Ron DeSantis has a problem: Covid vaccine skepticism isn't moving GOP voters

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

This is the third story of a five-part series diving into the rise of the anti-vaccine political movement.

Ron DeSantis rose to national fame as the Covid-skeptical governor of Florida — giving voice to people frustrated by lockdowns, wary of facemasks and irate over vaccine mandates.

Now, with cases on the rise, the embattled DeSantis is leaning into his COVID strategy again. But this time Republicans don’t seem to care as much.

“Covid restrictions have gone from a dominant issue that got talked about all the time in the focus groups to one that never comes up. People just don’t talk about it anymore,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who routinely conducts focus groups. “Covid cost [DeSantis] one of his calling cards.”

Few, if any, major presidential candidates have so openly aligned themselves with vaccine skepticism as DeSantis. His team has routinely minimized Operation Warp Speed — the Trump-administration effort to expedite the development of Covid-19 vaccines. He has openly discussed placing conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in a top public health role in a prospective DeSantis administration. And in mid-August, he acknowledged to POLITICO that he never received a Covid booster shot.

“I have not gotten an mRNA shot,” he told reporters, when asked about his vaccine history. “One shot of the Johnson & Johnson, and that was it for me.”

DeSantis’ effort to revive the narrative of himself as a leading skeptic of Covid health protocols is being done, in part, to capitalize on what he believes is a weakness for former President Donald Trump, who is dominating the primary. The governor has touted his pandemic-era push to buck the Trump administration guidance and open public spaces in Florida earlier than other states. His team has criticized Trump’s early push for the Covid vaccine. And his state surgeon general recently discouraged the adoption ofthe newest Covid vaccine booster, contradicting federal agency guidance.

“COVID revealed to the American people the depths of government overreach and abuse,” campaign spokesperson Bryan Griffin said in a statement. “Ron DeSantis got COVID right by rejecting lockdowns and mandates. As the left pushes a new wave of COVID hysteria, Ron DeSantis is the only candidate with a proven record of fighting back and capable of bringing a reckoning for the wrongdoings committed.”

DeSantis’ posture has alarmed public health officials, who fear he is mainstreaming positions once relegated to the political fringe and seeding Republican voters with distrust for vaccines beyond those associated with Covid.

“In looking at the response to Covid in Florida, we need to ask ourselves, why did we go from having one of the lowest Covid mortality rates in the U.S. a year and a half into the pandemic to having one of the highest? And did anti-public health and anti-vaccine policies and messages play a role?” Scott Rivkees, who served as Florida surgeon general during the beginning of Covid and resigned amid a dispute with DeSantis, said in an interview.

During DeSantis’ time in Congress, there was little indication of the widespread distrust with public health officials that would come to define his time as governor. Throughout his early days in Tallahassee, he did not court the vaccine-skeptical crowd. When the Covid shots came online, he embraced them, even as he publicly broke with the federal guidance about which groups should receive them first.

That began to change as the pandemic persisted.

DeSantis broke from Trump administration officials and took heat from opponents for opening beaches, schools and businesses. He publicly scolded young students for wearing facemasks, arguing they were unnecessary. And as criticism mounted over his handling of the virus, so too did his resolve — such that by September of 2021, he tapped as Florida’s surgeon general a doctor who denounced vaccine mandates.

Those early moves are receiving renewed scrutiny as he seeks the highest office in the nation.

“He’s been given a platform because he’s running for president. He should make it clear what the vaccine can and cannot do … when he says I’m not getting any more vaccines,” said Paul Offit, a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases and prior member of the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. “I don’t even think he’s winking and nodding when he says RFK Jr. could be my head of CDC. I think he’s clearly embracing the anti-vax activists.”

DeSantis and his aides have insisted that they are not inherently anti-vaccine; rather they are opposed to vaccine mandates. But his operation has also pushed messages tying the Covid vaccine to injury and death. The governor asked the state’s Supreme Court to empanel a grand jury to investigate “any and all wrongdoing in Florida with respect to Covid-19 vaccines.” And the Tampa Bay Times reported that Ladapo altered scientific data to justify guidance that young men should not receive the Covid vaccine.

For DeSantis’ team, there was a belief that his posture aligned with the zeitgeist of the Republican Party writ large. Tired of mandates and wary of vaccine campaigns, DeSantis — they believe — was channeling the new populism of the base. Even Trump acknowledged that the vaccine he once touted had become more of a liability in the GOP primary. In late August, the former president shared a video in which DeSantis was accused of vaccinating more people and in which the shot was presented as a cause of death.

“Florida was the only state that followed the science,” Florida lawmaker Randy Fine, a Republican who has endorsed DeSantis, said recently. “As he was right repeatedly in how he managed Covid and was continually getting lit up and told he was wrong by the so-called scientists in Washington, I think that jaded him justifiably.”

“His response to Covid in making Florida the beacon of freedom is what catapulted him to being Trump’s chief rival,” Fine added.

The governor’s record on Covid is mixed. While he gained fame for fighting mandates and placing an early priority on elderly people receiving the vaccine, vaccination rates for younger residents lagged, according to a New York Times exposé on DeSantis’ handling of the virus. By the time the Delta variant hit in 2021, the death rate in Florida — when adjusted for age — exceeded that of nearly every other state, the Times found.

The trouble for DeSantis now is twofold: Those voters who were receptive to his vaccine messaging also support Trump; and they, like much of the country, are moving on from the pandemic.

Indeed, Covid has slipped from the public consciousness as a primary voting issue — it was not among the issues voters were asked about in a summer New York Times/Siena poll, just as cases began to spike due to the EG.5 subvariant — and DeSantis’ standing has slipped as well. Once positioned as the GOP’s only serious threat to Trump clinching the nomination, DeSantis now trails the former president by about 40 points.

Nevertheless, DeSantis is showing no signs of changing course.

Having previously evaded a direct answer to the question of how many Covid vaccine shots he personally received, he discussed his reasoning for stopping at just one during a swing through New Hampshire.

“The reason why I did it, even though I'm [at] low risk for COVID, is because we were told that these vaccines prevent infection,” the governor added. “And so I was governor and I didn't want to be out of pocket for two weeks because I got infected. Well, it turns out that these vaccines really didn't prevent infection and so then the booster data was very, very poor. So we never did any of the booster shots."

DeSantis has also routinely gone after Dr. Anthony Fauci, who helped lead Trump’s Covid response team, once eliciting applause by saying: “Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.” Without many other policy distinctions to draw between himself and Trump, DeSantis has insisted he would have fired Fauci, bemoaned “Faucian Dystopia” and has taken to referencing the “Trump-Fauci White House.”

The 82-year-old immunologist was targeted in an early attack ad from a DeSantis-aligned PAC, Never Back Down, which has spent more than $515,000 on those spots so far in early voting states, according to a review by AdImpact. The PAC also sent a staffer to direct people dressed in Trump and Fauci costumes who were trolling the former president during a campaign stop in Iowa over the summer.

Fauci, who now teaches at Georgetown University, declined to comment for this article.

But other doctors laced into DeSantis for using his public platform for not just attacking Fauci but for promoting, what they considered, an irresponsible position on vaccines that could cause Americans physical harm.

“There is no denying that this vaccine works to prevent symptomatic infection, especially serious infection,” said Offit. Offit, who is 72 years old, said he has “never” seen such a politicized reaction to a medical vaccine during his lifetime, adding: “I can safely say that this is the first virus in human history where you’re far more likely to die if you are Republican than if you are Democrat.”