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Ron DeSantis, not Trump, is public enemy No. 1 for Democrats right now

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  • Democrats view the Florida governor’s mansion as a priority heading into 2022. 
  • They think the latest COVID surge and other issues help them make their case that DeSantis must go. 
  • A gubernatorial loss could derail DeSantis’s possible path to the White House in 2024.

Democrats are escalating their attacks on Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, and it’s about more than his gubernatorial race. 

DeSantis is seen by both Republicans and Democrats as a formidable candidate for president in 2024, should Donald Trump not run. In the meantime, Democrats view the nearest prize — the Florida governor’s office — as within their grasp given that it’s always a close race and it was last decided, in 2018, by only 32,000 votes. 

Defeating DeSantis in his gubernatorial race would by extension snuff the rising 42-year-old star from making a bid for the White House two years later, or at least make it harder for him.

In their attacks, Democrats are going after DeSantis’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit its worst level yet in Florida. They’re also seizing on the existing battles he is recently entangled in, whether against businesses, the media, or schools, as they seek to deny DeSantis a second term next year. 

“For anyone who wants to stop Ron DeSantis in 2024, the easiest way to do that is in 2022 because he’s vulnerable and there is a huge election,” Sam Newton, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, told Insider. “There are a lot of eyes on Florida and we are excited to lead the charge to try to dethrone him.” 

Democrats’ offensive is taking shape. Much of their messaging casts DeSantis as a man focused more on playing politics than stopping the virus and saving lives. The Democratic National Committee is tracking his travel, and Democrats are blasting DeSantis for frequent Fox News hits. And the DNC estimates he appeared at about a dozen fundraising events in other states since the highly transmissible Delta variant was first identified in the US in March. 

They say all of these actions show DeSantis’ No. 1 focus is raising his profile and appeasing the Republican base — just like someone else they know. 

“He’s Trump’s mini-me,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Florida and former DNC head, told Insider. “He has mimicked Trump from day one. He is only caring and making decisions that are designed to pump up the Trump base.” 

Rep. Charlie Crist, who is running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Florida, told Insider that it was “critical” for Democrats to oust DeSantis from the state’s governor’s mansion. 

“He obviously seems to me to be more concerned about voters in Iowa than he does about the people of Florida. It’s tragic,” Crist, who was the state’s governor as a Republican from 2007 to 2011, said.

Rep. Charlie Christ, a Democrat from Florida, is running again for his former role as governor.
Reuters/Gus Ruelas

Seizing on existing battles

The DNC started singling out DeSantis in July as coronavirus cases in the state surged and as he resisted the kinds of restrictions that blue states were taking. Democrats are pulling from fights that have happened out in the open in recent weeks and months. 

For instance, the governor feuded with the Associated Press over a story that DeSantis’ team argued promoted a false narrative that he was playing favorites on coronavirus treatments. He went to the US-Mexico border to tear into the Biden administration over its immigration policies. 

Cruise ship companies in Florida are asking passengers for coronavirus vaccine proof despite DeSantis trying to stop them. Parents are challenging the governor in court over his ban on mask mandates in schools — a ban that even some Republicans disagree with and several districts are ignoring. 

The Coronavirus War Room, a Democratic dark-money-funded group that formed in March 2020 to attack Trump over his COVID-19 response, described DeSantis as “reckless” in a statement and said he was “putting Floridians in harm’s way” after he rebuffed federal guidance on vaccine and mask mandates. 

And Biden directed his education secretary to take action against governors who try to “block and intimidate” local schools officials in an act that many viewed as aimed at DeSantis, who had threatened to cut off funding from state school board members that mandate masks.

“The White House seems to talk about DeSantis and Florida more than any other state right now,” Mike DuHaime, a GOP political operative and managing director at Mercury Public Affairs, told Insider. 

But Democrats say DeSantis elevated his own profile by making himself the face of the GOP resistance to Biden and argue it’s crucial for the White House to mitigate DeSantis’ “dangerous” pandemic policies.

“His politics on COVID is costing lives,” Ammar Moussa, DNC rapid response director, told Insider of DeSantis. “It says a lot that he’s willing to pick a fight with everybody from the AP to President Joe Biden and not fight the pandemic that’s decimating Florida right now,” he added. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces the opening of a monoclonal antibody treatment site for COVID-19 patients at Lakes Church in Lakeland, Florida.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

‘Florida envy’ 

In DeSantis, Democrats see a particularly adept politician. One Democratic operative, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, said the party recognizes that DeSantis has been able to adopt Trump’s “own the libs” philosophy that the GOP base loves while also coming across as more palatable to traditional Republicans. Lately, though, this person said, many of DeSantis’ actions appear to be geared toward the base. 

Steve Schale, who steered the Obama-Biden campaign to victory in Florida in 2008 and again as a senior advisor in 2012, told Insider that Desantis could teach a “Masterclass on how to insert himself into the Republican Party primary ecosystem.” 

“DeSantis has been very shrewd about inserting himself as the logical successor to Trump,” he said. 

Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, acknowledged the governor does not support government mask or vaccine mandates. He has however appeared at more than 50 events throughout the state extolling vaccines. He also frequently promotes the use of monoclonal antibodies, an effective COVID-19 treatment that the state and the federal government provides to patients for free.

Republicans, many of whom are standing by DeSantis’ COVID strategy, say Democrats are becoming more vocal about the governor because they see him as a threat politically. 

“They are looking at Ron DeSantis as potentially the next Republican nominee for president,” Rep. Byron Donalds, a freshman Republican from Florida who objected to the 2020 presidential election results on January 6, told Insider. 

He and other Republicans say the surge of people from other states moving to Florida during the pandemic shows that DeSantis’ policies are popular. Helen Aguirre Ferré, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, told Insider the influx was a “testament to the freedom and security that Governor DeSantis ensures in the state” and pointed to the state’s job growth and low unemployment. 

“The whole nation has Florida envy,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida who ran DeSantis’ gubernatorial transition team, told Insider in an interview at the US Capitol. “Everyone wants to be a Floridian — to enjoy our freedoms and our improving economy. I think that’s a real threat to the model of lockdowns and mandates endorsed by the White House.” 

In response to Insider’s request for comment, White House spokesman Kevin Munoz sent over a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday that found 46% of Floridians said DeSantis was hurting efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 while 41% said he was helping. 

The poll also found 54% of Florida adults thought schools should be able to require masks for all students, compared to 44% who agreed with DeSantis that parents should decide. 

The governor’s office is standing by its anti-mask-mandate stance that lets parents decide whether their children should wear face coverings. Pushaw provided data showing that in May school districts in Florida with mask mandates had similar rates of COVID infections with those that didn’t. 

“Governor DeSantis trusts Floridians to make the best choices for themselves and their families,” Pushaw said.  

President Joe Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a briefing with first responders and local officials in Miami Beach, Florida on July 1, 2021.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The midterm wildcard 

Even as many Democrats project confidence about their chances in Florida, they also face a potential reckoning with how midterm election cycles tend to go. Historically, midterms have been a referendum not just for the politician on the ballot but for the one in the White House. And in 2020 Trump carried Florida by more than 3 points after winning there by just 1 point in 2016.

Last week, Biden’s national popularity dipped below 50% for the first time since he became president. Biden faces challenges on exiting Afghanistan, getting Congress to pass trillions of dollars in funding for his economic agenda, and growing numbers of coronavirus cases across the US including in Louisiana and Hawaii.  

In a state where elections are won by razor thin-margins, at least one Democratic candidate is being cautious about how much she attacks DeSantis’ COVID policies. Last year Florida emerged from the pandemic better than many similar-sized states with heavy restrictions before the recent surge in cases and deaths. 

Kevin Cate, a consultant and spokesman for the gubernatorial campaign of Florida Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, said her team’s strategy was not “to ambulance chase around the issue of the day.”  

Fried’s introductory campaign video doesn’t mention the pandemic or DeSantis, focusing instead on her promises to strengthen the social safety net, address the climate crisis, expand voting rights, and legalize marijuana. 

“We are going to focus on breaking the system,” Cate said. “We are the anti-establishment, something new.” 

Schale, the Democratic strategist, said Democrats could win Florida by focusing on factors they could control, such as winning over suburban voters, getting more Democratic voters registered, and pushing back on Republican messaging that tries to cast Democrats as “socialists,” otherwise it would cost Democrats Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American voters who fled their home countries for Florida to escape tyrannical regimes. 

So far, DeSantis appears to be making the calculation that his COVID strategy will help more than hurt him. 

At least one GOP operative, DuHaime, who ran former Chris Christie’s successful 2009 gubernatorial campaign in New Jersey, thinks the key will be whether voters think the governor could have done anything more to prevent the surge of COVID infections or whether they believe his actions made the situation worse. 

“By the time he’s up for reelection it won’t be about whether you’re in the middle of a surge or downturn,” DuHaime said. “People will have time to reflect on the whole whether he did a good job or a bad job.”