It’s no secret at this point that Ron DeSantis’s image has taken a hit since he hit his peak in November 2022 after he cruised to a nearly 20-point re-election as Florida governor in an otherwise dim year from Republicans. His lacklustre performance on the presidential campaign trail has led to many people questioning whether he can go the distance against Donald Trump in the GOP presidential primary.
And it looks like he might literally be facing even rougher waters than he already has weathered. This last week, a white gunman killed shot and killed three Black people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville. In response, Mr DeSantis said that “the shooting, based on the manifesto that they discovered from the scumbag who did this, was racially motivated. He was targeting people based on their race.”
But when he attended a vigil in Jacksonville, a historically Republican city that recently elected a Democratic mayor, the residents of the city were not having it and they heckled the governor.
Mr DeSantis has staked his claim on making Florida a place where “wokeness” comes to die and has passed laws restricting how race is taught in classrooms in the state. Others Black leaders, including some Black Republican members of Congress, have also criticised the state’s middle school history curriculum, which says that enslaved people “developed skills” that could be “applied for personal benefit.”
And similarly, some felt that Mr DeSantis’s words were not a sufficient denunciation of racism. After the governor’s remarks, Rev Jeffrey Rumlin, a pastor of The Dayspring Church in Jacksonville, said, “Respectfully, governor, he was not a scumbag,” before saying “He was a racist.”
Others have accused Mr DeSantis of creating a climate where such senseless violence can occur, noting how he had signed legislation in April that allowed people to carry concealed weapons without a government permit. All of this combined might explain why the governor would be considered persona non grata as a community grieved.
But on top of that, Mr DeSantis also suspended his campaign as Florida gets ready for Hurricane Idalia. Florida governors’ approval ratings live and die by how well they handle a hurricane or tropical storm and picking up the pieces afterward. In the weeks leading up to the 2022 midterm election, Mr DeSantis received high marks from many Floridians for his response to Hurricane Ian. Incidentally, the response to the disaster required Mr DeSantis to appear frequently with President Joe Biden, the man he hopes to challenge in November 2024.
As a result, the governor might be able to portray himself as a competent executive and images of him surveying the damage could bolster his image. Of course, it could also severely backfire; just ask Mr DeSantis’s competitor for the GOP nomination Chris Christie, who as governor of New Jersey, embraced then-president Barack Obama during Hurricane Sandy in the weeks leading up the 2012 presidential election.
Mr Christie would overwhelmingly win re-election but Republicans labelled him a heretic for buddying up with a Democratic president. And this was before the controversy of the closure of the George Washington Bridge torpedoed Mr Christie’s political future permanently.
Similarly, despite the fact he did not engage with many of his competitors throughout the debate and came off as petulant when he was asked about whether vice president Mike Pence did the right thing on January 6, there are signs Mr DeSantis might be doing better than people thought. A poll from FiveThirtyEight, Ipsos andThe Washington Post found that respondents thought he and Republican businessman Vivek Ramaswamy performed the best.
At the same time, the fact remains that Mr Trump holds a massive lead against Mr DeSantis, who has been spreading rumours that Mr DeSantis might drop out of the presidential race, which the governor vehemently denies.
And that presents the major challenge for Mr DeSantis: he has to fight a two-front war, facing the normal slings and arrows of a governor and presidential candidate and whatever Mr Trump throws his way.