50 states, Florida has the best first lady of all of them?" DeSantis said.
He thanked his wife, Casey DeSantis, for her work to help victims of Hurricane Ian, and highlighted other hurricane relief efforts, such as the work to restore power in affected areas.
Gov. DeSantis also spoke about what's been done over the course of his approximately four years in office, including with the economy. At the end of the day, he said Florida is getting issues like having low taxes and being open right.
"So the task for us is to continue to do all we can to protect Floridians from what the federal government is doing to drive up inflation and drive up energy prices," DeSantis said.
He also discussed his response to the pandemic, law enforcement, education, and veterans, as well as border and election security.
His visit comes at a time when the election is fast approaching. The voter registration deadline was Oct. 11 in Florida, and Republicans have retained, and enlarged, their registration lead over Democrats.
Voting has also begun. In Sumter County alone, more than 3,300 vote-by-mail ballots have been returned. Next, early voting locations open Oct. 24 in Lake County, Oct. 25 in Sumter, and Oct. 27 in Marion.
However, even at this point, there are still undecided voters candidates can win.
"There are still people who are undecided A, if they're going to vote, and B, if they vote who they're going to vote for," said Susan MacManus, University of South Florida professor emeritus in political science. "And that's why you never stop campaigning up to and including the day of the election, because in a close race, the worst thing that can happen is to find out that a friend or family member didn't vote because they thought you had it in the bag.”
So, all over the state, candidates, despite a brief hiatus caused by Ian, have returned to the campaign trail for the home stretch.
On Saturday, Charlie Crist, DeSantis' Democratic challenger, and U.S. Rep. Val Demings, who is challenging Republican Incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio, appeared with first lady Jill Biden for an event in Orlando. There's a senatorial debate Tuesday, and a gubernatorial one Oct. 24.
And, of course, there's DeSantis' Sunday visit. The governor is a familiar face in The Villages, having visited 18 times since taking office for various reasons.
Sunday was No. 19.
"Gov. DeSantis recognizes that the support he has in The Villages translates into actual votes," said Samantha Scott, Sumter County Republican Party chair.
And there's a lot of votes at stake locally, since most of The Villages is in Sumter County, which consistently has one of the state's highest voter turnout rates.
In 2018, Sumter had the No. 1 turnout rate in Florida for the general election. For this year's August primary, it had the second-highest rate.
The county's also mainly red, with about 2.6 Republicans for every Democrat. While DeSantis narrowly won Florida as a whole in 2018, he took about 69% of the Sumter vote.
"We're big conservatives, and Ron DeSantis represents our conservative values," said George Wyman, a Village of Virginia Trace resident who attended the event.
"He amazes me every day," added his wife, Kelly Wyman.
Claudia Quinn, of the Village of Buttonwood, said she wanted DeSantis to be her governor.
"I love him. I love what he's done for our state," she said. "I love his policies of family, the United States, the economy, blocking our borders and lowering crime."
The Wymans, and Quinn, were some of the many people who waited in a long line to attend the event.
The Republican candidates who accompanied DeSantis, and DeSantis himself, urged the large crowd to head to the ballot box.
"It's time to elect strong leaders up and down the ballot," said John Temple, candidate for State House District 52. "It's time for the red wave to begin."
Outgoing State Senate President Wilton Simpson, who's running for state agriculture commissioner, echoed Temple's sentiments, saying it was an honor to serve with DeSantis as senate president, and that he was "looking forward to the red wave in November."
During his time at the microphone, State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, who's running for the Florida Senate District 11 seat, pointed out Congressman Daniel Webster, who was also present and is running for re-election, and said he was going to help take back the U.S. House of Representatives.
"I don't care what the pundits say, how close elections have been in the past," Ingoglia said. "This state, Florida, is a free state, and we are a red state."
Before leaving, DeSantis ended his time in Brownwood much the same way it began — with a call to vote. However, he had a specific message for Villagers.
"I need you to be out in full force," he said over the roar of the crowd. "On Nov. 8, I need a record turnout from The Villages."
Specialty Editor Leah Schwarting can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5375, or email@example.com.