SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) – When the coronavirus ravaged Florida, the government defiantly bent Ron DeSanti’s mask mandates. He later cracked down on protesters proposing racial justice, blowing up President Joe Biden over immigration, leaping into the fight for transgender athletes and signing sweeping legislation to tighten voting rules.
But after a deadly building collapse, the Republican governor largely hits a break on the culture wars.
In the two weeks since a 12-story condominium tower in this coastal community suddenly crumbled and killed at least 64, DeSantis has stood gloomily with local officials, including Democrats, as they assessed the damage. He nodded in agreement as Biden visited and praised their common appearance as a sign that they, with conflicting political views, can work together in a crisis. And he even skipped a meeting in Sarasota with the headline of former President Donald Trump, whose early approval was crucial to helping DeSantis win the governor̵
Since the victory, DeSantis has often taken its cues from Trump. But as he prepares for a re-election bid next year that could propel him into a presidential campaign, the tragedy in Surfside exposes voters to a different side of the governor. He is still the conservative populist who rarely shares with Trump. But unlike the former president, DeSantis shows he can downplay some of his most extreme biased rhetoric during a disaster.
“The governor has been crucial. He has been constant. He has been cooperative, “Miami-Dade Mayor Danielle Levine Cava, a Democrat who has previously sparred with DeSantis, said in an interview. “Hats off to the governor for how he has supported us in this crisis.”
Charles Burkett, the non-partisan mayor of Surfside, called the level of cooperation “astonishing, even surprising.”
Of course, DeSantis is not ushering in a new era of bipartisanship or a Republican return to reality-based rhetoric. The governor has avoided direct questions about whether Biden’s victory in last year’s election was fair. One day after the collapse, DeSantis promoted an unusual plan to deploy officers from Florida to the southern border, a move that Democrats reject as political theater.
Yet DeSantis’ actions are a stark contrast to Trump. The former president often threatened to withhold help from Democratic officials who criticized him, including governments. Gavin Newsom from California and Andrew Cuomo from New York. Other times, he seemed insensitive or clumsy in his response to people’s suffering. During a visit to Hurricane Damaged Puerto Rico, for example, Trump threw rolls of paper towels into a crowd of residents.
Mac Stipanovich, a former Republican campaign strategist, said DeSantis is “less intimidating than Trump” to some voters, even though he steadily courts the former president’s base.
DeSantis “has a fine-tuned sense of what’s the best red meat, on any given day, throwing to the MAGA base, and he does so with some skill and no shame,” Stipanovich said. “As soon as we are outside the window of tragedy, everyone will be in each other’s throats again.”
In fact, the debate could quickly shift to how the state and local authorities manage aging infrastructure. Officials in Miami-Dade County are moving forward with a 30-day audit of buildings that are more than 40 years old. DeSantis has questioned the need for a thorough review of older buildings across the country.
While effective response to disasters can help burn out a governor’s political reputation, the boost can sometimes prove fleeting. Previous governments. Jeb Bush of Florida and Chris Christie of New Jersey were widely praised for their response to devastating storms. But Trump, who never held political office before running for president, defeated both men for the 2016 Republican nomination.
DeSantis’ handling of the tragedy appears to have caught some Democrats on guard, leaving them with no overall response.
Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democrat hoping to challenge DeSanti next year, did not respond to requests for comment on the governor’s response to the collapse. Nikki Fried, Florida’s Democratic agriculture commissioner who has also announced a bid for governor, praised local officials, Biden and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But she knocked DeSantis to wade into the politically charged immigration debate by sending Florida law enforcement to the border with Mexico.
“Although the Florida Division of Emergency Management has worked around the clock to support search and rescue efforts, it was unfortunate that Governor DeSantis diverted the first responders to the Southern Frontier during this incredibly difficult time for the Miami community and our entire state,” he said. she. said.
Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat challenging GOP senator Marco Rubio, said she was “pleased to see a productive partnership between local, state and federal officials as we work to save lives.”
“In times of crisis,” she said, “we need to put partisans aside and do what is right for our society.”
DeSantis is gaining national attention at a critical time for Republicans. While Trump is deciding whether to run again in 2024, with the president’s ambitions, they are making aggressive moves to position themselves as his heir if he chooses a campaign.
So far, Trump remains happy to be in line with DeSantis. But several people in contact with the former president and his team said he has been following close attention since DeSantis has inhabited donors at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in South Florida and gained traction in some conservative circles. If DeSantis’ popularity rises and he threatens Trump’s status as the party’s undisputed leader, many Republicans privately expect Trump to turn on the governor.
Friction between the two wasted on the public for the first time last week when Trump rejected DeSantis’ requests to postpone the demonstration in Sarasota. Trump, who opened his remarks with a moment of silence for the victims of Surfside and their families, told the conservative network Newsmax that he and DeSantis “mutually agreed” that the governor should skip the demonstration.
Trump has tried to keep the upper hand in the relationship and brought up his early approval in several recent interviews. He has also said he would consider DeSantis as a potential running mate if he chose to run again as president.
For his part, DeSantis has said he is more focused on winning re-election next year than the 2024 competition. He is one of the few leading Republicans who has not yet visited Iowa, home to the leading presidential candidates and a state dominated by conservative evangelicals who can swing the GOP’s direction.
DeSantis has instead spent part of its summer traveling to political fundraisers in states including Pennsylvania and California. Tony Krvaric, who helped organize an event on behalf of DeSantis in San Diego, said tensions surrounding the governor were “sky high” and his reaction to the collapse has further helped his reputation.
“He has handled it professionally and with empathy,” Krvaric said.
Sloan reported from Washington. Associated Press author Jill Colvin of Washington contributed to this report.