Florida’s ‘mini-Trump’ under growing pressure
When he ran for governor in 2018 he was not the favorite to become the Republican candidate. But he did. He was then criticized for tying himself too closely to Donald Trump as he faced Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee. But DeSantis won again.
Now, however, DeSantis’s administration is losing in its fight to control the coronavirus outbreak in his state. Florida broke its previous record for daily coronavirus deaths on Tuesday, and the state’s health department confirmed almost 14,000 new cases on Thursday, the second highest single-day total since the pandemic began in March. If Florida were a country, it would be one of the world’s biggest hotspots.
Mayors of the worst-hit areas of the state met DeSantis this week, thanking him for coronavirus aid but also urging him to issue a statewide mask mandate and to show leadership.
Miami Beach’s mayor, Dan Gelber, said: “I think we need a sense of urgency in our community right now, a true sense of urgency, and I think it needs to come from the president, from the governor.”
The Orlando Sentinel editorial board wrote this week: “If coronavirus were a hurricane, it seemed to reach category 5 status over the weekend. More than ever, Florida needs decisive, resolute guidance to get through this storm.
“Instead, Ron DeSantis continues to muddle and spin his way through. For every good move, there have been too many missteps.”
Though the number of cases has largely been fueled by younger people, the state has seen more than 4,600 deaths so far, and there’s been a 74% spike in coronavirus cases in assisted living and nursing facilities, a particularly alarming statistic for Florida’s older population.
Yet DeSantis this week claimed the media had fueled complacency among residents, and described the mounting cases as “a blip” while acknowledging: “We’re now at a higher blip than where we were in May and the beginning of June.”
And while governors in deep red states like Alabama and Arkansas are changing tack as their cases rise, pausing or reversing reopening plans and issuing mandatory mask orders, there’s no expectation that the Florida governor will follow suit.
In many ways, DeSantis, who is sometimes referred to as a “mini-Trump”, has put himself parallel with the president on governing during the pandemic.
He’s pushed to reopen schools as soon as possible, despite widespread safety concerns, was slower than other governors to issue an initial stay-at-home order, and has championed the reopening of the economy at every turn, even supporting the reopening of Disney World in Orlando last week.
DeSantis, a former lieutenant commander in the navy with degrees from Yale and Harvard, served three terms in the US House of Representatives before running for governor. He framed his candidacy around his support for Trump, and continues to keep close, positive ties with the president.
After he won the governorship, DeSantis enjoyed a brief honeymoon, with some Democrats approving of the steps he took on the environment and schools. He won bipartisan support for signing into law a large teacher pay raise.
“He made a few moves after he was elected that would be considered environmental friendly, in reference to the Everglades,” Florida Democratic national committeeman Alan Clendenin said. “And that kind of snookered some people into making them think we’ve got a new kind of governor. But we don’t.”
DeSantis is often described as smart by both his critics and his allies, who defend his strategy on the outbreak.
“He’s really smart, and he distills complex information, processes it very quickly and distills it down to a decision relatively quickly. There’s a level of impatience,” the Florida state senator Tom Lee, who at times has quarreled with the governor, said.
“He is on the move, and he’s not afraid to make decisions.”
Republicans also describe him as a small government or libertarian type of Republican, and point to that as part of the rationale behind his approach.
The Florida-based Republican strategist Brett Doster said: “He does believe emphatically that there is a serious role … in fact, maybe government’s primary serious role is to protect people. To put public safety first. That’s the priority of government. And that’s a pretty conservative ideal.”
Doster added: “With that being said, he’s also a libertarian, and a free-market libertarian, and we’re now dealing with a conflict between, I think, trying to address public safety concerns – which is an appropriate role for government, in his mind – but also this notion that government should not be intruding itself in free markets and shutting everything down.”
DeSantis’s approval ratings are still above water, unlike Trump, who is now trailing his presidential rival Joe Biden.
Two recent polls found the Florida governor’s favorables above 50%. But they are slipping. A Cygnal poll conducted for the Alliance of Market Solutions in late June found his unfavorable rating had jumped from 28.5% to 40.5%. A July Fox News poll found DeSantis’s unfavorable ratings climb from 33% to 40%.
But as the unwanted statistics have piled up, DeSantis has dug in. He’s blamed unwanted data results on a misunderstanding of what should be reported. He barred a reporter from a press conference after she requested social distancing at the governor’s briefings. And he’s maintained that the rising cases should not cause alarm.
Rebekah Jones worked in DeSantis’s administration as the dashboard manager for the state’s public resource of Covid-19 data. She was fired for, according to Jones, not manipulating the data. DeSantis has denied that criticism. Jones has set up her own data display since she was fired.
In an email, Jones said: “When every expert says masks should be mandatory, and you don’t take action immediately, or even after the largest single-day increase in cases in this country to date, you have failed the scientists doing the research, the medical staff caring for the sick, and the people of Florida who ultimately pay the price for his indefensible unwillingness to listen to the facts.”
She said: “The people working under DeSantis’s political appointees have no respect for him, view his staff as incompetent morons, and come to me with details about how negligent the state is because they don’t trust anyone working for him and are afraid of getting fired if they speak out.”
But his allies describe his stewardship of the pandemic positively, and say he’s made decisions based on science and data, and within the bounds of conservative orthodoxy.
The Florida congressman Matt Gaetz said in an interview: “I think Governor DeSantis has shown strong leadership and has utilized partnerships at the local level effectively. He has not strong-armed communities.
“Frankly, the governor understands the limit of the government’s power to alter behaviors. If people in rural north Florida aren’t going to wear a mask, some pronouncement from Tallahassee isn’t going to alter that behavior.”
DeSantis is often mentioned as a potential 2024 presidential candidate by Republicans and Democrats.
“He wants to be president,” Clendenin said. “He’s one of these Manchurian candidates. Everything he’s done is based on a plan.”
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