Covid wars launch DeSantis into GOP ‘top tier’

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MIAMI — Ron DeSantis once drew national scorn for his stewardship of Florida’s Covid-19 response — critics took to referring to the governor as “DeathSantis” for his resistance to restrictive measures.

But that very blowback — marked by predictions of doom and widespread criticism for being divorced from science — has made DeSantis ascendant in the GOP. His position is strengthened among the GOP grassroots and elites heading into his 2022 reelection in Florida and accompanied by increasing conservative chatter nationwide about a presidential bid.

By scrapping with reporters and President Joe Biden’s White House — which has singled out Florida and the governor in recent weeks — the wonky but combative governor has elevated his profile at a time when other big-state governors have been laid low.

With a Covid death count cover up consuming New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a pandemic-related recall effort haunting California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Republicans are embracing DeSantis as a red-state exemplar, pointing to rates of Covid deaths, vaccinations and unemployment in the most-populous blue states.

“Ron DeSantis is having a moment with conservatives,” said Josh Holmes, a top adviser to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. “Part of this is liberals tried to cast this in the yin-and-yang comparison with Cuomo … It’s policy and it’s partly stylistic, the way he handles the news media and his blue-collar appeal.”

Early on in the pandemic, both Newsom and Cuomo won national praise for their handling of the pandemic while DeSantis was panned for his more economy-focused and laissez-faire approach — one closely aligned with Donald Trump’s response to the Covid-19 crisis. Now conservatives are relishing the contrast and holding up DeSantis as an example of effective governance.

But it’s the fight in DeSantis that has animated conservatives, said Holmes, pointing to a recent press conference DeSantis held to announce a proposal to crack down on Big Tech where, in accusing the news media of having double standards, he told a reporter at one point that “you can whiz on my leg but don’t tell me it’s raining.”

“A Republican saying that in a press conference is like a shot of adrenaline to the conservative grassroots,” Holmes said. “The reaction was ‘Wow!’ He actually said it!”

DeSantis is still relatively unknown among the broad base of GOP voters, according to early nationwide primary polls of the 2024 Republican race shared privately with Politico. In a hypothetical race against a crowded field, DeSantis is in the mid-single digits, well behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Vice President Mike Pence, who received about a third of the primary vote right now.

In Florida, recent polls of Republicans show him with higher net favorable ratings than Donald Trump — notable findings in a populous battleground state where the former president just won by the biggest margin of any presidential candidate since 2004. Those numbers also suggest DeSantis is more popular than the state’s two senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both of whom have presidential ambitions as well.

“He flies by instinct, not by instrument. He’s a natural,” said Ryan Tyson, a top Republican pollster whose recent survey for a private client, shared with POLITICO, showed DeSantis edging Trump in popularity among Florida Republicans.

A loner with few close allies — and who lacks the backslapping style of a retail politician — DeSantis doesn’t have a pollster or paid political consultant.

For a GOP base that wants Republicans to fight the news media, confront liberals, and defy scientific experts, DeSantis is hitting his stride, according to one of the nation’s top Republican pollsters, Tony Fabrizio, who has worked for both Trump and DeSantis in 2020 and 2016, respectively.

“Any serious handicapper would have to put DeSantis in tier one for 2024. And tier one is not big,” he said. Fabrizio puts the governor in the same class as Pence and Cruz, even though they’re far better known at the moment.

But Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), a former governor who’s mulling whether to run against DeSantis, said the governor needs to answer for hiding Covid data to align with spin from the Trump White House.

“The fact is 30,000 of our fellow Floridians have died and that’s nothing to brag about,” said Crist.

Recently, DeSantis’ administration has refused to release data on a new Covid strain that’s at the center of a travel-restriction dispute with the White House.

In response to his critics, DeSantis has counter-accused them of elevating the work of a “conspiracy theorist” who publishes false information about Florida’s death numbers. He has fought with reporters over mask-wearing and the state’s vaccination efforts. And he also notes that his resistance to closing beaches wasn’t the disaster critics predicted, the forecasts of overwhelmed hospitals never happened statewide and schools have been operating without community spread (even though a teachers union sued him for opening schools), and he boasts that he was among the first governors to reserve vaccines for those over 65 years old.

DeSantis is also quick to note that Florida’s death rate is 27th, below every large blue state except California, where deaths are ticking up at a faster rate in recent weeks, according to the CDC.

“What we showed in Florida is you need to lead. I got a lot of blowback. A lot of that was BS, quite frankly,” DeSantis told POLITICO after a recent event in Miami. “We led on schools. We led on putting people back to work. We would not have had a Super Bowl [in Tampa] if it was not for me.”

DeSantis swiped at “the national media and all these people who are self-anointed ‘experts’ … They all said Florida would be the worst. But Covid mortality is less than the national average per capita.”

“Our economy is better than the national average,” he said, referencing Florida’s unemployment rate, a booming real estate market and higher-than-expected tax revenues.

Asked if the negative press coverage fueled his popularity among Republicans because so many conservatives distrust the media, DeSantis answered with certainty.

“100 percent,” he answered with a knowing laugh. “100 percent.”

DeSantis brought up criticism of a photograph of him not wearing a mask while talking to someone in a skybox at the Tampa stadium during the Super Bowl. “How the hell am I going to be able to drink a beer with a mask on? Come on,” DeSantis joked to POLITICO. “I had to watch the Bucs win.”

DeSantis’ appeal was apparent at a recent Houston-area Republican rally where the mere mention of DeSantis’s name led to cheers while the crowd was essentially silent at the mention of their own GOP governor, Greg Abbott. Neither governor was at the event.

“If they’re not saying Trump in 2024, they’re saying DeSantis. And more and more are saying DeSantis,” said one Texas Republican official, who did not want to be on record playing up a potential Abbott rival.

JoAnn Fleming, a Texas conservative and executive director of the Grassroots America group, said Abbott’s policies were too hard on “mom and pop stores but let the Big Box stores stay open… that rubs Texans the wrong way.”

As a result, she said, Republicans are drifting more toward potential candidates like DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

In Ohio, Senate candidate and former state treasurer Josh Mandel last week praised DeSantis instead of his state’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, whose heavier hand managing Covid has soured many Republicans on him. And in New York, as scandal engulfs Cuomo, veteran GOP strategist Jessica Proud said it has also further elevated DeSantis.

“Republicans have watched how he’s handled himself with the media, and he has a way in pushing back that’s effective and intelligent,” she said. “It’s not so much the brashness of Trump in terms of tweeting and personal attacks. But it’s strong and going on offense.”

In first-in-the-nation Iowa, GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann said he’s noticed an increase in buzz over DeSantis — so has former South Carolina GOP chair Matt Moore in his home state. Moore said while former Gov. Nikki Haley is still an early and clear favorite to win the first-in-the-South primary, DeSantis’ rise is unmistakable.

“Republicans seem to want Trumpism done with attention to detail and an actual policy agenda,” Moore said.

And they want the economy more open as well, said Jim Brulte, a former California GOP chair and state senator.

“Disneyland is not open here. But Disney World is open in Florida. I went to Florida. I went to Disney and I didn’t get Covid,” Brulte said.

“Whenever the mainstream news media attacks someone on our side unfairly, you know he or she may be a threat,” Brulte said. “DeSantis didn’t croak people like the governor of New York did with his policies, but you wouldn’t have known that in the national media.”

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