As pandemic subsides, Florida’s DeSantis takes national arena

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis struggled to contain the coronavirus pandemic, Democrats braced themselves 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 pull Florida out of the crisis.

Now that the pandemic appears to be waning and DeSantis is heading for his re-election campaign next year, he has emerged from political uncertainty as one of the most prominent Republican governors and one of the White House’s top favorites. in 2024 among the acolytes of Donald Trump, if the former president no longer presents himself.

As DeSantis’ national stature grew, he remained defiant in the face of continued attacks on his hardline opposition to mask mandates and blockages.

“Stay in line. Don’t back down,” he told a crowd at a fundraiser in Pittsburgh on May 20. “And in the state of Florida, with me as governor, I don’t just start beating me.

That fight will come soon, as he campaigns for a second term and pressure intensifies on Florida Democrats to regain a foothold in a state that has shifted to Republicans for several election cycles. Unless they find a new formula, Democrats could find themselves excluded from state functions for the first time since Reconstruction.

“It’s not just a race – it’s two races in one, as Ron DeSantis tries to use a re-election victory as a slingshot and then be the front-runner” for the GOP nomination in 2024, said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic Pollster in Miami. “If they manage to prevent him from being re-elected, they almost certainly eliminate any possibility of him running for president.”

DeSantis won three years ago against Democrat Andrew Gillum, and Democrats are worried whether they can field a candidate who can reclaim the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1994.

U.S. Representative Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor who is now a Democrat, announced his gubernatorial campaign this month. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat currently in office in the entire state, announced the date of June 1 to publicly announce whether she would run.

Some Democrats were hoping U.S. Representative Val Demings, who helped manage Trump’s first impeachment and was seen as President Joe Biden’s running mate, would join the race. Instead, she is considering a race for the seat of the United States Senate now held by Republican Marco Rubio.

Regardless of who enters the Democratic contest, toppling DeSantis will be “a tall order,” said Ryan Tyson, a Republican pollster based in Tallahassee. “Democrats fail to understand that the state of Florida is changing right under their noses.”

Florida’s population continues to grow, but many of the state’s new residents are older and come from more Republican-friendly parts of the country. Prior to 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 lead of 327,000 voters on the voters list. Since then, Republicans have continued to win – with the Democratic advantage now just over 100,000.

Both sides will try to nationalize the race, in part to gain support from large donors outside the state. For DeSantis, it is also about raising its national profile.

This, of course, will likely become a line of attack for Crist and Fried, who accuse DeSantis of being more interested in pursuing his political ambitions than addressing the concerns of Floridians.

“Like our former president, he always takes credit but never takes responsibility,” Crist said when he announced his candidacy for governor. In a video hinting at his possible entry into the race, Fried called DeSantis an “authoritarian dictator.”

Appealing to Trump supporters might be smart as the Republican Party deepens its allegiance to the former president, whose shadow will no doubt hang over high-profile races like the one about to take place in Florida.

During his visit to Pittsburgh, DeSantis applauded Trump for acknowledging the military and economic threats posed by China and sympathized with him for his battles against social media companies such as Twitter, which banned him from his platform. form.

The governor “decidedly made an effort to appeal to the Trump base. The downside, of course, is that the former president is so polarizing, ”said Kevin Wagner, political scientist at Florida Atlantic University. “But in the state of Florida, where the former president has done very well, appealing to his voter base seems like a fairly prudent move.”

DeSantis’ ambitions could become muddled if Trump shows up in 2024. It would force DeSantis and other hopefuls to wait or start redefining themselves beyond Trump’s shadow.

Democrats believed the pandemic would be a strong line of attack against DeSantis.

In November, Floridians were roughly evenly divided over the governor’s handling of the pandemic, with 49% approving and 50% disapproving, according to AP VoteCast. In the same poll, 48% had a favorable opinion of DeSantis while 45% considered it unfavorably.

But with around 18 months until the November 2022 election, it remains to be seen how the pandemic might play out in the countryside. The pandemic has become a key talking point against what DeSantis has called “the militant left.”

“We have saved millions of livelihoods from the weight of the blockades,” he said in Pittsburgh. “All I can say to any state that hasn’t followed suit: open your state, open your schools, take away those mask warrants, let people live and prosper. “

While he spent his early years as governor of Florida portraying himself as an advocate for the environment, including the state’s beloved Everglades and endangered coasts, and even as a booster for teachers under -paid out of state, DeSantis has recently taken a sharper turn to the right.

During the recently concluded legislative session in Florida, DeSantis was successful in pushing through a “riot law” that countered the Black Lives Matter movement. He won a law that exposed social media companies that the governor says censor conservative thinking.

In a recent Fox News appearance – one of many – DeSantis introduced a freshly signed law that tightens voting rules amid unproven claims among Trump supporters that Trump was denied a second term due to electoral irregularities.

“The governor’s priorities have certainly been met, and that can only be good for him,” said Susie Wiles, a Republican strategist who helped Trump win Florida last year and continues to work for him. “What’s good for him has turned out to be good for the state, which allows him to be re-elected next year.”

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Associated Press editor Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.

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