Five months into his presidential bid and with the Middle East in crisis, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is leaning into the very thing that put him on the national political map to begin with: his executive authority.
In the weeks since Hamas militants launched a surprise incursion into Israel, DeSantis has shifted back into governor mode. He signed an executive order pouring millions of state taxpayer dollars into an effort to evacuate U.S. citizens stuck in Israel and cajoled state lawmakers into calling a special session to pass new state sanctions on Iran.
The recent actions mark something of a return to form for DeSantis, whose rise to national prominence was built in large part on his reputation as a hard-charging conservative governor who could insert himself and his state into the biggest news of the day.
“It’s something he’s been good at — figuring out ways to take action on issues that conservatives care about, or setting the tone for what conservatives should be doing,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “This is one more opportunity for him to be looked at as a decisive leader, someone who takes action and does things and doesn’t just talk about them.”
DeSantis and his allies have cast his administration’s efforts as necessary to fill what he has described as a “void” left by a slow-moving federal government. But his cash-strapped campaign has left little doubt that it sees his official response to the war between Israel and Hamas as an asset.
Last week, just a few days after the first flights carrying Americans stranded in Israel landed in Tampa — a trip the state’s emergency management director priced at $4 million — the governor’s presidential campaign began selling T-shirts emblazoned with “DeSantis Airways.” In a statement, DeSantis’ political team boasted that, thanks to the governor, “over 670 Americans have been brought safely home from Israel so far,” adding that “more safe returns are expected this week.”
“The governor knows how to use the levers of executive authority to deliver results and has always stepped up to the plate when people are most in need,” said Bryan Griffin, the press secretary for DeSantis’ campaign.
Ground to make up
Some of DeSantis’ critics, however, see a politician using state resources to boost his struggling campaign. On X, the site formerly known as Twitter, Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani referred Friday to the upcoming special legislative session as “DeSantis wasting Floridian taxpayer money for his failing Presidential bid.”
Despite entering the 2024 presidential race in May as Republicans’ far-and-away favorite alternative to Donald Trump, DeSantis has struggled to make any sort of dent in the former president’s stubbornly high polling numbers in the Republican primary. Even more recently, he has found himself competing more and more with other GOP hopefuls.
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A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released on Monday showed former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley surging to 11% support nationally among Republican voters, putting her just 1 percentage point below DeSantis. Trump, meanwhile, took 58% support — a 10-point increase since June.
Trump is so far ahead that he’s called for the Republican National Committee to stop holding debates among primary candidates.
But Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and former senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said that the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas marks a new phase of the presidential race that will ultimately test the candidates’ readiness to respond to events outside of their control.
DeSantis, he added, is among the candidates “seizing on this moment the best.”
“It’s a big platform for the campaign,” Madden said. “As a candidate, you have to localize things and do retail politicking. But ultimately, events take over. It happens on every single campaign, where events start to drive the lens by which voters judge candidates. And what happened in Israel is a perfect example of that. You have to look where you can drive a commander-in-chief theme for your campaign.”
It’s unclear whether DeSantis can re-create the kind of political lightning that helped propel him into the presidential race in the first place. Madden cautioned that the fighting in the Middle East may not prove to be all that decisive in the Republican primary, and there are other problems for DeSantis to address in his presidential campaign.
But through the governor’s office, DeSantis can do things that other candidates — or even his own campaign — can’t.
Official events, like a speech at a Surfside synagogue earlier this month, often make news that is later echoed by his political team. Calls to action on the campaign trail can be translated into tangible executive orders that carry the force of law.
“All elected officials who are running, either for reelection or for a new office — they have a kind of baked-in advantage,” Jewett said. “He’s in a position to take a stand on these issues as an actual executive and direct resources one way or the other. He’s able to turn the screws on the Legislature. Most candidates can only say what they would do if they were in a position of power.”
Florida legislators are set to meet in Tallahassee the week of Nov. 4 for a special session, where they’re expected to take up several of DeSantis’ recent proposals, including new sanctions on Iran, a resolution expressing support for Israel and a measure intended to ramp up protections against antisemitic violence and hate crimes. That session will come the same week that DeSantis will be in Miami, hundreds of miles from the capital, participating in the third Republican presidential debate.
Justin Sayfie, a Florida-based Republican lobbyist and DeSantis fundraiser, said that the recent focus on the war between Hamas and Israel has put the governor back on more comfortable political footing.
“He’s action-orientated in terms of his leadership style,” Sayfie said. “Here is a governor and presidential candidate who doesn’t just talk, but takes action and who gets things done. That’s the big takeaway.”
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