The Memo: Will DeSantis’s star fall as Florida COVID numbers rise?
Florida’s coronavirus numbers keep rising, and the political peril looks potentially grave for Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
But, to the frustration of Democrats, his support isn’t showing much sign of collapsing just yet.
DeSantis is widely perceived as a likely contender for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination. He is the heir apparent to the support of MAGA America if former President Trump does not run again.
DeSantis has set his face against mandates for masks or vaccines, issuing executive orders banning such measures. He has also taken delight in his role as a foil for President Biden.
After Biden earlier this month said he wanted governors who were not helping in the battle against COVID-19 to “get out of the way” — an apparent reference to DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), though Biden named neither man — DeSantis hit back hard.
He said that he did not want to “hear a blip about COVID” from Biden. “If you are trying to lock people down, I am standing in your way and I’m standing for the people of Florida,” he added.
DeSantis faced his latest setback on Friday when a Florida judge ruled that the state could not punish school districts for imposing mask mandates in defiance of the governor’s executive orders.
DeSantis had earlier warned of “consequences” for breaking his ban. According to The Washington Post, more than half of all students in Florida are enrolled in public school districts that have imposed such mandates.
The Miami Herald calculated on Friday that Florida had averaged 242 COVID-19 related deaths and 22,556 new infections each day over the past week.
Both figures have risen higher during the current spike than they did last winter, before vaccinations were available.
The situation appalls Democrats in the state, who are eager to see DeSantis beaten when he runs for reelection next year.
The governor won office in 2018 by less than half a percentage point over Democrat Andrew Gillum. His two leading Democratic challengers next year are Rep. Charlie Crist, who previously served as governor as a Republican, and the state’s commissioner of agriculture, Nikki Fried.
Ashley Walker, who was Florida state director for then-President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, blamed DeSantis for putting his political ambitions — and his desire to appeal to the Trump base — ahead of the wellbeing of the state’s residents.
“It is damaging to Florida that he has taken these positions, because unfortunately people are dying and kids are getting sick and our hospitals are at capacity,” Walker told this column. “In terms of his positions on mask mandates and vaccine passports, I think those are positions consistent with his right-leaning Republican base. So while I think his positions are hurtful and harmful to everyday Floridians, I also think he is making a political calculation.”
The problem, from a Democratic perspective, is that those political calculations might be working — despite the jaw-dropping COVID-19 numbers.
Last month, a survey from GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio showed DeSantis to be the clear favorite for 2024 among Republican voters if Trump did not run.
In that scenario, DeSantis scored 39 percent support — more than double the standing of former Vice President Mike Pence, the next most popular choice among the numerous names tested in the poll.
The new COVID-19 surge appears to have hurt DeSantis to some extent in Florida, but the decline is not catastrophic by any stretch.
A new Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed DeSantis in positive territory — albeit by a thin margin — in terms of his overall job approval.
The governor scored 47 percent approval among Florida voters with 45 percent disapproving. His handling of COVID-19 was a weak spot — though again, not a devastating one: 51 percent disapproved and 46 percent approved on the issue.
In next year’s gubernatorial race, 48 percent of voters said he deserved to be elected and 45 percent said he did not.
Independent experts say those numbers speak to Florida’s almost-even partisan split, and are also emblematic of the polarization around the pandemic.
“They are still showing him in a divided Florida, where people forget he won by the narrowest margin in forever,” said Susan MacManus, a professor emerita at the University of South Florida.
MacManus added that the relative strength of Florida’s economy continues to shore up DeSantis’s standing. The biggest question, she said, was how parents react over the medium term to the fiery debate over masks in schools.
DeSantis is not backing down — on masks in schools, or on anything else.
Asked whether he would stick with his current position on mandates, DeSantis’s press secretary Christina Pushaw told this column: “Your question contains the implicit assumption that mask mandates work, but the empirical data says otherwise. There is no conclusive evidence that mask mandates anywhere in the USA have a statistically significant impact on the spread or prevalence of COVID-19.”
Pushaw cited California as one example, given that a statewide mask mandate did not prevent the Golden State from being ravaged by COVID-19.
More broadly, Pushaw added: “The governor is not changing his position on lockdowns, masks, or vaccine mandates. Floridians are free to wear masks if they choose to do so. But the state will not force this unscientific policy on anyone. Governor DeSantis respects his constituents’ rights; if not for his strong stance for freedom, most of the USA might still be subject to draconian lockdowns.”
The governor’s administration also pushed back hard on the Friday court ruling.
DeSantis’s communications director Taryn Fenske said the ruling was “made with incoherent justifications, not based in science and facts — frankly not even remotely focused on the merits of the case presented.”
The Florida Department of Education said, through communications director Jared Ochs, that it was “immensely disappointed” by the ruling, and argued that it “conflicts with basic and established rights of parents to make private health care and education decisions for children.”
However the court ruling shakes out, Florida’s startling COVID figures virtually guarantee there is a lot of suffering still to come.
But it’s by no means certain that DeSantis will pay a political price.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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