Gov. Ron DeSantis is canceling campaign fundraisers and political events, hunkering down in Tallahassee as a storm barreling north toward Florida threatens to balloon into a major hurricane.
But with Idalia’s winds expected to start lashing the state sometime Tuesday evening, his bid to become America’s next president may be under its most intense spotlight.
The fast-approaching storm comes at a critical moment for DeSantis’ candidacy, pitting his duties as governor against the demands of a national presidential campaign that is in the middle of revamping itself after a rough several weeks. Idalia presents both challenge and opportunity, with the governor overseeing efforts to prepare and respond to a storm currently forecasted to bring a life-threatening storm surge and devastating winds.
DeSantis, who has scrapped political engagements for the coming days, including Tuesday fundraisers in South Florida, made clear on Monday that he’s putting politics aside to prepare for a potentially catastrophic event.
“When you have situations like this, you’ve got to put the interest of the people first,” DeSantis said at a Monday news conference. “There’s a time and a place to have the political season, but then there’s a time and 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. And we have a responsibility as Americans to come together and do what we can to mitigate any damage and to protect people.”
Yet the politics are difficult to ignore. Hurricanes have historically provided Florida governors with days, or even weeks, of media attention and the opportunity to showcase their leadership to a national audience. DeSantis experienced that phenomenon himself last year when he spent weeks responding to Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in Southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm.
But his current situation is particularly unique. DeSantis is the first Florida governor to seek the presidency while still in office. That means he’ll almost certainly be subjected to a level of scrutiny that none of his predecessors experienced.
“If you’re running for president and you’re also the governor, a lot of voters are going to be looking at your leadership skills, especially for Gov. DeSantis,” Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said. “He’s running for president right now, so the stakes are even higher.
“The political aspect is there,” he added. “There’s no getting around it.”
DeSantis’ political activities haven’t come to a complete standstill. A text message sent to supporters on Sunday night promoted a “teletown hall” for donors, while the campaign blasted out a fundraising email on Monday afternoon saying that DeSantis’ focus on Idalia “means you may not be hearing from us much in the next few days.”
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The governor’s campaign declined to comment on this story.
NOT DESANTIS’ FIRST STORM
Idalia would be the second hurricane to strike Florida in as many years, with Hurricane Ian also making landfall last year in a storm that would go on to be among the most devastating in the state’s history. At the time, DeSantis was running for a second term in the governor’s mansion. He suspended his campaign for several weeks last September as his administration scrambled to deal with the fallout of the storm.
Hurricane Ian was a test of DeSantis’ relationship with Biden, a political adversary and the governor’s all-but-certain general election opponent should he win the GOP presidential nomination next year. But the two men each said they were able to put aside their political differences and work together to help the state recover from the storm, culminating in a joint appearance from the two leaders to tour the wreckage from the hurricane on Florida’s west coast.
Biden and DeSantis renewed their relationship Monday morning during a phone call, according to White House pool reports, with the president saying that he had approved of an emergency declaration for Florida. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also been pre-deployed to the state, the president said, according to pool reports.
DeSantis and the state faced some criticism in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Ian, with some raising questions about whether residents of Lee County, where the storm made landfall, were given enough advanced warning to evacuate ahead of the storm. At the time, DeSantis defended local officials, who are responsible for issuing evacuation orders, saying they acted appropriately.
With Idalia, DeSantis activated the Florida National Guard and declared a state of emergency before Idalia ever formed into a tropical depression. That emergency declaration, which originally encompassed 33 counties spanning from Lee County in Southwest Florida to Franklin County in the Panhandle, was expanded on Monday to include 46 of the state’s 67 counties.
Voters will judge DeSantis’ response to Idalia over the coming days and weeks. For the time being, his actions as governor — rather than his moves as a candidate — will draw much more attention.
“There will be time to make all the campaign stops he needs to make and press the flesh before voters start to vote,” said Justin Sayfie, a Florida-based Republican lobbyist and DeSantis fundraiser. “Right now, it’s about assuming responsibility for the preparation and the aftermath and government response.”