There are still almost 10 months until Florida’s voters elect their next governor, but the campaign of the Republican incumbent, Ron DeSantis, appears well under way.
In a red-meat-for-the-base address at the opening of Florida’s legislature last week, themed around the concept of “freedom” but described by critics as a fanfare of authoritarianism, DeSantis gave a clear indication of the issues he believes are on voters’ minds. They include fighting the White House over Covid-19, ballot box fraud, critical race theory in schools and defunding law enforcement.
Yet to opponents of the Donald Trump protege, who is tipped for his own presidential run in 2024, DeSantis has chosen to focus on problems that don’t exist in Florida, either to distract from real priorities or to bolster the Trumpist base and improve on his narrow victory over the Democrat Andrew Gillum in 2018.
“We have real issues that need to be addressed, and the governor is chasing boogeymen,” said Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democratic state representative and frequent DeSantis critic.
“We have an affordable housing crisis with exorbitant rent hikes of up to 30% that people can’t afford. We have surging property insurance rates. We have a healthcare crisis with 22,000 Floridians with disabilities who are on waitlist to get the services that they deserve.
“And Governor DeSantis is focused on fighting ‘wokeness’ in the 2022 legislative session, with the Stop Woke Act. He wants to focus on fighting critical race theories in our schools. That does not exist. It’s not even a thing.”
A wave of criticism followed DeSantis’s speech, which came at the start of a 60-day legislative session in Tallahassee during which Republicans will also pursue a Mississippi-style 15-week abortion ban under the guise of “reducing fetal and infant mortality”.
DeSantis has said the proposal, which has no exception for rape or incest, is “very reasonable”.
But it is his anti-mask approach to Covid-19, and his constant feuding with Joe Biden and Anthony Fauci, of which DeSantis appears most proud, lauding Florida as “the freest state” for his outlawing of “authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates”.
“While so many around the country have consigned the people’s rights to the graveyard, Florida has stood as freedom’s vanguard,” DeSantis insisted. On Thursday, Florida’s death toll from Covid-19 surpassed 63,000.
“Floridians are exhausted by the politicization of Covid-19,” Smith said. “They’re tired of fighting about masks, they’re tired of fighting about vaccines. And they’re tired of the governor continuing to focus on these culture wars that do nothing to promote the prosperity of our state.”
It was the Omicron-fuelled surge pushing the state’s coronavirus numbers up by almost 950% that caused more controversy over the recent holidays, when critics accused DeSantis of being missing in action.
The governor’s press team inadvertently added to the “Where’s Ron?” confusion by posting on social media two-week-old pictures of him at a bagel store, insisted it was his prerogative to take a few days off if he wanted, then regrouped to attack anybody who suggested he was taking a vacation.
DeSantis reappeared after a 13-day absence to say he had been attending chemotherapy sessions with his wife, Casey, who has breast cancer.
The first weeks of the new year, in which he will seek his second term, possibly as a springboard to a likely 2024 presidential run, were also bumpy. Nikki Fried, the Democratic Florida agriculture commissioner and potential opponent in November, accused the DeSantis administration of stockpiling about 1m Covid-19 tests in a warehouse as they expired, which state officials later admitted was true after earlier denials.
And a planned press briefing in Jacksonville was abruptly postponed after the unseemly spectacle of a peaceful, disabled Black community activist led away in handcuffs and cited for trespass after asking to speak with DeSantis about his coronavirus policies.
“No, this isn’t from 1955. This is from an hour ago. At the Governor’s press conference,” Democratic state congresswoman Michele Rayner tweeted, noting that Ben Frazier, founder of Jacksonville’s Northside Coalition, was also denied use of his electric scooter.
“A Black man dared to refuse to leave until he met with the governor. From my understanding he wasn’t disrespectful. But you know Ronnie can’t handle criticism of any kind.”
Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’s spokesperson, said in a statement that Frazier had a history of “disruptive behavior” and was trespassing “in a secured facility”, even though the meeting took place in a public building.
Critics say that while DeSantis has been promoting the rights of citizens to make their own decisions, he has become increasingly authoritarian. He stripped local authorities of powers to instigate coronavirus mitigation efforts and banned school districts from imposing mask mandates.
In south Florida in particular, schools say they are “struggling to cope” with staff shortages and student absences.
A self-professed law-and-order governor, DeSantis has also offered unvaccinated cops a $5,000 bounty to relocate to Florida, and plans a state paramilitary force outside federal control. The former Florida governor Charlie Crist, another possible opponent in November, accused DeSantis of wanting his own “handpicked secret police”.
Democrats, however, concede they face challenges in unseating DeSantis, a strong favorite for re-election in polls taken last year. Florida’s new restrictive voting rights law limits drop boxes and mail-in ballots, and Democrats have recently been overtaken by registered Republican voters for the first time.
Analysts say DeSantis also has the advantage of a strong state economy, alongside his pugnacious style of leadership.
“DeSantis is, to many Republicans, Florida’s incarnation of Donald Trump, his successor, his alter ego, his clone, whatever you want to call it,” said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida.
“He’s certainly run very much in the style of Trump, this in-your-face, critical stance he has taken on a lot of issues, which have ingrained him with Republicans. But the GOP in Florida makes up a little less than 40% of the electorate, so to win a statewide race you need to appeal to the no-party-affiliated, independent voters.
“How do you appeal to those when you run a campaign trying to bash other people in the face, so to speak? That can play well with your base but not so well especially with independents.”
Paulson, however, sees an uphill battle for Democrats. “Every election cycle you’re really appealing to a completely new electorate. When you add in the elderly factor in Florida, people dying off and replaced by newcomers in the state and younger people, it’s hard to project how they’re going to align themselves,” he said.
“Right now, the advantage is clearly Republican. But all sorts of things could quickly change. It could be a policy issue that emerges, or a politician that emerges, the two most important things to affect Florida politics.”