Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has arguably been under more fire than any other Republican politician since former President Donald Trump left office, and there’s a reason for that.
DeSantis, only 42 years old and just over halfway through his first term as the governor of the Sunshine State, has experienced one of the fastest rises in recent political history. He’s become an early frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and that has put a big target on his back.
Like any experienced politician, DeSantis has a lengthy record and a multitude of characteristics on which he can be judged. There’s one unique accomplishment he has, though, and it’s stood up against a growing wave of attacks from Democrats and the media.
The COVID-19 pandemic was the biggest political and governmental test of 2020. It may prove to remain the biggest in 2021, and DeSantis has aced it.
He’s aced it in the eyes of some, at least. DeSantis reopened Florida far before most other governors even considered opening their states. Citing economic costs to keeping things shut down, DeSantis moved Florida into “Phase 3” of reopening in September 2020 and never looked back.
The governor said around that time that he would never lock down his state again. He didn’t only reopen for economic reasons, he also backed up his argument with some science: “And at best, what the lockdown will do is delay. It does not reduce the ultimate mortality … it creates a lot of other problems with mortality that a lot of people don’t necessarily focus on.”
There’s evidence on DeSantis’ side. Florida ranks 26th in death rate among the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. That’s lower than several states that have maintained far stricter lockdown measures, including New York, New Jersey and Illinois. (RELATED: Study Arguing Red States Did A Worse Job Containing COVID-19 Than Blue States Is Missing Key Context)
DeSantis was confident in his position in September, and he remains confident to this day. “Florida got it right, and the lockdown states got it wrong,” he said at CPAC in February.
— CPAC 2021 (@CPAC) February 26, 2021
That defiance of the mainstream common wisdom has won over many conservatives. DeSantis maintains an approval rating that is well above water in his home state, and was among the most popular figures at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this year.
A loud-and-proud rejection of legacy media was a hallmark of Trump’s four years in office, and DeSantis has adopted a similar approach. It makes sense, given Trump is still overwhelmingly popular in the Republican Party.
DeSantis has feuded with the media, but often in a more calculated way than Trump. He blasted the press last year for predicting an apocalyptic COVID-19 surge in Florida. After journalists criticized him for not wearing a mask when Tampa Bay hosted the Super Bowl, he defended himself by claiming he couldn’t wear a mask and drink beer at the same time. He sparred with a CNN reporter at a press conference, asking if she planned to “give a speech or ask a question.” (RELATED: CNN’s Brianna Keilar Calls Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis An ‘Ass’ Live On Air)
That the media continues to take shots at DeSantis, often in dubious ways, will likely only bolster his reputation among conservatives. Just recently, CBS News’ 60 Minutes ran a deceptive hit piece on the governor, attempting to connect his vaccine rollout strategy with a pay-for-play scheme involving Publix. DeSantis fired back, and conservatives and liberals alike have come to his defense. (RELATED: POLL: Nearly Half Of Americans Do Not Trust Media Due To Bias)
— Stephen L. Miller (@redsteeze) April 8, 2021
Another example came when Yahoo News published a piece incorrectly asserting that Florida had miscounted COVID-19 deaths. Yahoo’s interpretation of the scientific data was mistaken, and their attempt to create a scandal like the one Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is weathering was unsuccessful.
The focus on DeSantis’ coronavirus response by his critics shows why it’s his most valuable attribute going into 2024. While many Republicans are trying to plant their flag on cultural issues, DeSantis navigated a difficult governance challenge and has results to back it up. That’s a strong card to play against Democrats, who took a starkly different, pro-lockdown approach to the pandemic.
DeSantis has made sure to weigh in on the issues the GOP base cares the most about, though. He has rejected critical race theory in Florida schools. In doing so, he created a $3,000 bonus for teachers who complete a civics credential. That kind of compromise is rarely seen in today’s political landscape, and exhibits an ability and willingness to get things done.
DeSantis has also gone after Big Tech, which has proven to be a salient issue for Republican voters.
All of these traits, plus the fact that he comes from a critical swing state, make DeSantis a viable 2024 contender. DeSantis has become the face of the anti-lockdown movement, and his constituents seem to have been well-served by that philosophy. That will likely remain a potent political message even after the pandemic is long gone.