How Ron DeSantis won the pandemic

FLORIDA MAN — Ron DeSantis wants you to know how well he has done.

“We’ve had tremendous success,” the Republican governor of Florida said recently at a vaccine site in Sumterville in the central part of the state when I caught up with him while reporting for this week’s POLITICO Magazine Friday Cover, which we published early for Nightly readers.

“Really good numbers,” he said in front of the pharmacy in the back of a Jacksonville Walgreens.

And just today he hosted like-minded experts in Tallahassee to help him crow and then headed to Panama City for a (very brief) press conference. He all but gloated.

“It’s interesting. Now you’re starting to see some of the mainstream and national media admit: Oh, Florida had schools open — it was the right decision. Oh, Florida has a 4.8 unemployment rate — and yet their mortality rate for Covid is less than a lot of these lockdown states,” he said. “People were saying Florida was going to end up hit the worst on everything.” But Florida’s way? His way? “That’s proven to be a better approach.”

Democrats across the state say this “victory lap” is not only unseemly but premature. They might be right. This past year, after all, has been wrenching. Approximately 2 million Floridians have tested positive for the coronavirus and more than 32,000 have died. The disbursement of unemployment benefits has been stingy and uneven. The vaccine rollout has been pockmarked by tales of lengthy waits, balky websites and numerous charges of socioeconomic inequities and political favoritism. And the pandemic of course is not over. Ominous variants lurk.

But after 12 months in which he was pilloried as a reckless executive driven more by ideology than science, dogged by images of crowded beaches and bars and derided as “DuhSantis,” “DeathSantis” and “DeSatan,” Florida has fared no worse, and in some ways better, than many other states — including its big-state peers.

The most controversial policies DeSantis enacted — locking down later and opening up earlier, keeping nursing homes closed to visitation while insisting schools needed to be open to students, resisting intense pressure to issue a mask mandate — have ended up being, on balance, short of or even the opposite of ruinous.

Prognosticators’ grimmest predictions never came true — or haven’t yet — and DeSantis, for now, is more politically ascendant than any governor in the country. In stark contrast to his most conspicuous counterparts — California’s Gavin Newsom, who’s facing a recall, and New York’s Andrew Cuomo, who’s confronting political extinction — the Yale-and Harvard-educated DeSantis’ approval ratings are up from last year’s low 40s and flirting with the mid-50s.

And in spite of some traits that typically would constitute political kryptonite — he’s as awkward as he is ambitious — there’s mounting (albeit ultra-early) polling that suggests DeSantis might be (after Donald Trump) the favorite to be Republicans’ nominee for president in 2024.

“There’s a sweet spot in there that most governors have searched for but few have found,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who’s worked for DeSantis in the past. “He’s managed to figure out the sweet spot between good policy and good politics.”

“He’s in the catbird’s seat,” powerful Trump-tied lobbyist Brian Ballard told me. “The future of the party.”

Why?

The pandemic.

“As of this writing,” Orlando attorney and megadonor John Morgan said, “he won.”