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Ron DeSantis is about to face the most consequential 72 hours of his political career.
With Hurricane Ian making landfall this afternoon and 2.5 million Florida residents under evacuation orders, the Florida governor is going to endure what his predecessors have navigated with varying competencies: a natural disaster with huge potential to make or break the public perception of a tenure, and which could become a defining piece of an expected White House run. Floridians often ignore the political posturing coming out of Tallahassee. That’s less possible when the power is out, state services are fractured, and the voice from the top is projecting anything but empathy.
On that last point, many Republicans will keep a keen eye on DeSantis’s conduct. Given his brazen political stunts in recent weeks to move migrants to liberal enclaves with the goal of embarrassing Democrats unable to accommodate the newcomers, those betting DeSantis can effectively summon empathy are taking long odds. And having learned how a post-partisan storm recovery tour dogged New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential campaign and became one of his tenure’s signature moments, it’s unlikely that a summit between DeSantis and President Joe Biden will unfurl as a sequel to Christie’s visit to the boardwalk with then-President Barack Obama.
Still, DeSantis is taking care not to seem like a naked partisan. He told reporters on Tuesday that he’s open to briefing Biden. “My view on all of this is, like, you’ve got people’s lives at stake, you’ve got their property at stake, and don’t have time for pettiness. … My phone line is open,” DeSantis said in Tallahassee. His public hostilities toward Biden took a similar break in July of last year, when 98 people died in a building collapse in Surfside and the president and governor sat next to each other during a briefing.
Americans largely give leaders the benefit of the doubt during hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and wildfires. Florida, in particular, has a competent corps of emergency responders; being surrounded by the sea on three sides tends to do that.
Getting crisis responses right can define an administration. Even in the wake of Sandy’s destruction, deep-blue New Jersey re-elected Christie, a Republican. And in New Orleans, when Katrina soaked Louisiana, sending residents to seek refuge inside NFL stadiums, then-freshman Rep. Bobby Jindal emerged as a leading source of answers and aid; two years later, he was elected governor. Jeb Bush used his handling of storms as Florida’s governor to try and illustrate why a technocrat like himself could handle the White House.
When leaders do find themselves in trouble, though, is when they don’t seem to understand the suffering. George W. Bush’s presidency never recovered from his seen-as-sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Former President Donald Trump was hardly a unifying figure when Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico in 2017; his tone-deaf visit to the island, in which he tossed paper towels like basketballs, did him no favors.
DeSantis is on the ballot in just a few weeks. He has consistently led the Democratic nominee, Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor who wants the job back but is now wearing a blue jersey. Democrats are realistic about their chances, given Trump won Florida in 2020 by 3 points, up from the 1-point margin he posted four years prior. Democrats had hoped the one-two punch of potentially competitive Senate and gubernatorial races could help them gain buzz, but instead it has felt like a buzzsaw for many party strategists. As TIME’s Molly Ball reported recently from Tallahassee, Democrats’ most-feared contender in 2024 seems to have gotten a free pass.
DeSantis has positioned himself as the natural heir to Trumpism. In 2018, the then-president helped DeSantis overtake the Establishment’s pick of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in the GOP primary. Talk to activists around the country, and they still have great affinity for Trump; they just worry that he’s now too damaged by his conduct after losing re-election in 2020, especially the Jan. 6 chaos.
DeSantis, however, remains largely untested. For three years, he’s been able to pick culture-war fights with teachers and Walt Disney World without the pesky distraction of serious governing. He doesn’t have a lot of the compassionate chits that his predecessors had stored up in advance. When Maria sent scores of Puerto Ricans into Florida, then-Gov. Rick Scott—another potential presidential aspirant in 2024 from his current post in the Senate—marshaled his state to welcome the newcomers with social services, starting at the airports and continuing into the community. Scott managed to win 45% of the Latino vote in 2018, a 10-point improvement over Trump’s showing with that bloc two years earlier. As a sincere student of all corners of his state’s demographics, the Hispanic and Latino communities at least knew Scott was making the effort.
DeSantis? It’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt when he’s treating migrants like pawns. Still, he did carry 44% of the Latino vote in 2018 on the same ticket as Scott. This year, he’s on a ballot with Sen. Marco Rubio, who carried 48% of the Latino vote when he last faced voters, in 2016.
But once the storm surges retreat and all that’s left is the rebuilding, Florida’s famously fickle electorate could discover that their governor’s political ambitions have left behind a sour aftertaste.
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