Hurricane, shooting test DeSantis leadership as he trades the campaign trail for crisis management

Aug 31, 2023, 3:02 PM

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis talks on the phone with President Joe Biden as he stands outside storm-da...

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis talks on the phone with President Joe Biden as he stands outside storm-damaged restaurant Shrimp Boat during a visit to Horseshoe Beach, Fla., one day after the passage of Hurricane Idalia, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

First a shooting, then a storm.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is facing a one-two punch testing his leadership at a critical moment for his presidential campaign, with the Republican moving to cast aside his role as culture warrior and show the country that he can govern through crises.

His first challenge came last weekend when a white gunman killed three Black people at a convenience store in Jacksonville in a racist hate crime. Days later, Hurricane Idalia was barreling towards Florida’s Big Bend region. The storm, which made landfall as a Category 3, left a trail of devastation, snapping trees, ripping off roofs and inundating areas with surging flood waters.

The back-to-back emergencies forced DeSantis off a campaign trail defined by partisan political barbs and gave him a chance to display competence under pressures similar to those he could face if elected president.

“I think it’s an opportunity to show executive leadership. I think the public has clear expectations of what leaders should do during a disaster. And it’s important that politicians meet those expectations,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant, addressing the governor’s handling of Hurricane Idalia.

He argued DeSantis’ campaign “went down some rabbit holes in terms of wokeness that were a distraction from what voters liked about him and why he won his re-election. I think him showing competent leadership is why he won the election and (with the storm) that’s what he’s doing this week.”

The crises come at a crucial moment for DeSantis as he faces lingering concern over his campaign. Four months before the first ballots are cast in Iowa’s caucuses, DeSantis still lags far behind former President Donald Trump, the race’s dominant early frontrunner, and he has cycled through repeated campaign leadership shake-ups. The super PAC supporting his candidacy has halted its door-knocking operations in early-voting Nevada and several Super Tuesday states in a further sign of trouble, NBC first reported.

DeSantis appeared to quell the concerns of some donors with his performance during the first primary debate, where he largely avoided attacks and contentious exchanges. But others remain put off by his focus on inflammatory issues and some positions he’s taken that have put him far to the right of the general electorate.

The governor, who has staked his reputation fighting a “war on woke,” had already begun to pivot ahead of the debate, avoiding the cultural war issues that had previously animated his campaign. Instead, he has spent this week projecting the image of a competent manager, able to work across party lines to help the people of his state get through a storm.

“Look, I think when you have situations like this, you’ve got to put the interests of the people first,” he told reporters during a storm briefing. “I mean, there’s a time and a place to have political season. But then there’s a time and a place to say that this is something that’s life threatening, this is something that could potentially cost somebody their life, it could cost them their livelihood.”

In multiple press briefings, DeSantis has struck a measured tone, delivering facts and information, praising first responders and urging residents to heed his advisories. There have been no major outbursts, jabs at the press or overtly political comments, though at one point DeSantis warned would-be thieves, “you loot, we shoot.”

Meanwhile, DeSantis’ campaign has been blasting out clips from his news conferences and sending updates hailing the governor’s “exceptional leadership.” A campaign spokesman didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment Thursday.

DeSantis has also spoken multiple times with President Joe Biden, and both men have praised each others’ responses.

Asked at one point about Trump not having issued a statement on the storm before then, DeSantis dismissed the question.

“That’s not my concern,” he said. “My concern is protecting the people of Florida, being ready to go. And we’ve done that.”

The governor’s response to the storm followed backlash to his handling of the racist shooting in Jacksonville, which included a rocky reception to his appearances at a vigil. At one point he was booed by a crowd.

The governor has been criticized widely for his administration’s “anti-woke” public school curriculum on Black history. Teachers are now required to instruct middle-school students that enslaved people “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” The NAACP has accused him of creating a culture of “open hostility towards African Americans and people of color.”

DeSantis has called the shooter, who in his writings said he was motivated by racism, “a major-league scumbag.”

“We are not going to let people be targeted based on their race,” he said.

The storm seemed to put DeSantis on firmer ground politically, in a state where deploying emergency resources during hurricanes is commonplace. Just last year, DeSantis, who was running for reelection, had to leave the campaign trail to respond to Hurricane Ian, a storm that led to the deaths of more than 100 people.

Tragedies and natural disasters have long served as important leadership tests, especially for governors.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is running against Trump and DeSantis for the Republican nomination, still faces questions over his response to Superstorm Sandy, when he praised and embraced Barack Obama in 2012 when the former president toured damage after the devastation.

Jeb Bush, former Florida governor and presidential candidate himself, cast an empathetic presence when he oversaw a two-year period in which eight storms battered the state. He traveled the state frequently to console people who lost homes.

DeSantis, typically more likely to score political points through competence than empathy, framed the successes of his administration’s storm response in tangible numbers; power restored to more than 400,000 homes and crews clearing debris from more than 6,000 miles of roadways.

Even before Idalia, DeSantis was touting his disaster management prowess as he criticized Biden’s response to the Maui fires, saying “As somebody that’s handled disasters in Florida, you’ve got to be activated. You’ve got to be there. You’ve got to be present.”

Asked if he sensed any politics in his conversations with the governor, Biden said no. He likened the coordination between Florida and the federal government to their response to Hurricane Ian last year.

“I think he trusts my judgment and my desire to help and I trust him to be able to suggest that this is not about politics,” Biden said. “This is about taking care of the people of the state.”

The president is set to visit Florida on Saturday.

Jamie Miller, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, said a national audience seeing DeSantis in action after the storm might be left with a new perspective of the governor, especially if they are only familiar with the governor’s political rhetoric or stiff facial expressions on the debate stage.

“I hate to say that someone’s making political progress on a storm, but also when you have a job and you want to get promoted, you have to do your job well, and that’s what he’s doing,” said Miller. “They are seeing him do his job, and not often does the public see a politician in such a public way doing their job. People might say ‘Oh wow we see why Florida reelected him by 19 points.”

But Conant, who began working in George W. Bush’s White House the week of Hurricane Katrina — a storm that remains a stain on the former president’s legacy — said it is too soon to assess the state’s response.

“You’re not judged on your handling of a hurricane after it makes landfall. It’s in the weeks after,” he said.

___ Associated Press writer Steve Peoples contributed to this report.

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Hurricane, shooting test DeSantis leadership as he trades the campaign trail for crisis management