Former President Donald Trump intends to make Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ COVID response a primary line of attack against his potential 2024 rival, but the strategy could backfire, Republican strategists told the Daily Caller.
Trump has been ramping up his attacks on DeSantis since announcing his presidential campaign in November, labeling him “DeSanctimonious” and claiming that a DeSantis run would be bad for the GOP “base.” On Saturday and Sunday, after launching his campaign in South Carolina and New Hampshire, Trump debuted the COVID-19 line of attack.
“The revelations about Ron DeSanctimonious doing FAR WORSE than many other Republican governors, including that he unapologetically shut down Florida and its beaches, was interesting, indeed. DJT leading BIG!!!” Trump wrote on Truth Social.
Republican strategists told the Caller the focus on the pandemic response may come back to haunt Trump, as DeSantis is known for his successful COVID response. They also said the line of attack is too “nuanced” to make a major impact.
“It is emblematic of a fear of Governor DeSantis’ political success in his re-election, and the broader growth and economic success that has been Florida under his leadership. Attacking your rivals on issues where their success is clearly evident is not an attack from a position of strength,” said Alex Vogel, a Republican strategist and former senior Congressional policy negotiator.
DeSantis focused on his re-election in his rebuke to Trump on Wednesday, in response to a question from Daily Caller chief national correspondent Henry Rodgers. (RELATED: DeSantis Responds To Trump Attacks)
“I roll out of bed, I have people attacking me from all angles,” DeSantis said. “It’s been happening for many, many years. And if you look at the good thing about it … when you’re an elected executive, you gotta make all kinds of decisions. You gotta steer that ship, and the good thing is that the people are able to render a judgement on whether they reelect you or not.”
Jason Roe, Republican strategist and former executive director of the Michigan GOP, told the Caller that Trump’s strategy is “going to fall flat.”
“I don’t know if it’s an attack that hits the mark. Obviously he’s going after one of DeSantis’ strongest strengths. He developed a national reputation because of how he handles COVID,” Roe said. “This is Trump attempting to define his opposition before they define themselves … it’s right up Trump’s alley.”
Ron Desantis responds to a question by @henryrodgersdc on recent criticism he’s received from Donald Trump:
“People are able to render a judgment on that, whether they re-elect you or not…that verdict has been rendered by the people of the state of Florida.” pic.twitter.com/15Ez0SHoSU
— Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) January 31, 2023
Trump’s main criticisms of DeSantis’ COVID-19 response are that, unlike some Republican states, “Florida was closed for a long period of time” and that the governor “changed his tune a lot” on vaccines, Trump told reporters on Saturday, according to CNN.
One Republican operative close to the Trump campaign told the Caller that Trump is focusing on COVID-19 because “the decisions for lockdowns and school closures were all made by local and state officials such as Ron DeSantis who closed down his state’s beaches and set up a checkpoint on the highway to screen motorists.”
The Caller granted anonymity to the Republican operatives close to Trump to allow them to speak openly on a sensitive matter.
DeSantis issued an executive order to close bars, nightclubs, gyms and other entertainment centers in March of 2020. He also imposed strict lockdowns of beaches in Broward and Palm Beach counties and imposed one of the strictest travel restrictions in the country. In September of 2020, the Florida governor reversed his policies and allowed restaurants and bars to reopen, following a recommendation from Trump, Fox News reported.
DeSantis’ “whole campaign is predicated on this idea that he fought lockdowns, fought mask mandates, and it’s a complete and total lie,” a second Republican operative familiar with Trump’s thinking told the Caller. “In Florida, in the fall of 2020, you still had to wear a mask to go inside and workout at the gym … does that sound like someone who has fought against COVID?”
Trump’s argument that DeSantis waited until the fall to lift restrictions, instead of the summer or spring, is “a little too nuanced, and a little too in the weeds for people to respond to it in a meaningful way,” Roe argued.
Despite painting DeSantis as a lockdown enthusiast, Trump pushed for longer lockdowns early on in the pandemic. In April of 2020, he criticized Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for reopening his state too quickly, and said that people could “wait a little bit longer” before accessing services like “beauty parlors.”
Amy Tarkanian, Republican strategist and former chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party, described Trump’s COVID-19 attacks as “disingenuous” and “immature.”
“Our leaders were given grace at the beginning of the pandemic. Nobody handled it perfectly. President Trump’s latest attacks against Gov DeSantis, who hasn’t even announced a presidential run, are disingenuous, immature, and will backfire on him,” Tarkanian told the Caller. “The state of Florida opened businesses, schools and allowed sports much earlier than most. Not long ago, Trump praised Gov. DeSantis’ handling of COVID. He is desperately lashing out since several polls, and media pundits have mentioned the desire for new leadership in the White House.”
DeSantis hit back at Trump’s lockdown criticisms in a Jan. 2022 podcast episode, saying Trump officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, “panicked” when the pandemic began, which led to calls for lockdowns from the top down. (RELATED: ‘Too Soon’: Trump Criticizes Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp For Reopening State Too Quickly)
A third Republican operative close to Trump credited the former president with “defending” Americans from Fauci, despite keeping him at the White House podium.
“I think not enough people are giving credit to Trump for manning the breach and defending the American people from Fauci who is the swamp personified. If you remember, Fauci advocated for national mandates for everything from vaccines to masks and Trump did a really great job giving states the ability to execute their own rescue plans,” the operative said.
DeSantis encouraged vaccination to “protect” residents in May 2021, but has more since quieted his support. In October of 2021, he refused to say whether he was boosted, and in December, he asked the Florida Supreme Court to look into any “wrongdoing” related to the vaccine rollout in the state.
Trump has vehemently defended his vaccine rollout, and appeared to insinuate that DeSantis was “gutless” for refusing to reveal whether he had received a vaccine booster. The former president has also argued that Republicans should take pride in the vaccines that were developed under his administration.
“Trump will never back down from touting the vaccine’s successes. It’s a minority of the party that is anti-vax. Ninety-five percent of Americans over the age of 65 have received the vaccine. If Ron wants to run a campaign attacking senior citizens, he is free to do so. Trump is running to be President of the United States, not get the most Twitter likes,” the first Republican operative close to Trump said.
DeSantis is “going to attack Trump over the vaccine, but Ron DeSantis himself promoted the vaccine” for years, the second GOP operative said. “Trump will throw it right back in DeSantis’ face, because every accusation Ron DeSantis makes against Donald Trump regarding COVID, [he] himself is guilty of. Now he’s trying to pretend to be something he wasn’t, because of where our voters are on these issues.”
DeSantis’ communications team did not immediately respond to an inquiry from the Daily Caller.