The following first appeared in the Buzz political newsletter, a weekly dive into the power, politics and influence shaping Florida from Political Editor Steve Contorno and the Tampa Bay Times politics team. To subscribe and receive it in your email inbox each week, click here.
The Rundown: The conservative network Newsmax put an hour-long spotlight on Gov. Ron DeSantis Wednesday, airing a town hall-style forum from The Villages hosted by former White House spokesman Sean Spicer.
It was only a couple weeks ago that Newsmax publicly apologized for perpetuating conspiracy theories about the stolen election. DeSantis appeared on the network on a day when the Republican Party ousted one of their own in Congress because she refused to vocalize those same conspiracies. None of that came up.
Instead, DeSantis spent the bulk of the hour laying out his accomplishments, answering some friendly questions and building his case for reelection. Here were some of the top takeaways from the night.
The reelection pitch
Each of the Democrats running or rumored to be running for governor have zeroed in on DeSantis’ response to the pandemic as his greatest vulnerability. They’ve depicted him as an anti-science, self-serving, blind follower of President Donald Trump.
”How many lives would have been saved if Gov. DeSantis had listened to the scientists and medical experts, if he had simply promoted mask wearing and social distancing, instead of a political agenda,” Rep. Charlie Crist said in announcing his campaign for governor last week.
DeSantis has his response ready, and it’s an argument that is at the heart of his pitch for another four years in office. It can be summed up like this: Floridians, are you better off than the people living in states run by Democrats?
”If I had not won in 2018, you guys would be wishing you had the governor of Michigan compared to what we have. We would have had kids locked out of school, we would have the (New York Gov. Andrew) Cuomo nursing home policy,” DeSantis said. “They would not have done seniors first for vaccines, and I think we’d have the highest unemployment rate in the country because a California lock down on a service-based economy like Florida, it would have hurt a lot of low- and middle-income people.”
The 2024 pitch
A “Bikers for Trump” ad aired during the broadcast urging viewers to call a number and tell Trump to run again in 2024. It’s clear the former president still has his base.
But it didn’t stop Spicer and his co-host Lyndsay Keith from leading the DeSantis 2024 hype train. And with so many future primary voters watching, DeSantis didn’t shy away from it. He made his pitch to be the front-runner in a post-Trump GOP with this message: Americans, aren’t you jealous of Florida?
”All these people are saying hi to me, none of them are from Florida,” DeSantis said. “They’re like, ‘We wish we could bring you back to Michigan.’ They look to Florida as really the place to be. So I think some of this is just simply because I was willing to lead. I was willing to cut against the grain. I was willing to challenge corporate media and narratives and really do it in a way that I think had the best interest of my state at heart.”
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DeSantis still talks to Trump
Noting Trump’s new residency in Florida, Spicer asked DeSantis how often he talks to the former president.
”Relatively frequently,” DeSantis said, adding they recently played golf together and chat on the phone. They sometimes meet up at events at Trump’s South Florida resort, too.
”I kidded him once because he helped me in 2018. In 2020 ... we did very well in Florida. And so at one point, he’s like, ‘Well, you know, we’re even,’ " DeSantis said. “I was like, ‘Actually Mr President, I think you may still owe me. Let me ask you this: How much has Mar-a-Lago increased in value since I became governor?’ "
How Casey helps him
It’s well established that DeSantis doesn’t have a large inner circle. It’s essentially a two-person team: him and his wife, Casey DeSantis, with the latter operating mostly behind the scenes. What kind of counsel does his other half bring to the table? Messaging, DeSantis said.
DeSantis met Casey while she was a television reporter in Jacksonville (that’s right, the media DeSantis so often criticizes used to employ his wife). And he has leaned on that experience as a story teller in crafting a narrative around his agenda that he can sell to Floridians, he told Newsmax. He does that by bringing people to his news conferences and bill signings who are affected by his actions. That’s Casey’s influence, he said.
”She really understands we’re in this not just to hold an office, not just because people say you have a title, but what effect can you make in a positive way on people’s lives and tell those stories,” DeSantis said. “That’s really I think what resonates with folks.”
Conservative media will prop up DeSantis as he heads toward 2022
The most difficult question DeSantis faced on the night was if he preferred Disney World or Universal Studios (he went with the mouse ears). Otherwise, DeSantis faced one softball after another and the former college ballplayer kept hitting dingers.
The entire hour was a demonstration of just how expansive the conservative media landscape has become, and how unwilling the hosts are to challenge the Republican Party’s rising stars. Instead, Spicer and Keith heaped praise on DeSantis and even plugged his campaign fund. The first audience question came from a former Republican lawmaker.
There are so many opportunities for DeSantis to get out his message — Newsmax, Fox News, OANN, Breitbart — without having to confront an uncomfortable question, and hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t take advantage of the free air time. During his first year, DeSantis avoided conservative media entirely. As he faces reelection, that’s where he is camping out.
Nuggets of news
DeSantis didn’t cover a ton of new ground on policy during his time on stage, but a couple tidbits came out worth highlighting.
Like many Republicans, DeSantis blames unemployment benefits for giving people an incentive not to work. (There’s disagreement from economists on this. Read some here and here.) He hinted at a policy that is gaining traction among some quarters of the GOP: instead of paying people who are out of work, give people cash for taking a job.
”I would rather give somebody a bonus for going back to work than pay them not to work,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis was also asked if seniors will get first dibs on booster shots, just as they did for the first doses of the vaccine. He doesn’t think he will need to do that.
Supply is far outpacing demand for vaccines now in Florida, DeSantis said, and he doesn’t see that changing. “If there will be a booster necessary, we’re going to be swimming in this stuff going forward.”