MIAMI — Florida GOP governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis is off the campaign trail and facing one of the biggest leadership tests of his political career at a crucial moment in the 2024 race.
Hurricane Idalia made landfall in Florida Wednesday morning as a powerful Category 3 hurricane, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands and causing dangerous flooding in parts of the storm-prone state. While it’s still too early to tell how much damage the hurricane caused, DeSantis’ handling and response to the natural disaster will be scrutinized by his political opponents and potential voters.
“The stakes are always high when it comes to things like a hurricane response,” said longtime Republican strategist David Kochel, a veteran of numerous GOP presidential campaigns. “There’s usually more to lose than to gain, though. He’s always been seen as a competent leader, so he carries those expectations with him. I think that’s one of the reasons he won a landslide in 2022.”
The public’s assessment of DeSantis’ stewardship over the storm will “depend on what damage has occurred,” said Bryan Koon, who was in charge of Florida’s emergency management division under Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), DeSantis’ predecessor in the governor’s mansion.
The work could take a few days or it could take weeks before he’s ready to campaign again, he said.
DeSantis and his emergency staff have been holding multiple televised press conferences a day. While appearing tired, the governor has spoken matter-of-factly about the hurricane’s path, evacuations, school closures and power outages that could be expected and how the state planned to respond. As he did during last year’s devastating Hurricane Ian, DeSantis has so far put aside his combative tendencies and focused on the storm and its aftermath.
During a hurricane briefing Wednesday morning in Tallahassee, DeSantis brushed aside a question about former President Donald Trump not mentioning Hurricane Idalia, telling the reporter, “That’s not my concern.” When asked how he’d balance the task at hand with his presidential run, he called the response “important” and said, “You do what you need to do.”
The hurricane struck Florida at a key moment for DeSantis’ presidential campaign. The governor has seen his poll numbers slide in recent months and has shaken-up his campaign team as he attempts to gain traction in the race. It also comes just after the first GOP presidential debate, after which DeSantis saw a surge in campaign donations and at least one poll that declared him the winner.
“This is the strong leadership in times of crisis that Americans can expect from a President DeSantis,” Andrew Romeo, campaign spokesperson, said in a memo sent to reporters ahead of Idalia making landfall.
DeSantis generally received high marks for how he managed the state during last year’s Hurricane Ian, one of the worst storms in U.S. history that left more than 140 people dead and caused billions of dollars in damage. Though DeSantis was forced to defend late local evacuation orders in certain areas, he put aside his usually combative nature and gave frequent updates and traveled the state to survey the damage.
He also stood with President Joe Biden when he visited the state to check on Hurricane Ian’s damage, projecting bipartisanship with a president that he routinely criticizes. Once back on the campaign trail, he boasted about how quickly he was able to fix area bridges.
Competently handling a hurricane is a rite of passage for Florida governors, though this is the first time one of them is simultaneously running for president.
Former Florida GOP Gov. Jeb Bush was responsible for nine hurricanes during his two terms in office — including four in 2004 alone — and was even dubbed “Governor Hurricane” by the Miami Herald.
During his tenure, Scott held press briefings across the state as hurricanes approached and was a near-constant presence on the Weather Channel. DeSantis, notably, sat for an interview with the Weather Channel earlier this week.
Scott, who received praise for his management of hurricanes, received a bump in his approval ratings after Hurricane Irma in 2017 and went on to win his challenge to former Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018.
And sometimes, they lead to viral moments that reverberate for years. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is also running for president, is often remembered less for his response to Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and more for appearing with former President Barack Obama and praising him for speeding up assistance.
During the GOP presidential debate last week, Christie was again haunted by his embrace of a Democratic president when he accused political novice and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy for being an “amateur” like Obama.
“Give me a hug just like you did Obama,” Ramaswamy shot back.
But projecting bipartisanship is important, Koon said, as it helps “cement the vision that you are a leader and that after you are elected that you will be a president for all Americans.”
“This will be an opportunity to start demonstrating that now,” he said.
Once the storm passes, Koon said, the governor will have the opportunity to practice retail politics by surveying the damage, helping with debris removal and providing financial assistance.
“It’s a chance to, depending on how you handle it, humanize yourself,” Koon said, “and become more relatable and engage with normal Floridians.”