How DeSantis’ handling of Hurricane Idalia could impact his campaign

Disasters often offer a chance to showcase leadership. But can Iowans relate?
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, shakes hands with a man as he visits a church, home and businesses damaged during the passage of Hurricane Idalia one day earlier, in Horseshoe Beach, Fla., Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, shakes hands with a man as he visits a church, home and businesses damaged during the passage of Hurricane Idalia one day earlier, in Horseshoe Beach, Fla., Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
Published Sept. 2

A couple days before Hurricane Idalia made landfall, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office posted a photo of him sitting in a Florida-style Situation Room, leaning forward at the end of a long table surrounded by emergency personnel.

A few days later, DeSantis was on Fox News, standing in front of the dramatically lit Governor’s Mansion, a century-old oak tree split open on the lawn behind him.

Then, he was walking through the damaged streets of Cedar Key, doing an on-camera interview with Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore that included a question about how he would handle disasters as president.

These are the images of DeSantis emerging from Hurricane Idalia, forming a snapshot of an executive hard at work during a crisis. They are also a departure from the churn of news about his struggling presidential campaign. Hurricane Idalia may provide DeSantis with the best opportunity for a reset yet, after weeks of more artificial ones attempted by his campaign, including staff shakeups and messaging pivots.

“So far, Gov. DeSantis has done an exceptional job pre-, during and post-hurricane and that is being noted by voters in Florida and across the country,” said Justin Sayfie, a Republican lobbyist and DeSantis fundraiser.

All the free media coverage of DeSantis during the storm added up to the equivalent of $17 million worth of paid ad time, according to The Messenger, which cited a media tracking service. That TV time is even more crucial after DeSantis’ campaign burned through much of its cash in the second quarter of this year, prompting his operation to rely heavily on a super PAC with the ability to raise unlimited funds.

That unusual, super PAC-heavy dynamic may also have worked to DeSantis’ advantage this week. For example, while DeSantis’ campaign hit pause and postponed fundraisers, the super PAC, called Never Back Down, was still quietly at work, filing paperwork on Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission on its plans to spend tens of thousands of dollars on mail ads in Iowa. Never Back Down is also planning a $25 million ad blitz in Iowa and New Hampshire between Labor Day and Halloween, according to the Washington Post.

Hurricane Idalia provided a respite from negative coverage of DeSantis’ campaign, but how much it gives him a positive boost remains to be seen. While handling a storm with very few deaths is close to political gold in hurricane-scarred Florida, it likely doesn’t directly translate to voters in Iowa without DeSantis putting in some work, said Rachel Paine Caufield, co-chairperson of the department of political science at Drake University in Des Moines.

“Iowans are a little different — we pay attention to national news stories, but the people who attend caucuses are people who expect not just to hear about it on national news, but to be in a room with the candidate talking about it,” she said.

The benefit of adding another line to DeSantis’ resume of executive experience may also be limited, Caufield said. DeSantis has no trouble ticking off his accomplishments as governor, but one-on-one interactions with voters — which Iowans deeply value — are where he’s struggled to convey warmth.

“I’ve seen DeSantis in a lot of different situations in Iowa, and he is exceptionally good at the well-produced, stand on the stage and give a great speech (routine). He has encountered a learning curve when it comes to the retail politics of Iowa,” Caufield said. “(The hurricane) alone is not going to make up for any deficiencies in retail politicking.”

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If a hurricane does prove politically beneficial for DeSantis, it wouldn’t be the first time. Last year during his reelection bid, the catastrophic Hurricane Ian was largely viewed as the knockout hit to the campaign of his longshot Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist. After that storm, DeSantis held a news conference with President Joe Biden, during which the Democratic president praised DeSantis’ response, leaving Crist with little room to criticize the governor.

Of course, the dynamics of 2024 are far from comparable to DeSantis’ 2022 reelection, when he was the heavy favorite and at one point had more than 80 times more campaign money than his opponent. This time, DeSantis is running from far behind, with former President Donald Trump dominating the Republican primary field.

And this time, DeSantis won’t have a post-storm photo op with Biden.

Jeremy Redfern, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said Friday that DeSantis would not join Biden during his Florida visit Saturday.

“In these rural communities, and so soon after impact, the security preparations alone that would go into setting up such a meeting would shut down ongoing recovery efforts,” he said.

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