Gov. DeSantis’ rise to national prominence amid the pandemic

First-term governor polling well among Florida residents, conservative activists

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves to supporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. (AP photo br John Raoux)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Following the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando last weekend, Gov. Ron DeSantis was hailed as a breakout star and potential presidential candidate in 2024.

DeSantis finished first in a CPAC 2024 straw poll covering a field of potential candidates that did not include former President Donald Trump, who still carries political power in the Republican Party and could potentially run for the office a third time three years from now.

DeSantis, a Trump ally, was also the only Republican to reach double digits (21%) in another CPAC straw poll that included Trump.

The New York Times said the straw poll results are “a boost to his emergence as a leading Republican for the post-Trump era.”

Political analysts have warned not to put too much stake in the straw poll taken in the governor’s home state, but it’s clear that DeSantis has raised his national profile during the coronavirus pandemic, regularly appearing on national conservative talk shows to tout his no lockdown approach to combat the virus.

“This is not a new playbook for the DeSantis. This is what he did in order to get elected in 2018,” said Michael Binder, Department of Political Science and Public Administration professor at the University of North Florida. “He was on Fox News constantly in 2017. And in 2018, in the run-up to the election, in the primary, his presence on Fox News endeared him to President Trump. This is something that he has been doing for several years now and continues to do so to great effectiveness amongst his base.”

DeSantis, who holds almost daily press conferences at vaccination sites around the state, has been on the rise in Florida, too.

A Mason-Dixon poll released Tuesday found more than half of registered Florida voters support Ron DeSantis’ performance as the state’s governor.

The poll shows that statewide, 53% of respondents approve of how DeSantis is handling his job, 42% disapprove and 5% were undecided.

According to the poll, the governor’s job approval rating has increased over the past seven months, with his approval number increasing by eight points and his disapproval number dropping by seven points.

Binder said although it’s the highest approval rating DeSantis has had in a while, it’s not necessarily surprising.

“Unemployment numbers have come down in recent months as the economy’s reopened, and people have been gone back to work. But also, and I think more importantly, vaccines are getting distributed,” Binder said. “That doesn’t mean people still aren’t getting sick, it doesn’t mean people still aren’t dying. And in fact, the number is much greater than they were in April and May of 2020. But I think people are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel and that’s being reflected in the governor’s approval ratings.”

DeSantis has been approval has continued to rise despite controversies surrounding the lack of any statewide coronavirus protections and issues with the vaccine rollout, which involved Publix and a controversial site at Lakewood Ranch. But Binder believes his choice to buck CDC recommendations and vaccinate seniors ahead of frontline workers has helped him politically.

“The fact that vaccines are getting out, and the fact that seniors are, have been and probably will be for the foreseeable future strong supporters of the Republican Party, it makes a lot of sense that that group was targeted first,” Binder said.

What will be interesting, Binder said, is how the run-up to the 2024 presidential election plays out with DeSantis as well as Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott all potentially jockeying for the Republican nomination.

But before DeSantis gets a real shot at the national spotlight in 2024, DeSantis will have to win reelection in 2022 against Democratic challengers that could include Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried and former Gov. Charlie Crist.

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Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.