Biden already has an antagonist-in-chief. It's Ron DeSantis, the Florida GOP governor Democrats have tagged as 'Trump's errand boy.'

  • Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has emerged as one of President Joe Biden’s earliest critics.
  • Expect the Florida Republican to remain a thorn in the side for the Biden White House.
  • Fighting Biden could boost DeSantis’ political future — perhaps even a 2024 presidential bid.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is making an early play for the title of President Joe Biden’s top GOP foe.

Publicly sparring with the Democrat who defeated Donald Trump will elevate the up-and-coming Republican on the national stage. And that could help him in his 2022 gubernatorial reelection bid or, should he run, in a 2024 bid for president.

DeSantis, who at 42 is the youngest governor in the United States, can thank Trump in large part for his 2018 victory, but his eyes are no doubt on more than just the Sunshine State, which now counts Trump as a full-time resident.

As Republican governors across the country line up — unsurprisingly — to bash Biden, DeSantis has emerged as the leader of the pack.

First item in his plan of attack? Going after Biden’s pandemic strategy, an offensive DeSantis started even before the Democrat had taken the oath of office. He’s called Biden’s plan a big mistake.

GOP insiders expect DeSantis, an Iraq War veteran, to use his bully pulpit in Florida to try to combat Biden policies that conservatives view as overreaching — much the same way GOP governors sparred with the White House during the Obama administration.

“Where Florida can lead on free-market, smaller-government issues that are opposed to the way that Joe Biden is going to be running his White House for the next four years, I think Ron will revel in the idea of being able to lead that opposition,” said Brad Herold, a Florida Republican strategist who managed DeSantis’ 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

Eyes on 2024

DeSantis is widely considered to be a future GOP contender for the White House, though political insiders say he’ll have to focus first on his own 2022 reelection.

He rose quickly in Florida GOP politics, vaulting into the governor’s mansion after three terms in the US House of Representatives. He was fiercely loyal to Trump after the president’s endorsement helped him win the state’s GOP gubernatorial primary in 2018.

DeSantis is in turn credited with helping to deliver his state to Trump in the 2020 election, though it wasn’t enough to keep the Republican president in the White House for another four years. Floridians wouldn’t be surprised if DeSantis threw his hat into the next presidential cycle.

“It’s a fairly well-known secret that he probably has higher ambitions,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political-science professor at the University of Central Florida.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

A tried-and-true tactic for presidential hopefuls looking to bolster their own name recognition is to pick fights against the other party’s standard-bearer.

And DeSantis surely won’t be the only thorn in the side of the Biden administration as GOP governors spar against the White House on everything from vaccines to environmental regulations and economic policies.

“The traditional role of the minority party is to complain,” Jewett said, adding that DeSantis is “being more combative than probably the average Republican governor across the country right now.”

Early fight on COVID-19 vaccines

An easy place for DeSantis to start is picking at Biden’s pandemic plan. And he’s already gained the attention of the White House press secretary and newspapers in his home state for his early criticisms of Biden.

Seven days into Biden’s presidency, the Miami Herald described the DeSantis-Biden relationship as strained and a “tit-for-tat” affair.

The state — which was favored by Trump for pandemic supplies — had been receiving 266,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses a week. But DeSantis said on January 19 that Florida’s residents needed far more. He also took a swipe at Biden’s plan for federal vaccination sites, calling them “FEMA camps.”

Asked about DeSantis’ remarks, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, shot back the following week that Florida had distributed only about half of the vaccines it had received.

“Clearly, they have a good deal of the vaccine,” Psaki said at a January 25 White House briefing. “That supply will need to continue to increase as they are able to effectively reach people across the state.”

Psaki added that Biden would be focusing on the vaccine program “in a bipartisan manner, regardless of what any elected official may have to say.” She demurred when asked about Biden’s response to DeSantis’ jabs at him.

“Well, the president is a pretty even-keeled guy,” Psaki said. “So I would say that he doesn’t have much of a reaction, other than he wants to ensure that the vaccine is distributed to people across the country, including, of course, the millions of people living in Florida.”

DeSantis called Psaki’s remarks “disingenuous” and told reporters the state was holding onto doses for older residents awaiting their second shot of the vaccine.

The exchange was a far cry from 2020, when DeSantis frequently received praise during the press conferences led by the Trump White House’s coronavirus task force, especially for his pandemic response in long-term-care facilities.

The Florida governor opened 12 nursing homes specifically for COVID-19 patients who were “stable,” in an effort to keep them quarantined. But the state — like most of the country — still saw heavy losses of nursing-home residents to the virus. More than 8,000 were dead by the end of December. In total, Florida had lost more than 27,100 people to COVID-19 as of Monday.

“I think there is some politics involved in it,” Herold said. “But frankly, I think it’s politics coming from the White House. I think Jen Psaki standing at the White House podium and taking shots at Ron DeSantis smacks of politics in my mind.”

The White House did not respond to questions from Insider about DeSantis’ critiques of Biden’s pandemic plan.

‘Trump’s errand boy’

Democrats view DeSantis’ early complaints about the Biden White House as political posturing, but they’re also fine-tuning their defense, focusing on his pandemic performance and his fealty to Trump.

“I do think that DeSantis is vulnerable, and there’s going to be an election, and there’s going to be a number of Democrats who are going to be willing to take him on,” said David Turner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. “Trump’s errand boy is not a good look as an executive leader.”

Turner told Insider that the Democratic Party had DeSantis on its radar and that his handling of the pandemic had raised some red flags that might bolster their chances in Florida — a state where elections are typically won with razor-thin margins.

“Obviously Florida has a huge stake in the US, and he’s an incumbent who we think has botched COVID in a number of ways,” Turner said.

Florida Democrats are already fundraising for whoever winds up facing off against the GOP governor in 2022.

“Gov. DeSantis’ attention is locked in on partisan squabbles that appeal to his and Trump’s base, not the needs or interests of Florida,” the Democratic Party wrote in a January 26 email pitch to supporters. “He has backed Trump time and time again, botched our COVID-19 response, played a direct hand in the violence we saw at the Capitol through his rhetoric and now he CONTINUES to divide people rather than take responsibility or be a leader.”

And though DeSantis condemned the pro-Trump mob’s January 6 attack on the US Capitol, he has also spoken out about the loss of Parler, a conservative alternative to Twitter that was taken offline for failing to police hate speech and threats. DeSantis said his top legislative priority in 2021 would be to stop censorship of conservatives online, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Democrats don’t expect the Biden White House — with its message of unity — to take a hostile approach to DeSantis. Biden did, however, take an early swing at his COVID-19 response during the presidential campaign.

A feud between DeSantis and Biden is “going to be entirely one-sided,” said Ben Pollara, a Democratic strategist in Florida. “Joe Biden has not shown himself in any way, shape, or form,” he added, to be someone who cares “about this kind of petty politicking and really cares about doing what he believes is right for the country.”

Florida Republicans, however, don’t view DeSantis’ moves as politically driven. They say the governor will work with Biden when it suits him and the state — and remain steadfast when he disagrees with the new administration.

“I don’t think he’s posturing,” said Bill McCollum, who has represented Florida as a congressman and served as the state’s attorney general from 2007 until 2011. “I don’t think we’re at the stage where you can say that.”

In areas where teaming up with the Biden White House will benefit the roughly 22 million Floridians, Herold said DeSantis would be cooperative.

But, he added, “Ron’s not going to ever be someone who’s going to compromise his principles for the sake of congeniality.”

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