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Ron DeSantis Plays Disaster Politics as Florida Again Reels From Coronavirus

Written by Susan Milligan and published in US News and World report on Aug. 4, 2021.

Disaster politics is part of the job for Florida politicians, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has had his share, responding to hurricane season and meeting with family of those killed in the Surfside condo collapse. And typically, Americans tend to rally around their leaders during a disaster.

Read: DeSantis Won’t Move on Masks as Florida COVID Wards Swell 

But the coronavirus has added an unusually political wrinkle for a governor and potential presidential candidate whose state is now experiencing a dangerous spike in pandemic-related infections and hospitalizations.

new poll released Wednesday showed DeSantis underwater on his approval rating, with 43.7% approving of his performance as governor and 48.5% disapproving, according to a StPetePolls survey of 3,952 Floridians. Surprising pollster Matt Florell, the poll had DeSantis narrowly losing reelection next year to one potential Democratic contender – former Gov. Charlie Crist – with 45.3% favoring Crist to 43.8% who want DeSantis re-elected.

And by a 2-to-1 margin – 62% to 31.9% – Floridians believe schoolchildren should be required to wear masks when they return to the classroom in two weeks, a strong rebuke to DeSantis and his recent executive order banning school districts from imposing mask mandates.

DeSantis has been considered the favorite for reelection next year, in part because he is very popular in his own party and in part because Democrats have struggled for years in statewide races in Florida. His determination to keep Florida commerce, schools and public spaces open during the pandemic brought criticism from some but played well with business owners and parents who didn’t want closed beach bars and schools.

Earlier in the summer, it looked like that tactic was paying off: Both cases of infection and hospitalizations from the virus were trending down, and DeSantis defenders needled those who had argued for tighter restrictions, saying the Florida governor had been proven correct.

But in the past couple of weeks, the health picture has darkened quickly in the Sunshine State. Cases and deaths are up, and hospitals are at capacity with COVID-19 patients, forcing them to cancel elective surgeries and import nurses from other states to staff the higher caseload.

Unlike other disasters – where the public is more or less united in blaming nature, but less so, the elected officials who manage the rebuilding – the virus presents a bigger risk for DeSantis as he seeks to keep his conservative base happy without having the public health crisis spiral out of control.

In other disasters, “he’s done the right thing. He’s appeared to be empathetically talking with grieving families, picking up a rock and some steel,” says J. Edwin Benton, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “There’s a lot to be said for that kind of politics everywhere. But is it going to boomerang on him, on the coronavirus?”

President Joe Biden – who just weeks previous had a chummy meeting with DeSantis and others while visiting Surfside and meeting with families – delivered a tougher message earlier this week to DeSantis and other governors banning mask mandates.

READ: Coronavirus Vaccines Highlight a Deadly Political Divide 

“I say to these governors: Please help. But if you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way,” Biden said at the White House on Tuesday. “The people are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”

DeSantis shot back on Wednesday, veering off during a speech on the Florida economy to talk about coronavirus politics.

“Joe Biden has taken to himself to single out Florida over COVID-19,” DeSantis said in Panama City. Biden is “importing more virus from around the world” by allowing immigrants to enter the country, the Florida governor said.

It was a message meant to appeal to an important constituency – the Donald Trump loyalists who don’t trust the government and don’t want to be told to wear a mask or get a vaccine, though DeSantis more recently has encouraged people to be vaccinated. His words also touch a nerve in a wider group of voters who are simply tired of having their lives changed so dramatically by the pandemic.

“It’s a smattering of folks,” ranging from those who still think COVID-19 is a hoax or think only old people get the virus or just resent government telling them what to do, says Michael Binder, faculty director of the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida. But with hospitalizations rising dramatically, “I think he’s got some problems coming his way,” Binder adds.

DeSantis is in an unusual position in that “he is simultaneously running two campaigns,” one for reelection next year and one for the 2024 Republican nomination for president, says Mac Stipanovich, a veteran GOP consultant and lobbyist in Florida.

If Florida suffers badly – and long-term – from the spike, it could hurt DeSantis among independents and moderate Republicans. “He’s betting on time, that we’ve got a big delta variant surge right now, and Florida is the epicenter. But that will pass,” Stipanovich says.

“He’s counting on how short the memories of people are. He just plays to the base and treads water, waiting for the virus to go away.”

DeSantis does seem to be cognizant of the hit to his approval rating, Florell says, meeting with hospital officials Wednesday after weeks of resisting having such a session. The political fallout for DeSantis will deepen, Florell says, as the increased hospitalization rate keeps extending further, preventing people from getting other kinds of health care or keeping them from visiting loved ones at the hospital.

But the governor has plenty of time to get past it, he says. “Voters have short memories. That’s one thing we’ve learned,” Florell adds.