Once the favorite to take down Donald Trump, DeSantis’s poll numbers have progressively declined while the former president’s have surged, despite a performance in the first debate that many watchers rated highly. And now, he’s been forced to indefinitely leave the campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire to address multiple major crises in his home state, including a racially motivated shooting in Jacksonville and Hurricane Idalia, which made landfall as a Category 3 storm Wednesday morning.
All of that comes at a critical moment for his campaign ahead of the August 31 fundraising deadline, where his numbers may signal his path forward in the race.
“I think a case can be made that he’s plateaued, and he’s just unable to break through the ceiling that’s required to compete with Trump,” said David Jolly, a former Florida GOP member of Congress who was in the middle of hurricane cleanup when I called him. “DeSantis’s strategy broadly remains waiting for Trump to injure himself politically and staying positioned to overtake him. But that’s a fairly bleak assessment for someone who started with such potential and all the money in the world.”
Times of crisis can sometimes provide an opportunity for candidates to show their worth. Take former President George W. Bush, who promised billions in federal aid after two successive hurricanes hit Florida in 2004 and went on to win the state and reelection a couple of months later. So, too, was former President Barack Obama able to capitalize on images of him embracing Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 as he sought reelection. But it’s not clear that DeSantis is similarly seizing the moment.
“In matters of crisis, I think he has so destroyed his credibility with roughly half the state that he’s kind of overlooked,” Jolly said. “He’s not expected to lead. And that’s true when it comes to the hurricane. That’s true when it comes to the shootings. It’s true when it comes to homeowners insurance.”
Recent crises in Florida are testing DeSantis as a candidate
DeSantis led a conservative renaissance in the once-swing state of Florida in last year’s midterms and has pandered to his party’s right flank while in office. But in times of crises, he’s been forced to confront Floridians who believe they’re suffering as a result of his policies.
Florida has seen a number of shootings in recent years, and DeSantis — who has loosened Florida’s gun laws, undermined the teaching of Black history, and curbed diversity and inclusion programs — appeared uncomfortable when speaking to a largely Black crowd as a consoler-in-chief following the Jacksonville shooting.
At a vigil for the victims over the weekend, he was booed so loudly that he stepped back from the microphone. A member of the City Council had to intervene: “It ain’t about parties today,” Ju’Coby Pittman said. “A bullet don’t know a party.”
To Jolly’s point about homeowner’s insurance, some Floridians fear that they’ll have to bear the cost of hurricane damage — if not now, then later with higher insurance premiums when they renew their policies given the current volatility of the state’s property insurance market. Major insurers such as Farmers have announced that they’re planning on exiting the state eventually, and Floridians already pay an average of $6,000 on home insurance policies annually. DeSantis’s critics argue he should have done more to stop insurers from fleeing the state.
“We’re currently dealing with a housing market that’s teetering on the brink of a significant correction largely due to the homeowners insurance crisis, which he’s done nothing about,” Jolly said.
DeSantis has said he will not put a timeline on returning to the campaign trail while he’s dealing with the crisis at home. He’s been giving regular news conferences with updates on how he’s managing the crisis, as any governor might. But there’s a feeling even among some Republicans that his response has been “performative” and that since he turned his gaze to the White House, “he’s no longer invested in the state,” Jolly said.
Though Republicans in the legislature essentially rubber-stamped DeSantis’s agenda this past legislative session, serving as a launchpad for his presidential campaign, some are beginning to see DeSantis, who can’t serve more than two consecutive terms at a time under Florida law, as past his prime.
“There’s a growing rift actually among Republicans in Tallahassee in the legislature who see him now as a lame duck — no longer on the ballot in Florida and walking away from the state to run for the presidency,” Jolly said. “They just won’t use that term yet. But that’s how he’s perceived.”
It will take a while to assess the damage from the storm. But if DeSantis wants to avoid further damage to his political prospects, he will have to make Floridians see him as someone who can lead them through any crisis.