DeSantis leans into COVID-19 treatment fight amid 2024 chatter

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is opening up a new front in his battle with President Biden over COVID-19 policies — this time over the administration’s decision to restrict the use of a pair of monoclonal antibody treatments for the virus — amid speculation about a potential 2024 presidential bid.

DeSantis has ramped up his criticism of the decision in recent days, describing it as a kind of “medical authoritarianism” that drastically limits the options of those infected with COVID-19, despite evidence that the antibody treatments are ineffective against the omicron variant that is currently sweeping the country.

The White House has so far dismissed DeSantis’s criticism and has pushed vaccines and booster shots as the most effective way to combat the variant.

For DeSantis, who achieved star status among conservatives as a fierce opponent of federal COVID-19 policies, the fight with the Biden administration over the antibody treatments is the latest effort by the Florida governor to carve out a unique political lane ahead of a potential White House run.

“His message — whether it’s on the antibodies or the lockdowns or the school closures — is the same: The White House has no idea how to get COVID under control and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to keeping people safe,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist and former congressional candidate.

“For DeSantis, this is a lot bigger than just COVID,” he added. “It’s about a larger message that DeSantis would like to take to the American people should he run in 2024.”

DeSantis shuttered all of Florida’s monoclonal antibody treatment sites this week after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limited the use of the therapies over evidence that they are ineffective at treating the omicron variant. The FDA’s decision drew swift backlash from DeSantis, who has aggressively promoted the antibody treatments.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday defended the decision to limit the monoclonal antibody treatments from Regeneron and Eli Lilly, noting that they “do not work against omicron and they have side effects.” She also pointed out that the Biden administration has sent other treatments to Florida that have proven to be effective against the omicron variant.

Still, DeSantis hasn’t shown any signs of backing down from the fight. In a fundraising email sent to supporters on Wednesday, the Florida governor seized on the decision, casting it as the latest in a long list of missteps by Biden.  

“Biden’s entire term as president has been one disaster after another. A border crisis that is raging, inflation that’s skyrocketing and impacting millions of Americans and the list goes on,” the email says. “But, instead of addressing any one of the numerous problems he’s created, he would rather focus his energy on stripping elderly Floridians — most of whom have been vaccinated — of their potentially life-saving treatments.”

While the pushback from DeSantis is largely in line with the posture he’s maintained against federal coronavirus policy over much of the past two years, it also foreshadows what could become a central theme of a potential 2024 campaign.

“He’s saying let’s have the vaccine and some other options as well, but I think that gets at a much more powerful message,” said one Republican consultant, who has worked on presidential campaigns. “One of the things that the past two years has caused a lot of people to do is question things that we take as established facts. Maybe there are other ways to do things.”

“That’s something that voters like,” the consultant added. “Voters like choice, and DeSantis is positioning himself as the guy that’s going to give them a choice.”

The argument could be a politically potent one for DeSantis, who is also facing reelection later this year. Biden’s overall approval rating has been on the decline for months, and a recent CBS News-YouGov poll showed that fewer than half of Americans approve of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, down from a high of 67 percent last March.

The feud over the antibody treatments also signals another effort by DeSantis to separate himself from former President Trump, who is believed to be weighing another presidential campaign. Trump has begun more aggressively pushing vaccinations, going as far as to take a thinly veiled shot at DeSantis this month for refusing to say whether he has received a booster shot.

Despite promoting the COVID-19 vaccines early last year, DeSantis has put more political stock in monoclonal antibody treatments while pushing back against vaccine mandates and fanning the outrage of some voters who remain wary of the vaccines and frustrated with pandemic-related restrictions.

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, said DeSantis is employing a familiar tactic, one that he used in 2018 when he won the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

“He’s doing what he did to win the primary against Adam Putnam in 2018: tack to the right, be in front of the culture wars, paint his opponent as ‘only center right,’ and portray himself as willing to fight harder for the right,” Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, said. “Same playbook.”

Polling shows that DeSantis is the current favorite to win the 2024 GOP nod if Trump ultimately decides against another run.

How he would fare against Biden in a general election matchup, however, is more tenuous. A Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey released last month found Biden leading the Florida governor 43 percent to 36 percent. More recently, a Politico-Morning Consult survey released this week showed Biden ahead of DeSantis 44 percent to 39 percent.

If Biden doesn’t seek a second term in the White House, there are signs that DeSantis might be more competitive against other Democrats. A Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey shared with The Hill this week showed DeSantis statistically deadlocked with Vice President Harris at 40 percent to 39 percent.

Still, there’s a long way to go between now and the 2024 presidential election. DeSantis has sought to tamp down speculation about a future White House bid and has said that he’s focused on his reelection bid this year.

There’s also a risk for any would-be White House hopeful being considered a front-runner more than two years before the 2024 presidential primaries begin. Eberhart, the Republican donor, said that DeSantis “runs the risk of peaking too early.”

But even DeSantis’s critics say that the Florida governor has a unique ability to stay in the political limelight, especially when it comes to getting the attention of the conservative voters who will largely determine the GOP’s next presidential nominee.

“Say what you will about the guy, he seems to inherently understand that you come out swinging and swinging against anyone or anything that the base hates,” Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist, said. “If he keeps on doing that on issues large, small, existent or nonexistent, he’s going to find success.”  

Tags coronavirus treatments COVID-19 Donald Trump Florida Jen Psaki Joe Biden monoclonal antibody treatment Ron DeSantis

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