WASHINGTON — As he battles to gain traction on the campaign trail, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has shifted attention away from the two presidents he has to beat — Donald Trump and Joe Biden — and toward a less conventional foil: Vice President Kamala Harris.
DeSantis called her "impeachment insurance" for Biden in late June.
This week, he and his wife, Casey DeSantis, accused Harris of lying about new Florida standards for classroom lessons on slavery. When hitting Harris, as he did while talking with reporters in Iowa on Thursday, DeSantis mispronounces her name — kuh-MALL-uh — putting emphasis on the second syllable rather than the first.
Both DeSantises call the White House the “Harris-Biden administration,” implying that the vice president is really in charge. And Ron DeSantis recently framed the 2024 race as a contest between himself and Harris because the 80-year-old Biden has "already passed normal life expectancy."
It all amounts to an unorthodox strategy of battling the No. 2 Democrat in the midst of a Republican presidential primary, a tack that is fraught with the obvious risk that he could seem more focused on the 2028 election than the 2024 election. But, at a time when support for his campaign has been drying up, DeSantis needs a foe — and fast — to show donors and voters that he can win a fight.
Harris is a more inviting target than Trump, whose base will be crucial to any GOP nominee, or Biden, whom Americans view a little more favorably than his vice president. She also offers the most obvious backboard for DeSantis' bank-shot argument that Biden is infirm.
Republicans say there’s no love lost between their party’s core voters and the Democratic vice president.
"Kamala Harris is [to the GOP base] an incompetent liberal who sits a heartbeat from being president," Elijah Haahr, a conservative radio host and former speaker of the Missouri House, said in an exchange of text messages. "Ron wants to tap into the GOP's disdain and fear by creating his latest foil."
DeSantis welcomed Harris' plan to promote abortion rights in Iowa on Friday, the same day as the state GOP's political-rite-of-passage Lincoln Dinner.
"I thank her," DeSantis said. "I mean, the more that it’s me versus Harris, because ultimately if you look at the next election, she’s going to be the VP, you know, it’s possible she could end up being president of the United States. And I think voters need to take a hard look at that and see if that’s something that they would want."
He has leaned heavily into debating Harris on the merits of the new Florida education policy, which she said replaces "history with lies."
Under the guidelines, units on slavery must include instruction on how "slaves developed skills, which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit." Schools will also be required to teach that people were also enslaved in parts of the world other than the United States and that indentured servitude carried economic risks that slavery did not.
In addition to Harris, two of the GOP's most prominent Black elected officials — Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is seeking the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, who backs Trump — have criticized elements of the new standards.
"I would hope that every person in our country — and certainly running for president — would appreciate that. People have bad days. Sometimes they regret what they say," Scott said. "And we should ask them again to clarify their positions."
DeSantis, who served in Congress with Scott, fired back Friday during a campaign stop in Albia, Iowa, by accusing Scott of repeating Harris' line of attack — the same case a DeSantis aide made against Donalds earlier in the week.
“I think part of the reason our country has struggled is because D.C. Republicans all too often accept false narratives, accept lies that are perpetrated by the left and accept the lie that Kamala Harris has been perpetrating, even when that has been debunked,” DeSantis said.
“That’s not the way you do it,” he added. “The way you do it, the way you lead is to fight back against the lies, is to speak the truth. And so I’m here defending my state of Florida against false accusations and against lies, and we’re going to continue to speak the truth.”
Harris' office did not reply to a request for comment about DeSantis targeting her.
Though DeSantis insists he was not involved in formulating the standards, he has been more than happy to defend them — especially when that means pitting himself against Harris.
"This, I think, gave him a little shot in the arm this week," a person familiar with DeSantis' strategy said. "You know, her picking this fight and him being able to fight back."
There's little question in political circles that DeSantis needs a boost. He fired about 40% of his staff this month amid a cash crunch, and his poll numbers have cratered.
In the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, DeSantis stood at 18.4% Friday morning, compared to Trump's 52.4%. That puts DeSantis far closer to the rest of the candidates — all of whom are polling at less than 6% in the RCP average — than to Trump.
Brad Todd, a veteran Republican strategist who is not working on a presidential campaign, said Harris is a fine target for DeSantis but that his message has not been focused enough.
"Kamala is fair game as there is more than a little reason to think she's the eventual nominee, and she definitely represents the goofiest radical wing of their party that the center worries about," Todd said. "But DeSantis now seems to be attacking six different people a day. He is an ax looking for a tree."