Pressure mounts for DeSantis in Florida

ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Florida asks Supreme Court to block CDC's limits on cruise ship industry Noem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event MORE is facing mounting pressure on the home front as he looks to cement his superstar status among Republicans nationally.

Over the past week, COVID-19 infections have surged in Florida to the point that the state now accounts for about 1 in 5 new cases. The vaccination rate, meanwhile, has begun to level off. At the same time, Florida’s Gulf Coast is suffering from a particularly harsh bout of red tide, prompting local officials to call on the governor to declare a state of emergency.

The troubles in Florida are putting pressure on DeSantis as he seeks to carve out a more robust national profile for himself in anticipation of what his supporters and critics alike see as a potential 2024 presidential run.

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He took a fundraising trip to California last month ahead of his 2022 reelection bid. Over the weekend, he traveled to Texas to visit the southern border, where Florida law enforcement is deployed. And he was in Aspen, Colo., earlier this week for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association.

“He’s running for president, not for governor. He’s much more interested in fundraising and shallow and destructive appeals to the MAGA base,” Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida, said, using the acronym for “Make America Great Again,” former President TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? MORE’s campaign slogan.

“The guy has a big responsibility, and he’s abdicating it because of his own political aspirations,” Kennedy added.

The rise in COVID-19 cases in the state, combined with DeSantis’s recent trip to the southern border, prompted a scathing editorial from the Orlando Sentinel’s editorial board on Tuesday that suggested that the governor was more interested in “burnishing his 2024 presidential ambitions” than addressing Florida’s public health challenges.

“To save lives, he must start acting like Florida’s governor and less like he’s auditioning for Turning Point USA or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott or whatever Fox News host comes calling,” the editorial reads.

Christina Punshaw, a spokesperson for DeSantis, dismissed the notion that the governor has prioritized his national political presence over his responsibilities at home, accusing his critics of pushing a false narrative.

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“Whenever Democrats and their media allies, like the Orlando Sentinel, cannot find anything legitimate to criticize Governor DeSantis about, they simply make things up,” Punshaw said in an email. “This is yet another example. To say the Governor is more focused on national politics than Florida politics is patently absurd and flies in the face of empirical evidence.”

Still, the list of challenges in Florida come at a critical juncture in DeSantis’s political career.

He’s up for reelection next year and is already facing opposition from two prominent Democrats, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Rep. Charlie CristCharles (Charlie) Joseph CristPressure mounts for DeSantis in Florida Biden takes steps to review Cuba policy after protests 2020 GOP candidate announces primary bid to replace Crist in Florida MORE (D-Fla.), who have hit DeSantis over everything from the recent red tide outbreak to his decision to deploy state law enforcement to the southern border.

At the same time, DeSantis has emerged as a rising star within the GOP, stirring speculation of a potential presidential run.

Trump is still floating the possibility of a comeback campaign in 2024. But without him on the ticket, DeSantis is seen as a top contender. A survey from Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio shared with Politico earlier this month found the Florida governor with a nearly 30-point lead in a Republican primary without Trump.

“DeSantis  really besides Donald Trump  is kind of on top of the world with Republicans right now,” one Republican consultant said. “And really, considering that he’s still in office, he’s going to take a lot of the criticism that Democrats used to direct into President Trump.”

DeSantis, who has maintained that he is focused on getting reelected next year, has been quick to push back against his critics who have accused him of burnishing his national political profile.

Speaking to reporters in Texas over the weekend, he made the case that the surge in unauthorized border crossings posed a significant threat to his state, saying that 70 percent of those apprehended by law enforcement ultimately intended to make their way to Florida.

DeSantis also paid a visit to St. Petersburg on Wednesday, where he insisted that his administration had responded appropriately to the red tide that has ravaged Florida’s Gulf Coast over the past week and killed more than 600 tons of marine life.

He said that before he took office in 2019, the state lacked dedicated funding to respond to red tide but that his administration had “developed a dedicated funding source in the annual budget.”

“We’ve planned for mitigation efforts, we’ve appropriated the money for mitigation efforts and we’re using the funds just as they were intended to be used, and we’re proud that we thought ahead and had the money ready to go,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic is the issue drawing perhaps the most attention in Florida. The state has experienced a sharp increase in new COVID-19 infections in recent weeks as the vaccination rate has stagnated and the more contagious delta variant works its way through the country. In a particularly alarming statistic, the White House said last week that new infections in Florida accounted for about 20 percent of cases nationally.

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DeSantis brushed aside concerns about the recent surge in new infections on Monday, telling reporters that it was a “seasonal” occurrence and predicted that cases would start declining in August.

“I told people months ago we would see higher prevalence because it's a seasonal virus and this is the seasonal pattern that it follows in the Sunbelt states, particularly in Florida,” he said.

That response echoed his approach to the coronavirus pandemic over much of the past year, when he defied calls from public health experts for more restrictive lockdowns, often to the cheers of conservatives. His reelection campaign recently began selling merchandise taking aim at Anthony FauciAnthony FauciGOP Rep. Cawthorn says he wants to 'prosecute' Fauci The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel McConnell pushes vaccines, but GOP muddles his message MORE, the federal government’s top infectious diseases expert who has become the face of the national response to the pandemic.

DeSantis’s laissez faire approach to the pandemic has, in many ways, fared better than many predicted it would. And the governor’s office noted that the vast majority of coronavirus-related hospitalizations are among unvaccinated patients. DeSantis has repeatedly urged Floridians to get vaccinated, saying on Wednesday that the shots “are saving lives.”

DeSantis remains a beloved figure for many Republicans, who see the governor as a possible successor to Trump and his brand of indignant conservative populism. And while there’s a dearth of recent public polling in Florida, a series of surveys in May showed DeSantis’s approval above water.

“DeSantis’s approval ratings remain above 50 percent,” GOP donor Dan Eberhart said. “It’s going to take more than the delta variant and a few dead fish on the beach to knock DeSantis out of the top spot with Republicans.”

“These are short-term jabs meant to bruise a political opponent,” he added. “There’s no knockout punch here that is capable of taking Gov. DeSantis down.”