Joe Biden was supposed to be standing next to Charlie Crist.
The two Democrats planned a rally for late September, a political risk with an unpopular president that Crist’s team was willing to take because he needed a shot of momentum against Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Instead, eight days and one monstrous hurricane after the date of the nixed event, Biden was on TV with DeSantis, thanking him for the state’s cooperation with the federal government to help make Floridians’ lives whole. The president said the Republican governor had done a “good job” responding to the disaster.
Biden, DeSantis and Crist have all said that Florida’s arduous recovery should rise above politics. But the stark contrast between what Democrats had hoped to achieve with a presidential visit and what transpired after the storm underscores how Hurricane Ian has disrupted Florida’s race for governor.
“The coffin was already being built (for Crist’s campaign) and this was another nail,” Democratic pollster Steven Vancore said. “For the president to give ... an endorsement for the job (DeSantis) is doing, how does Charlie recover from that? I wouldn’t say it was the final blow, but it dang near was as close as it gets.”
Asked about Biden’s praise of DeSantis at a hurricane donation drive event in Gulfport, Crist downplayed its significance.
“What I think is important is to thank all the first responders, the hard work that they’re doing down there,” he said. “And I want to tell you this: I am so glad that President Biden came to Florida. ... The guy has a heart of gold and I really appreciate his leadership.”
When a reporter asked if he was surprised by Biden’s praise, Crist paused, then said: “No.”
Before Ian, Crist faced a steep climb against the incumbent governor. After the primary, DeSantis had more than 80 times more money in his campaign accounts than Crist. That gap remains at around $100 million.
Hurricanes historically provide boosts to incumbents who have an opportunity to demonstrate their leadership skills while the everyday churn of politics temporarily quiets.
Ian came at a crucial moment. DeSantis had been under intense national scrutiny for controversial decisions like chartering flights of Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Massachusetts. The storm allowed him to showcase a different posture, that of an executive tackling a crisis, all while his campaign continues to aggressively launch more ads.
DeSantis’ first hurricane test
DeSantis was elected as governor not long after Category 5 Hurricane Michael pummeled the Panhandle in October 2018. He led the state through a 2019 near-miss with Hurricane Dorian (which instead aimed its wrath on the Bahamas). But Hurricane Ian was the first major hurricane to strike the state with him as its chief executive.
Officials in Charlotte County in Southwest Florida, which saw heavy damage from Ian’s landfall, praised the state’s response.
“The governor has visited Charlotte County three times in the eight days since the storm hit,” county government spokesperson Brian Gleason said. “For anybody recovering from a Cat 4 storm, especially in early stages, it’s overwhelming. But the support has been steady and the coordination has been excellent.”
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Hillsborough Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said he didn’t work directly with the governor but that DeSantis’ emergency management chief, Kevin Guthrie, did an “outstanding job,” particularly when Ian looked like it was about to directly hit Tampa Bay.
“He worked late into the night helping me get critical oxygen delivered, critical staffing we would need for special needs shelters,” Dudley said.
Not everyone agrees with the high marks for DeSantis’ performance.
Days after landfall, questions arose over whether Southwest Florida counties were urgent enough in their evacuation orders to get people out as the storm turned. DeSantis and Guthrie have defended the timing of the evacuations and said the state was in constant contact with the impacted county governments.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, gives the governor’s office credit for holding calls with lawmakers to hear about the needs of the affected communities. But the governor’s office didn’t always take action on what it heard, she said.
Her office has been scrambling to help people in Central Florida, where the damage was less dramatic than in the southwest part of the state but where some areas still saw feet of flooding.
“We’re trying to fill in the local gaps but there’s definitely a lot of people in need and not enough immediate resources,” Eskamani said.
Lori Cajuste, a 55-year-old cafeteria attendant at a hotel near Disneyworld, said her entire Orange County neighborhood flooded, including about five inches of water inside the home where she lives with her cousin.
The water damaged Cajuste’s clothing, furniture, laptops and ruined a fridge full of food, culminating in a heavy financial blow. She said she’s having trouble getting help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency but said DeSantis also has seemed absent in her community.
“DeSantis has not been in Orange County because Orange County has been a blue county,” Cajuste said.
In response to a question about the state’s recovery efforts in Central Florida, Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, emailed a list of specific efforts by the state in the region. It includes providing truckloads of food and water for disaster survivors in Orlando, deploying high-water vehicles to help evacuate residents from flooded areas of Orange County, sending rescue vehicles to Seminole County and support staff for shelters in Osceola County. DeSantis also visited Seminole County two days after landfall, Griffin said.
“Gov. DeSantis was able to execute a historically efficient response to Hurricane Ian because of his directives for a massive preemptive staging effort, enhanced state agency cooperation, and his insistence in being on the ground in the most affected areas afterwards,” Griffin said.
Before Biden’s visit to Florida, there were signs DeSantis was about to revert to the type of combative politics that have become his brand.
In a video interview with conservative website Florida’s Voice, DeSantis was asked whether there would be “any accountability” for aspects of how the media has covered the hurricane.
“Quite frankly, you have national regime media that they wanted to see Tampa (get hit) because they thought it would be worse for Florida,” DeSantis said. “That’s how these people think. I mean, they don’t care about the people of this state ... they want to use storms and destruction from storms as a way to advance their agenda.”
But since his joint news conference with Biden, after which the two men shook hands and shared a minutes-long conversation with their wives, DeSantis has kept the focus on his recovery policies.
Adam Goodman, a veteran Republican media strategist, said DeSantis’ handling of the storm has left him politically strong heading into the last month before Election Day.
“We’re living in a time where there’s a lot of public frustration with the inability of government and political leaders to get things done,” he said. “Instead of retreating to partisan corners, (Biden and DeSantis) met in the middle of the ring.”
That’s left Crist out of the conversation, Goodman said.
One recent poll by Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy, conducted in the days before and the day of Ian’s landfall, showed DeSantis with an 11-point lead. That’s higher than the Real Clear Politics average of polls in the race, which estimates DeSantis has a 7-point advantage.
“Winning and losing in politics often comes down to timing,” Goodman said. “The die was already cast in this election but in terms of this being a competitive election, I think that went out the window as windows were being blown out across Fort Myers and Naples.”
Crist disputes that he can be counted out. His campaign recently released a TV ad on abortion — an issue DeSantis has avoided, and one on which most polling suggests Democrats have an edge.
“This is a purple state,” Crist said. He acknowledged DeSantis’ money advantage but said the race is “not about money, it’s about people.”
At the Gulfport event, songs in the playlist included “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Stayin’ Alive.”
One attendee, local resident Bill Salapow, 64, predicted DeSantis’ post-storm tone won’t last.
“Once the commercials hit the TV,” he said, “everybody’s going to be slashing each other’s throats.”
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