Addressing a raucous crowd at the Hyatt Regency Orlando, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis kicked off the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference with a defiant speech that served as a coming-out party for conservatives in the Sunshine state.
DeSantis began by boasting about his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, claiming that “instead of locking people down, Florida lifted people up.” He unveiled a legislative agenda for increased voting restrictions in Florida, alleging “mass mailing of unsolicited ballots” and “ballot harvesting” (presumably by Democrats) while citing baseless claims of voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election as a reason to crack down on voting rights. DeSantis then shifted attention to Big Tech, where he laid the groundwork to “combat political censorship and deplatforming.”
“In Florida, we are not going to let the terms of the debate in our country be set by oligarchs in Silicon Valley,” DeSantis said to cheers from the crowd in attendance. “We don’t spout hollow rhetoric. We take action.”
DeSantis’ speech strategically touched on all the major talking points in conservative discourse, tackling issues of unproven election fraud, claims of social media censorship, and opposition to pandemic lockdowns or any COVID-19 restrictions. It was also a chance for DeSantis to brag about his achievements during his tenure as governor—achievements that have made him one of the most popular conservative politicians in the post-Trump era.
Despite once being a laughing stock among U.S. politicians for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Florida, DeSantis’ political status has only strengthened within his party. His lax restrictions, brash attitude, loyalty to Trump, and commitment to conservative values had even fueled discussions of a potential presidential bid in 2024.
In August 2018, Florida gubernatorial candidate Rep. Ron DeSantis released a bizarre (albeit attention-grabbing) campaign video that playfully embraced his status as a candidate “fully endorsed by President Donald Trump.”
“Everyone knows my husband Ron DeSantis is endorsed by President Trump, but he’s also an amazing dad,” DeSantis’ wife, Casey, said in the ad, which then cuts to the candidate helping his daughter “build a wall” out of toy blocks. He is then seen reading from Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” to his son, and using Make America Great Again signs to teach his daughter how to talk.
“People say Ron’s all Trump, but he’s so much more,” Casey continued.
The ad was DeSantis’ tongue-in-cheek way of defending the president while simultaneously embracing his role as Trump’s preferred candidate. Despite being a veteran of the Iraq war and an experienced member of Congress, DeSantis knew that embracing Trumpism would be the key to securing the governor’s office.
DeSantis’ approach would eventually pay off, though not without a few controversies along the way. While on the campaign trail, the congressman was accused of racism for using the phrase “monkey this up” when disparaging opponent Democrat Andrew Gillum, who is Black (Monkey being racist dog whistle) and later mocked fellow congressperson Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by referring to her as “this girl … or whatever she is.” He went on to defeat Gillum in a tight race just a few weeks later on Nov. 20, 2018.
As a congressman, DeSantis made repeated attempts to end funding for the Mueller investigation and positioned himself as a proud ally of Trump—a trend which continued into his gubernatorial tenure. During his first six months in office, he shifted the Florida Supreme Court from a liberal to a conservative majority, signed an “anti-sanctuary city” bill, and made it harder for groups and citizens to put proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. However, it was his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that inevitably thrust him into the political spotlight.
In March 2020, the world became engulfed in a global pandemic caused by the spread of COVID-19. Airports were shuttered, borders closed, and mass gatherings banned as governments around the world attempted to institute lockdown measures to stem the spread of the disease. While more than 30 states issues statewide stay-at-home orders, DeSantis decided against imposing one in Florida despite, at the time, being among eight states with the highest number of COVID-19 cases.
The governor’s choices appeared to mirror Trump’s comments at the time, who stated that nationwide stay-at-home orders would cause unnecessary economic damage. “There are some parts of the country that are in far deeper trouble than others,” Trump said during a White House press conference on Mar. 30, 2020. “There are other parts that, frankly, are not in trouble at all.”
While DeSantis eventually succumbed to pressure and declared a statewide stay-at-home order on April 1, 2020, he continued to actively resist the measures in place by giving some beaches the green light to reopen and by designating professional sports as “essential services” in order to lobby organizations such as World Wrestling Entertainment and the Ultimate Fighting Championship to hold events in Florida. Consequently, the WWE moved its tapings to Orlando while the UFC committed to hosting three consecutive events in Jacksonville.
DeSantis later defended the decision to welcome sports amid a pandemic by claiming that the UFC and WWE would help boost the state’s economy and encourage them to “invest in Florida.”
“I helped recruit,” DeSantis said. ”I wanted the wrestling to be filmed in Orlando. I’d like them to do WrestleMania. They were going to do WrestleMania in April. That was hundreds of millions of dollars. I want to keep that good relationship.”
In April 2020, the Tampa Bay Times reported that state officials stopped releasing the list of coronavirus-related deaths gathered by medical examiners, which at times was 10 percent higher than the figure released by the Florida Department of Health. This suggested that, while DeSantis was planning to re-open the economy, Florida was suppressing COVID-19 death figures from the public.
As the state’s COVID-19 cases continued to rise exponentially, critics began to refer to the governor as Ron “DeathSantis,” including one attorney who raised funds for a “DeathSantis” billboard that showed a picture of the governor alongside a caption that read, “Killing Florida with his stupidity.”
Despite the criticism and rising death toll, DeSantis continued to obstruct local governments in Florida from implanting their own public health measures related to COVID-19. On Sep. 25, he issued an order that prohibited local officials from imposing fines or shutting down businesses for violations of mask mandates, while also allowing restaurants to reopen at full capacity—a decision that Dr. Anthony Fauci said was “really asking for trouble.”
DeSantis’ aversion to coronavirus-related policies extended into 2021, where he was entrenched in further controversy regarding the coronavirus vaccine rollout.
On Jan. 4, 2021, DeSantis was involved in a heated back-and-forth with a CNN reporter who pressed him about the delays in Florida’s vaccine rollout. The exchange went viral on social media after CNN posted a clip of the aggressive interaction online.
The governor came under scrutiny for selecting Publix, a supermarket chain that donated $100,000 to DeSantis’ reelection campaign, as the sole distributor for the vaccine in a handful of Florida counties. He was also accused of using preferential treatment and political favoritism by distributing the vaccine in ZIP codes encompassing the neighborhoods of affluent, Republican donors and supporters.
When confronted with the criticism from local politicians and pundits, DeSantis claimed the critics lacked grace and even threatened to move the pop-up vaccination clinic.
“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said.
The governor once again made national headlines when he dismissed the concerns about crowded and maskless Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrations in Florida following the Super Bowl before shifting blame onto the media.
“[The media] doesn’t care as much if it’s a ‘peaceful protest.’ You don’t care as much if they’re celebrating a Biden election. You care if it is people you don’t like,” DeSantis said. “I’m a Bucks fan. I’m damn proud of what they did on Sunday.”
While DeSantis’ resistance to implementing aggressive COVID-19 related measures and subsequent conflict with mainstream media launched an endless series of controversies, it also singled him out as a leading Republican figure in Trump-era politics.
A Bastion of the Modern GOP
Earlier this month, top GOP pollster Tony Fabrizo conducted a survey for a private client to gauge the most popular GOP politicians in Florida. The results came as a surprise to many—in a hypothetical three-way primary for president, DeSantis garnered a whopping 64 percent support compared to 12 percent for Sen. Marco Rubio and 10 percent for Sen. Rick Scott.
DeSantis’ 52 percent lead over Rubio, his once better-known home-state colleague, emphasizes the first-term governor’s popularity among the GOP base in Florida. Despite drawing national ridicule for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, DeSantis’ position has only strengthened ahead of his 2022 reelection in Florida. In fact, DeSantis is so well-liked in Florida that one survey concluded he had better favorable ratings that Trump among the state’s GOP.
DeSantis’ growing popularity is due to his perceived leadership in Florida, where he regularly clashes with the media and the Biden administration while opposing COVID-19 measures and restrictions embraced in blue states like California and New York. Yet while Governors Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo were praised for their handling of the pandemic during the early stages, both Democrats are on the defensive now: Cuomo is now dealing accusations of a COVID-19 death count cover-up, while Newsom is in campaign mode as he faces down a Republican effort to recall him from office for California’s recent disasterous encounter with a spike in cases.
As Cuomo and Newsom deal with the blowback stemming from their coronavirus prevention measures, DeSantis’ deregulated and laissez-faire approach to the health crisis earned him praise from his GOP base, many of whom appreciated his commitment to keeping the economy open and opposing mask mandates across the state—an approach reminiscent of Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
DeSantis has also played into the idea that aggressive COVID-19 restrictions are a partisan issue split across party lines. As Biden’s administration reportedly looked into a new policy for domestic travel that would include restrictions on Florida, DeSantis vehemently opposed the policy, referring to Biden and his administration as “lockdowners” while adding that they will “not be able to get away with targeting Florida.”
While DeSantis is not the most recognizable face within the nationwide GOP base—Politico reported that an early nationwide primary poll for the 2024 Republican race placed DeSantis behind Sen. Ted Cruz and former Vice President Mike Pence—his staunch opposition to Biden’s administration made him more popular among Washington Republicans. Rep. Matt Gaetz even suggested that DeSantis could become a frontrunner in a hypothetical 2024 presidential bid during a Fox News interview last week.
“What Ron DeSantis didn’t say, which is the truth, is that the Biden folks know that if Donald Trump is not the candidate in 2024, the leader of our movement will be Ron DeSantis,” Gaetz told Fox. “He is a strong potential presidential candidate in 2024, the Biden team knows that, and so they’re trying to somehow cast aspersions on the Florida experience because you know what, throughout America, there’s a lot of Florida envy right now.”
In an attempt to further his momentum within the Republican Party, DeSantis declared war on Big Tech by proposing legislation to combat alleged social media censorship. The legislation would allow Florida state legislature to impose fines up to $100,000 a day on tech companies that deplatform political candidates running for office in Florida.
“It’s high time that we step up to the plate to ensure the protection of the people and their rights,” DeSantis said, “As these companies have grown and their influence expanded, big tech has come to look more like big brother with each passing day,” DeSantis said during a speech at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee. “As these companies have grown and their influence expanded, Big Tech has come to look more like big brother with each passing day.”
DeSantis’ proposed legislation is his response to tech giants like Facebook and Twitter, both of which suspended former president Trump from their platforms in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection. “No group of people should exercise such power, especially not tech billionaires in Northern California,” DeSantis added.
As DeSantis emerges as a heavyweight figure within the Republican party, it is worth noting that the governor has also gained favorability with the far right. Adherents of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory have backed his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, claiming in one Telegram post that his “policies have proven that the devastation caused by Cuomo, Newsom, and all the rest were completely unnecessary.”
Even the Proud Boys—a neo-fascist, pro-Trump hate group that was involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection—have shown support for the incumbent governor, including Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who shared an article (which has since been removed) on Feb. 12 about DeSantis’ ongoing conflict with the Biden administration.
“DeSantis Thuglife,” Tarrio wrote beneath the article. He apparently meant that as a compliment.