DeSantis was supposed to be the winner of the pandemic. Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

August 6, 2021   6 mins

Ron DeSantis was supposed to be one of the pandemic’s few political winners. His reputation as Florida’s Republican governor has soared thanks to his laissez-faire approach to Covid-19 — so much so that many consider him an early frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination in 2024.

But DeSantis’s victory lap has been rudely interrupted. Thanks to the Delta variant, the Sunshine State is now the epicentre of the pandemic in the US. In the last week, Florida has broken its records for the number of daily cases and hospitalisations. Last month, it was responsible for one in five of the country’s new cases, despite being home to 6% of Americans.

But as cases rise, DeSantis is steadfast in his refusal to impose the sorts of rules that have been reintroduced in other parts of the country. He has opposed a new indoor mask mandate and resisted vaccine passports. “In Florida, there will be no lockdowns,” DeSantis said recently. “There will be no school closures. There will be no restrictions and no mask mandates.”

Predictably, such stubbornness has cemented his status as a liberal hate figure. Pundits who have been waiting to say “I told you so” for months are making up for lost time. The ever-hyperbolic Washington Post columnist Jenifer Rubin, for example, thinks that by resisting further lockdowns, the likes of DeSantis have “formed a sort of death cult that elevates ‘owning the libs’ over the prevention of needless death”. In the New York Times, Paul Krugman argues that “at every stage of the pandemic DeSantis has effectively acted as an ally of the coronavirus”.

But there are also signs that the current surge is hurting DeSantis’s reputation beyond the opinion pages of America’s prestige media. Many assumed that DeSantis would cruise to re-election in 2022, but a poll published this week shows him trailing (albeit narrowly) Representative Charlie Crist, a one-time Republican who served as governor from 2007 to 2011 now running for his old job as a Democrat.

“For as long as we have to contend with the pandemic, then Ron DeSantis lives or dies politically based on how Covid-19 is impacting Florida,” says Fernand Amandi, a Democratic strategist based in Miami. Florida pollster Brad Coker agrees DeSantis is taking a huge gamble “By sticking to his guns and being consistent, he is seen as a strong executive,” he says. “But he’s also gambling that Covid will not be a much of a factor by the end of the summer”, giving him a clean run at 2022 and potentially 2024.

DeSantis, it’s worth noting, has been here before. After locking down early on, his was one of the first states to reopen — much to the horror of many commentators. He focused state resources on surging hospital capacity, protecting care homes and PPE supply. He has held firm ever since, resisting pressure to reintroduce rules.

The lethal spikes never arrived with quite the force that so many public health experts predicted. In terms of deaths from Covid-19, Florida’s performance has been middling by US standards. But it has largely avoided the costly social distancing restrictions implemented in other parts of the country. Employment fell by 4.6% in Florida last year, compared with 10.4% in New York and 8% in California. Between the start of November and the end of February, case rates in the three states were roughly the same, only businesses in Florida were open at full capacity.

Since the pandemic started, DeSantis’s greatest asset has been liberal overstatement. His decision to reopen earned him the nickname “DeathSantis”, while photographs of busy beaches (made to look busier thanks to long-lens foreshortening) were presented as evidence of the height of “Florida man” stupidity.

No doubt he hopes his opponents’ previous hyperbole will soften the political impact of the current Delta wave. Moreover, DeSantis firmly believes that restrictions and mask mandates are harder to justify when vaccines have been widely available for months — something which was the stated view of the White House and the CDC until a few weeks ago.

There is, however, another shadow looming over DeSantis’s political future: the man to whom he owes his rapid rise: Donald Trump. Without the then President’s endorsement, his underdog 2018 gubernatorial bid would likely have failed. That race — and one television advertisement in particular — established DeSantis as a kind of Trump wannabe.

In the 30-second viral video, DeSantis’s wife Casey tells viewers: “Everyone knows my husband Ron was endorsed by President Trump, but he’s also an amazing dad.” DeSantis is then shown teaching his children to build a wall, reading to them from Trump’s memoir The Art of the Deal, and reciting “Make America Great Again”. Mrs DeSantis then says: “People say Ron’s all Trump. But he’s so much more.”

Needless to say the joke was lost on many. But while the Florida governor is capable of nauseating sycophancy towards the 45th president, the relationship between DeSantis and Trump is more complicated than it first seems.

In a world of mini-Trumps, there are comparatively few stylistic similarities between DeSantis and the former President. Yes, there’s the boxy tailoring and the Trumpian pinch of index finger and thumb while he speaks. But DeSantis offers a very different sort of pugilistic conservatism. Trump is a booming heavyweight slugger. DeSantis is a nasal and nimble counterpuncher. Where the former president is off-the-cuff, unapologetic and unfiltered, DeSantis is lawyerly, careful, strategic, even defensive.

Republican strategist Luke Thompson attributes the idea of DeSantis as Trump to “wishful thinking, pig ignorance or wilful dishonesty”. It is important, he argues, to distinguish between DeSantis the governor and DeSantis the media phenomenon. Prior to the pandemic, DeSantis was governing in the mould of his moderate GOP Floridian predecessors, Jeb Bush and Rick Scott. He was focused on education and on broadening out his appeal to beyond the core Republican vote.

Amandi describes DeSantis as “a canny interpreter of the political environment without the Trump histrionics, which makes him formidable.” Adding to his strengths, says Amandi, is a “nimbleness in cherry picking issues that makes him palatable to moderates. That shows real political tact.”

Then there’s the role of the media. DeSantis emerged as a leading national figure during the pandemic in part because liberal outlets needed a red state counterpoint to Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor whose early pandemic press conferences — part-public health briefings, part-motivational speeches — earned gushing praise.

But that script didn’t quite play out as Cuomo and his media cheerleaders hoped. With the pandemic raging, Cuomo was busy writing a self-laudatory memoir, which earned Cuomo a $4m advance while his advisers were busy trying to cover up deaths in his state’s care homes. Then came the accusations of sexual harassment, corroborated by a report into the New York Governor’s conduct published this week.

“As Cuomo has looked more and more like the absolute monster that he is and exposed the American media as the highly tendentious lickspittle idiots that they are, DeSantis’s standing with Republican primary voters has improved drastically,” says Thompson. “Every unfair attack, every ludicrous effort in character assassination has really bonded the GOP voting bloc to DeSantis and raised his profile.”

Compared with Cuomo, DeSantis’s reputation is relatively untainted. But will his stock continue to rise?

DeSantis has firmed up his conservative bona fides with a series of laws on hot-button Republican issues. He has passed a (possibly unconstitutional) bill aimed at banning critical race theory from being taught in schools. Though he has refused to explicitly endorse Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen, he is one of a number of Republican governors to indulge those claims by introducing a slew of election safeguards. In doing so, he is prioritising popularity among Republicans nationwide over broadening his appeal in Florida.

Nor must we forget that while Florida may be the home of the last Republican president, sulking in his Palm Beach palace, it’s also a veritable graveyard of overhyped GOP contenders. Former Governor Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, the state’s Cuban-American senior senator, were Donald Trump’s highest profile victims in the 2016 primary.

But perhaps it’s not so surprising that Republicans from Florida often have their eyes on higher office. After all, Florida is a 21-million-person rebuttal to some of the core assumptions of the contemporary American Left. It is a growing, multiracial, economically vibrant state. And it is only getting redder.

Democrats are eager to paint the modern GOP as a rump party supported by a shrinking demographics in America’s declining backwaters. “I won in the places that are optimistic, diverse, moving forward,” boasted Hillary Clinton after her 2016 defeat. Florida is a brash, cacophonous repudiation of that Democratic assumption. In other words, Florida is a feel-good story for the GOP. And by making himself synonymous with that story, DeSantis can certainly mount a credible 2024 bid.

But the big, orange elephant in the room is the former president, who continues to tease that he will run again. That puts DeSantis and Trump on a collision course. An early skirmish came last month, when the governor asked that the former president postpone a rally in the state scheduled for shortly after the collapse of an apartment building in Surfside. Trump went ahead with a raucous rally. DeSantis, meanwhile, cut a more sombre figure, appearing alongside President Biden in a visit to the site of the catastrophe.

It was proof, if we needed it, that DeSantis is conscious of the need to balance the support of Trump’s base with the risk of alienating other voters. How ironic, then, that whether or not he can keep this balancing act up probably depends not on Florida’s Covid-19 numbers, but on the decisions of the famously capricious and impulsive man to whom he owes his political career.

Oliver Wiseman is the deputy editor of The Spectator World and author of the DC Diary, a daily email from Washington. He is a 2021-22 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow