“Covid is over baby!” Thus proclaims a bare-chested man with face paint as the Joker, Batman’s nemesis, as he stands on a car and waves the American national flag.
This was the scene last weekend in Miami, Florida, a state that moved quickly to lift closures, reopen schools, set aside mask mandates and become, in the words of its governor, Ron DeSantis, an “oasis freedom ”during the coronavirus pandemic. .
This approach has dismayed health experts but delighted Republicans and cemented DeSantis’s reputation as perhaps the most prominent guardian of Donald Trump’s legacy as a swath of party figures strive to become his political heir. Last month, the governor proposed a series of new electoral laws that would make voting difficult. He loves to spar with the media and is now claiming victory over his critics of the pandemic.
“Floridians have been breaking the rules since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Monika McDermott, professor of political science at Fordham University in New York. “That being said, they seem to be quite happy with DeSantis’s performance overall and he certainly believes he is the heir apparent to Donald Trump at this point. He is very proud of himself and promotes himself as the next great prodigy of the Republican Party. “
While Trump and Joe Biden garnered attention, the coronavirus has done much to shape the fortunes of state governors across the United States. Democrats Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California went from heroes to nil after a series of missteps. DeSantis, 42, the nation’s youngest governor, and fellow Republican Kristi Noem of South Dakota worked hard to create a perception of success despite their uneasy relationship with science.
Florida has barely escaped unscathed: Its death toll of more than 32,000 is the fourth highest in the country after California, New York and Texas. A year ago, DeSantis reluctantly gave in to pressure by issuing a stay-at-home order demanding the closure of non-essential businesses. But like Trump, he was eager to restart the economy and acted faster than many states to reopen schools.
DeSantis faced widespread shame even as Cuomo was publishing a book praising his own response to the pandemic. But now the tables have turned.
John Zogby, pollster and author, said: “Frankly, he was the town idiot at the beginning of all this and it was hard to understand what he was doing in a state like Florida. You are now riding a ridge because it seems to be working. We don’t know what will happen next, but as long as this shield continues, it is positioning itself as the no Trump for the Trump base. “
In a political play last week, DeSantis organized a carefully selected panel of health experts in the state capital in Tallahassee to publicly vindicate their opposition to the closures and mandates. Among them was Scott Atlas, a radiologist who had no formal infectious disease experience when Trump hired him last summer as a coronavirus consultant.
DeSantis boasted: “The data could not be clearer that our state has fared much better than many others, particularly those that imposed heavy lockdowns on their residents.”
Its supporters note that despite California’s more cautious approach, its Covid-19 case rate is similar to Florida’s according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A poll conducted last month by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy found DeSantis with an approval rating of 53%.
Although the 2024 presidential election is a political eon away, the Ivy League-educated lawyer, Iraq War veteran and former member of Congress, who emulates Trump’s face style, is rumored to be the one. torch bearer of “Make America Great Again”.
Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, said: “It benefits from the same model that Trump benefited from, which draws a lot of criticism from the media. The media criticized him day and night for his handling of the coronavirus against California, but then when he can point out that he has better numbers than California, he can say ‘Ah ha!’ That’s something Trump voters love to hear when it’s at the expense of the media.
“He’s starting to tick off boxes that will be important to Trump’s voters in 2024. One of them is, obviously, his handling of the pandemic; he does not pray at the altar of Dr. Fauci. “
Like Ronald Reagan and George W Bush before him, DeSantis would run for the Republican nomination with executive experience as state governor and could run as an outsider from Washington.
Whalen added: “So I could say, just like Trump did, ‘I’m not part of the problem, I’m part of the solution.’ It’s fundamentally awkward whether you’re Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or even Josh Hawley or Ben Sasse, the legions of senators looking to run, divorce you from Washington and Congress. “
DeSantis is also in a strong position because Florida, the third most populous state, has enormous electoral influence and appears to have shifted decisively to the right. Trump is now based at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, while his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have settled in Miami.
Meanwhile, Florida’s two Republican senators, Rubio and Rick Scott, are seen as potential contenders for 2024. And Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz is one of Trump’s most combative champions and imitators.
Roger Stone, a Florida-based political consultant pardoned by Trump on seven criminal charges in the Russia investigation, said: “Florida remains the last bastion and is definitely the center of action in terms of the conservative Republican policy of ‘America first’. We could have up to three candidates here.
“Or four: if the president shows up, I think he clears the field. The nomination is yours if you want it. This is your party now. We will never be the Bush country club party again. Now we are the party of the workers, we are the party of the working class. “
But for now, DeSantis appears to have the upper hand in what the Politico website called the primaries “if Trump doesn’t show up,” noting that several candidates are already networking in Iowa, traditionally the first state to have a voice.
At last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, the governor finished second behind Trump in a poll for the 2024 Republican nomination and first in another that excluded the 45th president.
And on Monday, in a podcast interview with Lisa Boothe, Trump mentioned DeSantis first when listing Republicans he believes have a bright future. “Ron DeSantis is doing a very good job in Florida,” Trump said, citing Senators Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Sarah Sanders.
Trump also praised Noem, the South Dakota governor who has competed with DeSantis in betting against the shutdown, infamously allowing the Sturgis motorcycle rally to take place. He has traveled extensively to address state Republican parties and score appearances on Fox News. Mike Pence, the former vice president, and Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, are also potential candidates for 2024. If Trump decides to play king, his endorsement could be decisive.
His endorsement in 2018 played a crucial role in DeSantis’ unlikely victory in the GOP gubernatorial primary. Stone observed: “DeSantis’s rise on Fox television as a Trump advocate is really what earned him the gubernatorial nomination in the primaries. He has been very loyal to the president since he is president and his style of government is very similar.
“So in that sense, I think in terms of policies, it would be solid. I wonder if he has the showmanship that Trump has, Matt Gaetz, Josh Hawley, for example. We are still in the age of television. Charisma matters and I think that, to some extent, the governor doesn’t have the kind of connection to the voters that the president has, just in terms of his personal seriousness. “
First, however, DeSantis must win re-election as governor of Florida next year. His handling of the pandemic will be a key issue. Critics argue that its vaccine distribution program favors wealthy donors and blame its laissez-faire approach for the chaos in Miami Beach last weekend that saw street fights, restaurant property destroyed and more than 1,000. arrests.
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former Florida Democratic congresswoman who is among the leaders of a Ron Be Gone campaign, told NBC News: “Your arrogance and complete detachment from the pain and suffering of our communities is very revealing of someone who is in this position. to further their political ambitions, and it is obvious because they are already discussing 2024. “