When President Donald Trump canceled the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, he wasn’t just putting the kibosh on his own celebration.
Gone, too, is Gov. Ron DeSantis’ chance to step into the spotlight and introduce himself to a national audience.
As the host governor, DeSantis would’ve had a major role in putting on the convention, a duty that typically comes with a bunch of perks. Hobnobbing with influential Republicans from across the country. Introductions to deep-pocketed donors. And a prime time speaking slot to address millions of Americans watching at home.
It was a chance for the 41-year-old Republican to snag a top billing during Trump’s final coronation and test the waters for a potential run at the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. In an interview last month, Republican Party Chairman Joe Gruters said he expected the convention would “put Gov. DeSantis in the spotlight and add fuel to his efforts to make a national name for himself.”
But Trump’s sudden announcement Thursday not only dashed those plans, but raised doubts about DeSantis’ own response to the coronavirus. On the same day DeSantis contended Florida’s outbreak was showing signs of slowing down, Trump argued it was too dangerous to hold a convention there.
“The timing for this event is not right. It’s just not right with what’s happened recently — the flare up in Florida — to have a big convention,” Trump said in a news conference. “It’s not the right time.”
The reversal came just seven weeks after DeSantis convinced Trump’s campaign to move the GOP’s biggest quadrennial event from Charlotte to Jacksonville amid a pandemic. Florida could fly in and put up thousands of delegates, fete Trump in style and keep attendees safe from a fast-spreading disease, DeSantis said in June. And they could do it without all those pesky safety restrictions that North Carolina’s Gov. Roy Cooper would have required in Charlotte.
On top of that, the governor boldly predicted a $100 million economic windfall for Jacksonville.
But the situation in Florida soon devolved. When the GOP officially announced Jacksonville as the new host site on June 11, 2,938 people had reportedly died from coronavirus in Florida. By the time Trump cancelled the event, the reported death total had nearly doubled to 5,632.
As the convention approached, DeSantis downplayed the grim numbers and suggested the situation was improving. But this week, Trump and the White House sounded much less enthusiastic about Florida’s progress against the coronavirus.
Trump acknowledged the coronavirus was growing into “big fires,” especially in Florida, and he said the state was in a “big, tough position.” Coronavirus task force leader Deborah Birx warned that Florida was at risk of teetering into a full blown outbreak. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway went on to criticize the states that have become hotspots and blamed the governors.
“They opened up some of the industries too quickly, like bars,” Conway told reporters.
DeSantis has yet to respond to Trump’s decision to cancel the convention. It’s not clear when he found out, though Trump said on Thursday he gave the governor advanced notice.
The governor’s press office did not respond when asked if DeSantis agreed with Trump’s assessment that it was unsafe to hold a convention in Florida. Nor did they answer questions about DeSantis’ expected role during the convention events, which were scheduled for Aug. 24-27.
Conventions are often an opportunity for the two political parties to showcase their benches. And for politicians, it’s a coveted chance at national exposure. The most notable recent example is the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which featured a little-known state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.
“There’s no question that this convention not taking place is a missed opportunity, particularly for those who are rising stars in the Republican Party,” said Matt Terrill, a partner at the public affairs firm Firehouse Strategies who served as the Chief of Staff on Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.
At the 2012 Republican Convention, Rubio was chosen to introduce Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee that cycle. That speech introduced the young senator to a national audience, propelling him to his own — albeit unsuccessful — presidential run in 2016.
With no convention coming to Jacksonville, DeSantis has been denied the opportunity Rubio got to try to sell America on how Republican leadership has benefited Florida.
Oddly, DeSantis is not the first Florida governor to have their convention platform thwarted by disaster. Then Gov. Rick Scott skipped most of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa to monitor Hurricane Isaac as it swept through South Florida.
Scott’s team had worked for months on a strategy to turn the convention into an opportunity to showcase the state’s new Republican leader to a national audience, said Brian Burgess, who worked in Scott’s communication office at the time.
“There was a lot of time and resource investment into this event, and to have it get whisked away so quickly, was very frustrating,” Burgess said. “We got so close we could taste it, and then all of the sudden the hurricane comes up and all of our plans for showcasing Scott and his accomplishments were gone.”
Gruters said DeSantis will have his day soon enough.
“His record on this will be looked at as a huge success,” Gruters said. “And he’ll have plenty of time to worry about his re-election after the president is re-elected.”