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DeSantis’s dilemma: Rebuild Florida, run for president or both

Across Florida, Hurricane Ian has upended the life and property of nearly everyone in its path. As recovery begins and fatalities rise, sustained Category Four winds will continuously swirl around Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.). His career will be divided into “before” and “after Ian” — impacting where he makes political landfall.

Hurricane Ian is Ron DeSantis’s Sept. 11, 2001.

Before Ian:

The “Keep Florida Free”-branded “Top Gov”  is a national anti-woke culture warrior. He repeatedly applies the slogans “never back down” and “keep fighting” to anyone and anything that conflicts with his unabashed quest to prove he is Donald Trump’s MAGA heir apparent. Gov. DeSantis is on an easy path to reelection. Raising $172 million indicates all-systems-go for 2024. The DeSantis family believes the current political climate is ripe for his aggressive governing style.

After Ian:

Shred the playbook; everything has changed. The apocalyptic hurricane thrust DeSantis into the role of wartime commander. While Ian attacked, DeSantis swung into action,  channeling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the onset of Russia’s invasion. With that same sleepless look, DeSantis projected a confident, calm and resolute demeanor as he mobilized resources, took charge and maximized his media exposure.

As Mother Nature ravaged Florida, at a press briefing, the governor thanked President Biden for all the federal help, prompting The Hill headline: “Hurricane Ian leads to political whiplash for Ron DeSantis.”

On Wednesday, Biden surveyed the devastation and met with Gov. DeSantis, who steered clear of hugs. (DeSantis is keenly aware of political backlash that beset former Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) and Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) after they cozied up to President Obama.)  

Hurricane Ian is prompting a gargantuan rebuilding effort estimated at “’well over $100 billion, including uninsured properties, damage to infrastructure, and other cleanup and recovery costs.’” That “over $100 billion” price tag, based on a risk analyst’s report cited by Bloomberg, is comparable to the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild war-torn Europe from 1948 to 1951. The highly successful Marshall Plan cost $13.3 billion, approximately $150 billion in current dollars. And whereas parts of Florida resemble a war zone, a “Florida Marshall Plan” could cost as much and take longer than four years. (After all, this is Florida.) 

The prospect of DeSantis leading a $100 billion rebuilding effort could be his most challenging “After Ian” political dilemma and all-consuming task. Thus, conventional wisdom says the governor can’t run for president and lead “Florida’s Marshall Plan.” No human can do both. Moreover, he can’t go around bashing President Biden because DeSantis needs the Biden administration’s help with rebuilding.

Conversely, DeSantis knows the hurricane showcased his strong leadership skills as he dominated media coverage during the national crisis. (“National” because almost everyone knows someone who lives in the nation’s third most populous state.)

Then, as if on cue, I received an email from “Ready For Ron,” the draft-DeSantis-for-president PAC founded by veteran Republican operative Ed Rollins. The message from co-chair Lillian Rodríguez-Baz read, in part:

“Florida will endure this storm with Governor DeSantis at the helm, but then we need to work to ensure that he carries the same resolute leadership to the Presidency.”

And so begins the “After Ian,” Ready-for-Ron rah-rah — with superhuman “Governor DeSantis at the helm” while running for president.

Furthermore, Ian’s fallout could dog DeSantis before November’s election. The hardest-hit counties are among the state’s “reddest.” In 2020, Trump won Charlotte County with 63 percent of the vote. He won Collier at 62 percent, Lee with 59 and Sarasota at nearly 55 percent. But a report about Ian’s impact on vote-by-mail (very popular in Florida) with destroyed mailboxes and “destruction of polling places” could result in voting irregularities.

Nonetheless, assume DeSantis wins reelection and, around June 2023, jumps into the GOP primary race. Then, count on residents and the media to criticize the governor for “abandoning the state” as he flies around the nation running for president. Also, GOP primary rivals could privately or publicly echo that sentiment. Think about George Marshall of Marshall Plan fame running for president in 1948 at the onset of his plan.

Also problematic for presidential candidate DeSantis will be damaging Category Five winds carrying political fallout from any scandals, mismanagement and corruption. That is inevitable when untold billions of dollars are pumped into Florida. Imagine this scenario: DeSantis is engaged in debates or before a crucial primary when massive rebuilding irregularities are exposed, generating national headlines to which DeSantis must respond.

Indeed, the long rebuilding process will be plagued with vicious fights about stricter codes (especially for low-cost mobile homes) and whether to forgo rebuilding in the most vulnerable places — a future economic and management nightmare for the governor and Florida officials.

Then expect national repercussions after Florida’s demand spikes the cost of building materials and labor, bank pressure from mortgage defaults and the state’s unstable insurance market — in meltdown mode before Ian. All can and likely will lead to negative media coverage as DeSantis seeks the Oval Office.

Potentially, the young governor has three herculean tasks: Managing “Florida’s Marshall Plan,” building a presidential campaign organization and battling Donald Trump.

The former president could also champion the argument that DeSantis is “abandoning Florida” — Trump’s way of undermining the governor for daring to challenge him. Remember that GOP nomination polling shows Trump leading DeSantis by an average of 28 percentage points. And last Friday, former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told CBS News, “Donald Trump wants his old job back.”

A myriad of circumstances could force the governor to change his playbook and forgo a 2024 run — although it’s unlikely given his “fight-fight, never back down” approach to politics. Therefore, if DeSantis is easily reelected in November, then sometime in 2023, his “After Ian” presidential pitch could be: “From the White House, I am better positioned to rebuild Florida than from my office in Tallahassee.”  

Myra Adams writes about politics and religion for numerous publications. She is a RealClearPolitics contributor and served on the creative team of two GOP presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008. Follow her on Twitter @MyraKAdams.

Tags Biden DeSantis 2024 DeSantis v. Trump Donald Trump Hurricane Ian Hurricane Ian Joe Biden Ron DeSantis Ron DeSantis

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