After two years of seeming to govern to please the Republican Party’s Trump base, Florida’s Ron DeSantis will have the chance to sound and act like a normal governor as he leads the state’s response to Hurricane Ian — and just in time for the November election.
With visits to stricken areas, news conferences about the cleanup and recovery, and the excuse to be too busy working to engage in partisan fights, the devastating storm could provide DeSantis a glide path into a second term, should he choose to take it.
“This is an opportunity to do something different and be a little less objectionable, a little less repulsive,” said Mac Stipanovich, a GOP consultant who left the party after its takeover by former President Donald Trump.
And, at least so far, DeSantis appears to be following that strategy. At a news conference in hard-hit Charlotte County on Thursday, DeSantis got through 23 minutes without once mentioning migrants, critical race theory, transgender people, or any of the other culture-war issues that have consumed much of his public appearances as part of a presumed run for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
“I’m really impressed with the resiliency we’re seeing in Charlotte County,” he said. “The response here and just the way people have reacted is very, very impressive.”
“That’s obviously something that we’ll rebuild, but it’s not something that will happen overnight,” he added in answer to a question about the destruction of the sole causeway linking devastated Sanibel Island to the mainland.
DeSantis, of course, is able to take advantage of the state’s emergency management infrastructure that has been improved and streamlined following Hurricane Andrew’s landfall on southern Miami-Dade County in 1992. First Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and then Republican Jeb Bush worked with lawmakers from both parties to create a Department of Emergency Management that has become a model for how it prepares for approaching storms and deals with their aftermaths.
“We have a pretty good apparatus. This is something we’re practiced in,” said Dan Gelber, the Democratic mayor of Miami Beach. “Everybody knows how to salute smartly and do what they’re supposed to do.”
Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor of Florida who is now the Democratic nominee challenging DeSantis in November, said a Florida governor nowadays does not need to do much beyond staying out of the way.
“There’s a great machine that’s been put together by some great leaders, and all you’ve got to do is turn it on,” he said.
Crist, who recently resigned the congressional seat he’d held for almost three terms to focus on campaigning for his old job, has been criticizing DeSantis for more than a year for not taking more aggressive measures to fix the state’s property insurance crisis. He said Hurricane Ian’s trail of destruction across the state will now make Floridians suffer because of DeSantis’ inaction.
“A lot of it is his fault,” Crist said. “He called a special session, and he did virtually nothing, in terms of helping consumers.”
The DeSantis campaign did not respond to queries from HuffPost.
Bryan Griffin, press secretary for the governor’s office, replied to HuffPost on Friday to complain that the office was given less than two hours to respond before publication and that the article carried a “disparaging” headline. He did not, however, address the question of whether DeSantis will be able to appeal to a broader audience than he has been, and pointed to the governor’s channel on the Rumble website as a way to watch all his news conferences.
In May, the state legislature passed a bill DeSantis backed and later signed into law that created a new, taxpayer-funded $2 billion program to help insurance companies get “reinsurance” through the state’s catastrophe fund. The companies are required to pass along savings back to consumers, but that was not expected to happen until at least a year later.
In the meantime, Floridians have continued to see massive increases in their premiums or have their policies canceled outright. Crist said he would have insisted on a more comprehensive package that lowered rates immediately, as he did when he became governor in 2007.
He said that with Ian’s passage, thousands of Floridians are about to get a firsthand primer on how bad the system has become, and millions more will do so when all insurance policies are assessed fees to bail out the catastrophe fund.
An initial analysis by the industry research firm Fitch Ratings said damage caused by Ian could be as much as $40 billion in Florida.
“It’s a disaster on top of a disaster. Good luck getting your home repaired,” Crist said.
Working in DeSantis’ favor, though, is timing. Most, if not all, of the negative consequences on the insurance market are unlikely to present themselves for several months — long after the Nov. 8 midterms.
“He will probably have the benefit, and this is a ghoulish thing to say, of this hurricane for his reelection bid,” Stipanovich said. “Absentee ballots are in the mail now ... The bad stuff that might result from the hurricane, that is a deferred cost.”
Crist, who is trailing in most polls by several points, agrees that DeSantis has the opportunity now to cast himself as a more normal leader, but it remains to be seen whether he will continue to avail himself of that or whether Floridians will buy into the new image.
“Only if they see this very late-term turn to normalcy as reality rather than a necessity,” he said. “Is it a late-term awakening? Or a temporary lapse of the insanity?”