‘He’s riding a crest’: Ron DeSantis positions himself as keeper of Trump’s legacy

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“Covid’s over, baby!” So proclaims a bare-chested man, wearing face paint like the Joker, nemesis of Batman, as he stands atop a car and waves the American national flag.

This was the scene last weekend in Miami, Florida, a state that moved quickly to lift lockdowns, reopen schools, shelve mask mandates and become, in the words of its governor, Ron DeSantis, an “an oasis of freedom” during the coronavirus pandemic.

This approach has dismayed health experts but delighted Republicans and cemented DeSantis’s reputation as perhaps the most high-profile keeper of Donald Trump’s legacy as a swath of party figures jostle to become his political heir. Last month the governor proposed a raft of new election laws that would make it harder to vote. He relishes sparring with the media and is now claiming victory over his pandemic critics.

“Floridians have been flouting the rules since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Monika McDermott, a political science professor at Fordham University in New York. “That said, they seem to be fairly happy with DeSantis’s performance overall and he certainly thinks he’s the heir apparent to Donald Trump at this point. He’s very proud of himself and he’s touting himself as being the next great wunderkind of the Republican party.”

While Trump and Joe Biden hogged the limelight, the coronavirus has done much to shape the fortunes of state governors across America. Democrats Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California went from heroes to zeroes after a series of missteps. DeSantis – at 42 the nation’s youngest governor – and fellow Republican Kristi Noem of South Dakota both worked hard to create a perception of success despite their uneasy relationship with science.

Florida has hardly 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 bowed to pressure by issuing a stay-at-home order and requiring non-essential businesses to close. But like Trump, he was eager to restart the economy and moved more swiftly than many states to reopen schools.

DeSantis faced widespread opprobrium even as Cuomo was publishing a book lauding his own pandemic response. But now the tables have turned.

John Zogby, a pollster and author, said: “Bluntly, he was the village idiot at the beginning of all this and it was hard to understand what he was doing in a state like Florida. He’s riding a crest now because it appears to be working. We don’t know what happens next but, providing this crest continues, he’s positioning himself as the non-Trump to Trump’s base.”

DeSantis fist bumps a legislator in Tallahassee on 2 March. Photograph: Phil Sears/AP

In a piece of political theatre last week, DeSantis hosted a handpicked panel of health experts at the state capitol in Tallahassee to publicly vindicate his opposition on lockdowns and mandates. Among them was Scott Atlas, a radiologist who had no formal experience infectious diseases when Trump hired him last summer as a coronavirus adviser.

DeSantis boasted: “The data could not be clearer that our state has fared far better than many others, particularly those that imposed harsh lockdowns on their residents.”

His supporters point out that, despite California’s more cautious approach, its Covid-19 case rate is similar to that of Florida according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy last month found DeSantis with a 53% approval rating.

Although the 2024 presidential election is a political aeon away, there is early chatter that the Ivy League-educated lawyer, Iraq war veteran and former member of Congress, who emulates Trump’s in-yer-face style, could become the torch bearer for the “Make America Great Again” movement.

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, said: “He benefits from the same model that Trump benefited from, which is a lot of media criticism. The media castigated him day and night for his handling of coronavirus versus California but then, when he can point that he has better numbers than California, he can say ‘Ah ha!’ That is something that Trump voters love to hear when it’s at the media’s expense.

“He is starting to check off boxes that will be important to Trump voters in 2024. One of those is obviously your handling of the pandemic; he doesn’t pray at the altar of Dr Fauci.”

Like Ronald Reagan and George W Bush before him, DeSantis would be running for the Republican nomination with executive experience as a state governor and could pitch himself as a Washington outsider.

Whalen added: “So he could say, just as Trump did, ‘I’m not part of the problem, I’m part of the solution’. It’s just so fundamentally awkward if you’re Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or even Josh Hawley or Ben Sasse – the legions of senators all looking to run – to divorce yourself from Washington and Congress.”

DeSantis is also in a strong position because Florida, the third most populous state, carries huge electoral clout 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 set up home in Miami.

Meanwhile Florida’s two Republicans senators, Rubio and Rick Scott, are seen as potential contenders for 2024. And the 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 counts in the Russia investigation, said: “Florida remains the last bastion and it is definitely the centre of action in terms of conservative Republican ‘America first’ politics. We could have as many as three candidates here.

“Or four: if the president runs, I think he clears the field. The nomination is his if he wants it. This is his party now. We’re never going to go back to being the country club party of the Bushes. We are the blue-collar party now, we’re the working-class party.”

But for now, DeSantis appears to have the edge in what the Politico website dubbed the “if-Trump-doesn’t-run” primary as it noted that several candidates are already networking in Iowa, traditionally the first state to have a say.

At last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, the governor finished runner-up to Trump in one straw 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 really good job in Florida,” Trump said, going on to cite Senators Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and the Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Sarah Sanders.

Trump also praised Noem, the South Dakota governor who has vied with DeSantis in the anti-shutdown stakes, infamously allowing the Sturgis biker rally to take place. She has been travelling widely to address state Republican parties and chalking up 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 kingmaker, his endorsement could be decisive.

His 2018 endorsement played a crucial part in DeSantis’s unlikely victory in the Republican primary for governor. Stone observed: “DeSantis’s rise on Fox television as a defender of Trump is really what won him the gubernatorial nomination in the primary. He’s been very loyal to the president since he’s been president and their governing style is very similar.

“So in that sense, I think policy-wise, he would be solid. I just wonder whether he has the showmanship that Trump has, that Matt Gaetz has, that Josh Hawley has, for example. We are in the television age, still. Charisma matters and I think to a certain extent the governor doesn’t have the kind of connection with voters that the president has, just in terms of his personal gravitas.”

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 his vaccine distribution programme favours rich donors and blame his laissez-faire approach for chaos in Miami Beach last weekend that saw fighting in the streets, restaurant property destroyed and more than 1,000 arrests made.

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former Democratic congresswoman from Florida who is among leaders of a Ron Be Gone campaign, told NBC News: “His arrogance and complete detachment from the pain and suffering of our communities is very telling of someone that is in this position to advance his political ambitions, and it’s obvious because they’re already discussing 2024.”