Ron DeSantis is facing a growing number of challenges in his day job as governor of Florida as he seeks to stabilize a GOP presidential campaign that has been criticized as sputtering.
DeSantis on Sunday was booed at a vigil in Jacksonville for the victims of a racially-motivated shooting that left three people dead. The boos were seeming targeted at DeSantis over criticism of education policies he’s backed that offended Black politicians in both parties.
Separately, DeSantis is bracing for Tropical Storm Idalia, which is projected to grow to a category three hurricane and potentially hit the Sunshine State later this week.
While the storm is a real danger for Florida, it’s also an opportunity of sorts for DeSantis, who is one of the few Republicans in the presidential race now actively serving constituents. Many of DeSantis’s main rivals are former office holders who do not have to deal with the challenges of governing — or managing disasters and tragedies.
“Governors are defined in Florida by how well they manage crisis,” said Christian Ziegler, chairman of Florida’s Republican Party. “This is just another event that he’s going to have to manage and see us through.”
It is a role in which DeSantis has previously flourished.
“I think Gov. DeSantis did a great job during Hurricane Ian,” said Ziegler. “There’s nothing to lead me to believe that wouldn’t be different here.
“Clearly Gov. DeSantis has the playbook on how to address these,” Ziegler said.
DeSantis received widespread for his response last year to Hurricane Ian, which hit Florida the September before his reelection bid in November. Hurricane Ian was one of the deadliest storms to make landfall in the continental U.S., resulting in 150 deaths, $12.6 billion in insured damage, and thousands left without power.
A YouGov poll released in October of 2022 found that 80 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats said they approved of how DeSantis’s response to the storm. Fifty-four percent of respondents overall said they either “strongly or somewhat” approved of Desantis’s response.
On Saturday, DeSantis declared a state of emergency in 33 Florida counties. He’s since expanded that order to include 13 additional counties.
“It’s an opportunity for him to show decisive leadership people want to see out of the White House,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist.
“It’s fair to say DeSantis is showing quick decisive leadership in times of disaster,” O’Connell said. “That is something that has been lacking in the Biden administration.”
Just days ago, DeSantis was sharing a stage with seven other candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination.
DeSantis, second in most national polls to former President Donald Trump among primary voters, was widely seen in that debate as receding to the background as other Republicans, including businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, stole attention.
DeSantis has been seen as needing a boost of some sorts to add momentum to a stalling campaign, which has not seemed to gain traction on Trump.
Yet there are some signs that things are picking up for the Floridian. A Washington Post poll after the debate found GOP voters turning to DeSantis, while a new Emerson College poll found him gaining two points from 10 percent to 12 percent — with Trump losing six points.
Yet other candidates gained more in the Emerson poll, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who rose from 2 percent to 7 percent, and former Vice President Mike Pence, who rose from 3 percent to 7 percent.
The storm is getting much of DeSantis’s attention.
DeSantis and Biden spoke over the phone earlier on Monday in preparation. According to a White House readout of the call, Biden said Florida will have the White House’s support in the face of the storm.
While DeSantis is challenging Biden for the White House and the two have sparred over a number of issues in the past, the governor and the president also have a history of coming together in times of crisis.
During Biden’s visit to Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian last year, DeSantis received praise from the president for his handling of the storm.
“We have very different political philosophies, but we’ve worked hand in glove,” the president said during a visit to Fort Meyers. “We’ve been completely lockstep, there’s been no daylight.”
Biden and DeSantis also worked together in the aftermath of the deadly condo building collapse in Surfside, Fla. in 2021.
“You’ve recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one. And you’ve been very supportive,” DeSantis said to Biden two years ago.
Aside from Idalia, DeSantis is dealing with raw emotions after a gunman killed three Black people at a Jacksonville Dollar General store.
DeSantis at the vigil where he heard boos was praised by Democratic City Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman, who represents the neighborhood where the shooting took place.
“Governor, I know you’re here,” Pittman said. “And you know what? I’m glad you’re here, because you can see the people and the impact it’s had on the community.”
Someone in the crowd yelled “he don’t care” and when DeSantis began speaking he was booed.
But Pittman urged the crowd to be respectful of the governor, saying “A bullet don’t know a party.”
“What he did is totally unacceptable in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said, referring to the shooter as a “major league scumbag.”
“We are not going to let people be targeted based on their race,” he added.
Republicans point to Pittman’s response to the boos at the vigil and say DeSantis has done the best job he can in the situation.
“He handled the shooting the best way you could and he came there and said this is what I’m going to do,” O’Connell said.
Other Democrats have criticized the governor, however. State Rep. Angie Nixon (D) said DeSantis has “blood on his hands.”
“This is a governor who has done nothing but fan these types of happenings throughout our state,” Nixon said.
DeSantis’s campaign press secretary Bryan Griffin said in a statement on Monday that DeSantis was focused on leading his state through the shooting and storm.
“He attended a community prayer vigil and committed additional funding to Florida HBCUs for added security, Griffin said. “He’s now at the helm of Florida’s hurricane response and is working with local officials across the state to do everything necessary to ensure Florida is fully prepared. This is the strong leadership in times of crisis that Americans can expect from a President DeSantis.”
Even as DeSantis deals with serious storms and violent shootings, he must also deal with taunts from Trump. On Monday, the former president claimed on Truth Social that he heard rumors that DeSantis would drop out of the presidential race to run for the Senate against Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.). DeSantis’s team denied Trump’s claim, calling it “fake news.”
“He wants to make sure that no body gives DeSantis a second look,” O’Connell said, referring to the former president.