As pandemic wanes, Florida’s DeSantis seizes national stage
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis struggled to contain the coronavirus pandemic, Democrats readied to pounce. The state’s economy was in tatters, infections and deaths were on the rise and there were doubts about the Republican’s plan to lead Florida out of crisis.
Now that the pandemic appears to be waning and DeSantis is heading into his reelection campaign next year, he has emerged from the political uncertainty as one of the most prominent Republican governors and an early White House front-runner in 2024 among Donald Trump’s acolytes, if the former president doesn’t run again.
As DeSantis’ national stature has risen, he has remained defiant in the face of continued attacks on his hard-line opposition to mask mandates and lockdowns.
“Hold the line. Don’t back down,” he told a crowd at a party fundraiser in Pittsburgh on May 20. “And in the state of Florida, with me as governor, I have only begun to fight.”
That fight will happen soon, as he campaigns for a second term and pressure builds on Florida Democrats to regain their footing in a state that has swung toward Republicans for several election cycles. Unless they find a new formula, Democrats could find themselves shut out of statewide office for the first time since Reconstruction.
“This isn’t just one race — this is two races in one, given how Ron DeSantis is trying to use a reelection win as a slingshot to then be the odds on favorite” for the GOP nomination in 2024, said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster in Miami. “If they manage to prevent him from getting reelected, they almost certainly eliminate any possibility of him running for president.”
DeSantis won in a nail-biter three years ago against Democrat Andrew Gillum, and Democrats worry whether they can field a candidate able to win back the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1994.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor who is now a Democrat, announced his campaign for governor this month. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat currently holding statewide office, has teased a June 1 date to publicly announce whether she will run.
Some Democrats had hoped U.S. Rep. Val Demings, who helped manage the first Trump impeachment and was considered as President Joe Biden’s running mate, would join the race. Instead, she is considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Marco Rubio.
Regardless of who gets in the Democratic contest, toppling DeSantis will be “a tall order,” said Ryan Tyson, a Tallahassee-based Republican pollster. “The Democrats fail to understand that the state of Florida is changing under their very noses.”
Florida’s population continues to boom, but many of the state’s new residents are older and come from parts of the country friendlier toward Republicans. Before last November’s presidential election, Republicans had narrowed the registration gap with Democrats to about 117,000. On Election Day four years earlier, Democrats had a 327,000 voter registration lead. Since then, Republicans have continued to gain — with the Democratic advantage now barely over 100,000.
Both sides will try to nationalize the race, partly to draw support from big-money donors from outside the state. For DeSantis, it’s also about raising his national profile.
That of course, probably will become a line of attack for Crist and Fried, who accuse DeSantis of being more interested in pursuing his political ambitions than in tackling the concerns of Floridians.
“Just like our former president, he always takes credit but never takes responsibility,” Crist said when he announced his bid for governor. In a video hinting at her possible entry into the race, Fried called DeSantis an “authoritarian dictator.”