For the past two years, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has leveraged his unique kinship with President Donald Trump to advance his priorities, grow his political brand and keep Trump’s focus on the Sunshine State.
But Trump’s days in the White House are numbered. And he will be replaced by Joe Biden, a Democrat who DeSantis has yet to acknowledge is the president-elect as he joins Trump’s crusade to undermine the election results.
It’s an early sign that DeSantis doesn’t intend to immediately answer Biden’s post-election calls for unity in the affirmative. In his acceptance speech, Biden called for “this grim era of demonization in America begin to end” and vowed to “work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as those who did.”
“I think Gov. DeSantis will be an obstructionist at every turn,” Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said as she watched events unfold this week. “We’ve seen this fight before.”
The hostility so far clouds the relationship between the federal government and its third largest state and their overlapping interests. Florida is home to 21 military bases, including United States Central Command at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base, and the Kennedy Space Center. Its 1,350 miles of coastline are the front lines in the war against climate change, a top priority for Biden. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spends half the year monitoring storms that may pummel the state — as it is doing right now with Hurricane Eta.
DeSantis' office didn’t respond to a request for comment. But DeSantis and other top Republicans have made clear their immediate priority is helping Trump raise doubts and sow confusion about the election. In a Fox News appearance last week, DeSantis suggested Republican legislatures deny Biden a victory by advancing their own electors in states where Trump is contesting election results — an idea that would send the country barreling toward a constitutional crisis.
Meanwhile, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, filed a legal motion in support of Trump’s attempts to challenge the election results in Pennsylvania, 1,000 miles from her jurisdiction. Trump is asking for the courts to throw out any ballots that arrived after Nov. 3 and his campaign has argued that it did not have enough access to watch the counting of ballots.
Unanswered are questions about whether DeSantis believes he could work with a Democratic administration to address challenges like sea level rise and the most pressing issue of the moment, the ongoing pandemic.
Biden’s presidential campaign centered on what he described as the Trump administration’s failures to contain the coronavirus. Biden has already installed a COVID-19 policy task force, and he campaigned on a national mask mandate.
He will almost certainly find resistance to his coronavirus agenda in Florida, where DeSantis has declined to enact measures such as a mask mandate and is pushing for state businesses to remain open as new cases trend upward.
The difference between the leaders' approaches could make it difficult for Biden to accomplish his goal of containing the virus, experts say.
“In the federalist system, the governor has far more authority to take action in a public health crisis than the federal government,” said Peter D. Jacobson, Professor Emeritus of Health Law and Policy at University of Michigan School of Public Health.
For months, Jacobson’s home state has seen what happens when a governor and president clash over how to handle a public health crisis. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who enacted strict coronavirus protocols, was a frequent target of Trump’s criticism. At one point, the president tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” in response to Whitmer’s lockdown measures.
As the tension rose, the FBI arrested accused right wing terrorists for allegedly plotting to kidnap the Michigan governor and overthrow the existing state government. Michigan and Florida have nearly identical per capita coronavirus death rates, according to a New York Times analysis.
Public health experts say a consistent message is key to slow the spread of the virus. Between Biden and DeSantis, Floridians are unlikely to find much cohesion.
“The conflicting messages being sent really undermines people’s willingness to comply voluntarily,” Jacobson said.
Because enforcement of mask wearing remains difficult both politically and logistically, Biden’s national mandate would rely on voluntary compliance, said Jay Wolfson, a University of South Florida professor and public health policy expert.
Cruz said she believes the new administration will institute a national strategy to defeat the virus that will include money for states that sign onto the program. She expects DeSantis to turn it down.
“I think Gov. DeSantis sees himself as a presidential hopeful,” Cruz said, “and anything he does that could be interpreted as cooperating with Biden would hurt him.”
However, given their past policy stances, DeSantis and Biden should be able to find some common ground on the coronavirus, if either side is interested. Although DeSantis has lately eschewed policies aimed at slowing the spread in public gathering places, he often talks about the pandemic’s non-virus costs. Months of isolation has had a ruinous effect on people’s mental health, DeSantis has argued.
The Republican governor for weeks has advertised his administration’s efforts to combat those indirect costs of the virus. In October, for example, his office put out press releases touting $10 million in combined federal government funding, $5 million for a mental health crisis line and $5 million for a program to tie addiction treatment to workforce development.
Biden also ran on expanded mental health services and an ambitious platform to fight the opioid crisis. If DeSantis wants more federal funds for pet mental health projects, he may need to work with the Biden administration.
DeSantis has a history soliciting favors from Trump’s federal government. At DeSantis urging, Trump in July signed an executive order that would put the United States on the path of allowing Canadian prescription drugs into American markets. DeSantis has said he personally persuaded Trump to send drugs to treat coronavirus patients when the state was running low. It’s unclear, though, if Florida received any special treatment from the federal government as the administration has distributed medical supplies throughout the pandemic.
At an October rally in Sanford, Trump joked that DeSantis and Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott were “always calling, asking for money."
“And I’m always giving it when it comes to Florida,” Trump said.
The money is most often in the form of aid requested after hurricanes and other emergencies. These disaster declarations are mostly perfunctory, though Trump has threatened to withhold aid from states led by Democratic governors, like California.
Floridians are well-versed in political divisions between their president and their governor. Former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, battled Democrat President Bill Clinton’s administration over the famous international custody fight over Cuban child Elian Gonzalez. Scott as governor won election in 2010 amid the tea party backlash to Obama and governed accordingly. He rejected federal money for Obama’s high-speed rail, opposed efforts to tackle climate change and declined to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, the federal healthcare law that Scott opposed and former Attorney General Pam Bondi fought in the courts to overturn.
“There was constant pressure to push back on anything the president did,” said Mark Pafford, a Democrat and former House minority leader who served during the Scott-Obama clashes. “The resolutions, all the nonsense the Legislature pulled — just to make a headline and push back against the president.”
Wilton Simpson, the incoming Republican senate president, said DeSantis is right not to congratulate Biden on his victory until President Trump has seen through all of his legal challenges. There has been no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election and no discernible electoral path for Trump to win reelection.
But should Biden serve the term a majority of voters elected him to serve, Simpson said he would reserve judgment on the new president. If Biden allows Florida the ability to continue conservative policies such as expanding school choice, he would welcome that. However, if Biden tries to expand federal government policies, his agenda would not be welcome in Florida, Simpson said.
“The character of his four years will probably be determined by the next six months,” Simpson said.
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