Governors from both parties — from 37 states and territories — came to the White House Friday morning to meet with President Joe Biden and talk about the nation’s economic health.
But more conspicuous than any of the governors who showed up was the one who didn’t.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis skipped the event, and with it a rare in-person meeting with a president he might wind up facing on the ballot. Neither Biden nor DeSantis has announced they’re running in 2024, but they’ve been sparring as if the race is already underway.
More than former President Donald Trump, DeSantis is the Republican rival who many Democrats most fear. Florida’s 44-year-old governor, coming off a decisive re-election victory last year, is “the 900-pound gorilla in the room,” said state Sen. Lauren Book of Florida, the chamber’s Democratic leader.
“DeSantis is the bigger threat for the Biden ticket, for sure,” said Jose Parra, a Florida Democratic strategist. “You see it in the DNC’s emails and the attacks they’re leveling constantly against DeSantis. DeSantis is Trump, but in a much better package: more polished and disciplined. And that makes him more dangerous.”
DeSantis’ office would not comment on his reason for missing the White House meeting. A press aide referred questions to the governor’s “political team,” which did not respond to requests for comment.
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Publicly, the Biden team’s posture is that DeSantis is not a threat. “Donald Trump is the undisputed leader of the Republican Party,” former White House chief of staff Ron Klain said in an interview with “Pod Save America” this week when asked about the White House’s views of DeSantis.
One Democratic strategist with ties to the White House similarly said DeSantis was simply a “fill-in-the-blank for Republicans who want anybody but Trump.”
“Our posture when it comes to DeSantis is the same as it comes to any other Republican: They’re all in the same mold as Donald Trump,” the Democrat said.
The gathering in the East Room was cordial enough. Biden made a light quip about the massive infrastructure spending package he signed into law, which some Republicans have opposed. “I know it’s a problem having to deal with all the money we’re sending you,” Biden said.
DeSantis is one of the governors who’s benefited from federal largesse, doling out grants bolstered by funds coming from Biden administration programs.
Biden isn’t asking DeSantis for gratitude, nor is DeSantis likely to show it. The two men touted federal-state cooperation in a pair of joint appearances in Florida after Biden took office. Both meetings were tied to disasters: the first, the collapse of an apartment building in July 2021; the second, the cleanup after Hurricane Ian in October 2022.
Now that the 2024 campaign is coming into view, the rhetoric has been getting more prickly.
“I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden,” DeSantis told reporters this week.
In a speech in Tampa on Thursday, Biden sought to shame DeSantis over health care spending for poor Floridians.
“Over 1.1 million people in Florida would be eligible for Medicaid if Gov. DeSantis just said, ‘I agree to expand it,’” Biden said at the University of Tampa.
Democrats are pessimistic about their chances in Florida in 2024, even as Biden signals an interest in spending time in Trump and DeSantis’ backyard. The state appears to be getting redder, with its Democratic Party struggling in the aftermath of a midterm wipeout. The state party chair resigned in January.
“While it’s nice to have the president visit our state, my advice to him would be to spend your time elsewhere,” said Brian Ballard, a Florida-based lobbyist who had Trump as a client. “Florida has gone red and it isn’t going back.”
National Democratic fundraisers are loath to spend money in Florida if the state is a lost cause.
“I don’t think there’s any credible way we dump a fortune down there,” said Wade Randlett, a longtime Democratic donor. “Florida is going in the wrong direction, and Georgia and Arizona are going in the right direction. It’s crazy to spend a marginal dollar in Florida when it could go into much more winnable states.”
Even Florida Democrats are gloomy about their chance of winning the state in the 2024 election.
One of the candidates running to head the Florida Democratic Party, Annette Taddeo, said that Democrats will need a full eight years to rebuild a state party that has endured a string of defeats and has been starved of campaign money.
“We need to rebuild this party from the ground up,” Taddeo said.
Asked if she believed Democrats will capture Florida in 2024, Book mentioned GOP efforts to make it more difficult to vote.
“We have a lot of work to do,” she said. “It’s not going to be easy and I don’t think 2024 is going to be the golden year.”
Even if Florida isn’t winnable, Biden isn’t about to walk away, his allies said. If nothing else, by contesting the state he can force even a popular sitting governor like DeSantis to divert precious campaign funds to Florida. Visits to Florida also rally core Democratic voters who feel marginalized under DeSantis, Democrats say.
“We may be down, but we’re not out,” Book said.
So far, Biden is giving the impression he plans to compete in Florida, which he lost by about 3 percentage points in 2020 — the second closest of the battleground states where he was defeated.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat and former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, pointed to Biden’s trip this week and Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to Tallahassee last month to mark the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
“It’s very evident that Florida is in the map toward 270 electoral votes in the upcoming presidential election,” Wasserman Schultz said. “That’s why we saw Vice President Harris come down. It’s why two days after the State of the Union, President Biden [came to] Florida to talk about our record.”