Ron DeSantis is back in Florida after a long stretch of campaigning, but the governor is hardly returning home for rest.
His state faces two simultaneous crises: the aftermath of a racist shooting in Jacksonville and the onslaught of a hurricane churning through the Gulf of Mexico, which is expected to make landfall in Florida. For the first time since announcing his presidential bid, DeSantis’ governing responsibilities will take precedence to campaigning — making this both a moment of potential political danger and a unique opportunity to demonstrate competence on the fly in a primary that features only one other sitting governor.
And it means pressing pause on DeSantis’ near-constant war of words against President Joe Biden and embracing him as a partner — if only for the moment.
News of the shooting in Jacksonville reached DeSantis as he drew toward the end of a two-day bus tour of northwestern Iowa. Dressed in a casual shirt and campaign-branded vest, DeSantis greeted potential caucusgoers at an event in Garner, but the glad-handing soon finished and DeSantis spoke by phone with Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters that evening, according to the governor’s office administration schedule.
Less than 24 hours later, he stood before Jacksonville’s Black community in a suit, next to his wife, Casey, at a community vigil in memory of the shooting victims.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Idalia continued to strengthen as it crept toward Florida’s Big Bend, and DeSantis’ campaign canceled two events so he could stay focused on storm preparations from Tallahassee.
Speaking from the state’s emergency operations center Monday, the pugilistic candidate had been replaced by a sober executive. And one of DeSantis’ favorite campaign-trail punching bags, Biden, was instead a partner in government.
On the stump, DeSantis seems to take pleasure in his attacks on Biden, often mocking the president for everything from the cocaine found in the White House to his son Hunter’s artwork.
“I’m going to run him ragged all across this country — the American people are going to see a sharp contrast between somebody who’s not even up to the job versus somebody who is energetic, vigorous and has a record of achievement,” DeSantis said to sustained applause at a campaign event Saturday in Algona, Iowa.
By Monday afternoon, that tone had changed.
“I think he appreciated that this is going to be a major hurricane and that’s something that’s significant,” DeSantis said, adding that the president had assured that the federal government is ready to assist state authorities.
A statement the White House released earlier that morning said Biden also expressed support for Jacksonville following Saturday’s attack.
On the campaign trail, DeSantis runs on his record. At the center of his pitch for the White House is his belief that his accomplishments in Florida — reshaping the state’s education system, lowering Florida’s debt and taking on “woke” corporations — proves that he could do the same nationally.
Now, the compounding emergencies in his state may bring that record under further scrutiny.
DeSantis was greeted by boos and heckles during his introduction at the Jacksonville vigil, loud enough that a local leader interrupted the governor’s speech to settle the crowd.
Many in Florida’s Black community and beyond have opposed the governor’s efforts to wipe out higher education diversity programs and change the teaching of institutional racism to public school students. DeSantis’ redistricting plan also eliminated northern Florida’s only congressional seat with a Black incumbent, which included the city of Jacksonville.
And Florida’s insurance reforms, which critics say are responsible for skyrocketing prices, will be front and center as the state recovers from Idalia’s potentially destructive flooding and winds.
“In the face of the tragedy in Jacksonville and the impending major hurricane, Ron DeSantis is focused on leading his state through these challenging moments,” DeSantis campaign press secretary Bryan Griffin said in a statement, adding that the governor’s attention to both crises is emblematic of the “strong leadership in times of crisis that Americans can expect from a President DeSantis.”
DeSantis is hardly the first presidential hopeful who had to manage a crisis at home and a campaign simultaneously.
Pete Buttigieg, then the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, temporarily left the campaign trail behind in 2019 as his community dealt with the aftermath of a police shooting.
Only a few months later, several of his Democratic competitors were summoned back to Washington to serve as jurors in Donald Trump’s first Senate impeachment trial, just weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
Stumping in the candidate’s stead Monday, Florida first lady Casey DeSantis stood behind a lectern onstage at GOP Rep. Jeff Duncan’s Faith and Freedom barbecue in Anderson, South Carolina. Her husband had spent the day traveling Florida’s west coast, holding news conferences and meeting with emergency officials, and she was there to deliver DeSantis’ key campaign themes peppered with her own policy points on parents rights. DeSantis wanted badly to attend the barbecue, she told the crowd before her.
But, she assured them, her husband was where he needed to be.