Florida’s Death Toll Now Exceeds DeSantis’ Margin of Victory
The base still buys his act, but other Floridians appear to have their doubts as the Delta variant spreads and hospitalizations are soaring.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made a big bet that keeping Florida open and fighting mask mandates would be political gold, and for a time it looked like he was winning that bet. No more, as the Delta variant has made Florida the epicenter of a new and more transmissible surge of COVID-19. And DeSantis is too dug in fighting mask mandates and peddling “Don’t Fauci My Florida” merchandise to make many adjustments even as the number of hospitalizations climb with a rising death rate sure to follow.
Local school boards are defying his executive order banning mask mandates, despite the governor’s threats to withhold funding, and a federal judge upheld Norwegian Cruise Line’s requirement that passengers show proof of vaccination after DeSantis threatened Norwegian with a $5,000 fine per passenger, a bill for a public health measure that would have cost millions and was correctly seen as a bully’s overreach into an industry that is the lifeblood of South Florida.
DeSantis was elected governor in 2018 with a margin of victory of just 0.4 percent, or 32,000 votes. Florida’s official COVID death count is now 39,695, a chilling reminder about the public health impact of DeSantis’ policies, and the fact that politics is about addition, not subtraction.
“He has staked so much more than any Republican currently in office (on downplaying the virus) and that is playing well with the base,” says Jessica Taylor, who tracks gubernatorial races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. But how that will play in his campaign for re-election or his aspirations to be the GOP nominee in 2024 will depend on what the virus does and how well DeSantis packages a whole new governing philosophy that bears little resemblance to the conservative principles he once touted.
Democrat Charlie Crist is now running even with DeSantis, according to a new poll this month. Crist was governor of Florida from 2007 to 2011 as a Republican and, after switching parties, is now a member of Congress who looks poised to give DeSantis a real fight.
What happened to the Republican war cry of local control? That was once a defining principle of conservatism, that the people closest to the problem know best how to solve it. After the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated its guidance in late July for schools that students, staff and teachers should wear masks even if vaccinated, the Broward County school board voted unanimously to adopt the CDC’s advice, only to backtrack just days later in deference to a new executive order issued by DeSantis.
To understand how venomous DeSantis has made mask-wearing, two days after the nine-person Broward school board voted, on the day that Florida had its highest count to that date of new COVID cases (21,683), DeSantis signed an executive order empowering the state Board of Education to withhold funding from any school district forcing students to wear masks. On the following Monday, the Broward school board walked back its mandate in deference to DeSantis, and an uneasy truce is now in place with school districts putting in place mask requirements but allowing parents to opt out for their children without providing a reason, allowing both sides to save face at the expense of public health.
In an editorial, the Florida Sun Sentinel made the point about who should know best in the Broward school system, which is not a DeSantis stronghold: “If you vote in Broward, you chose nine school board members to run schools, not DeSantis. He got less than 32% of the vote in Broward in the 2018 election. He’s governor, not an emperor. School board members are accountable to local voters. Let them decide how to keep our schools safe.”
Florida now accounts for about one in five COVID cases, prompting President Biden’s assertion last week that governors who are not helping restrain the virus “should get out of the way.” DeSantis looked like a man desperate to find a way to avoid blame and he latched on immigrants coming across the Mexican border as the alleged source of new COVID cases, accusing the president of “trying to single out Florida over COVID” and “facilitating” the spread of the virus.
“That’s put him at odds with the White House, and he clearly relishes being at odds with the White House,” says Taylor.
It’s like DeSantis wants to rerun the 2020 election in Florida where he’s the stand-in for Trump, who won the state easily. One thorn in his side could be the return of Rebekah Jones, the health data analyst state officials fired after she shared her concerns about data being withheld last year to make the overall picture of the virus appear rosier than it was. The 32-year-old Jones is running for Congress as an Independent against the scandal-ridden Rep. Matt Gaetz, whose district is in the Panhandle where Trump won by 50 points in some areas, and Gaetz won by 30 points in 2020.
Jones has been granted whistleblower status by the state of Florida, and her claims will be investigated, and potentially upheld as credible. Her website identifies her as a “scientist…whistleblower…fighter,” and her presence could be one more reminder of all the credibility DeSantis has squandered.