No one has been at the forefront of the national conversation more in the last month than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
DeSantis, seen as a top contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is firmly at the center of the national news cycle.
He made headlines initially by choice when he had dozens of migrants flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in a bid to seize attention in the fight over the border.
As that controversy continued to unfold, DeSantis found himself at the center over his state’s preparations and then response to Hurricane Ian, which hit Florida hard.
Since then, DeSantis has remained in the national consciousness with daily news conferences carried live on national news networks, piquing the curiosity of viewers who are not only interested in the aftermath of the storm but also in the governor himself.
“In politics, you want visibility almost more than anything else,” one Democratic strategist acknowledged of the governor’s constant presence on the political stage in recent weeks. “And it’s safe to say he’s gotten that visibility more than almost any national figure these days.”
“People know who he is,” the strategist added. “That’s the sweet spot.”
Brendan Buck, who served as a longtime aide to former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), said that DeSantis’s handling of the aftermath of the hurricane in particular has “gone pretty well” for him.
“It’s a chance for him to show people that he’s not just someone on Fox News fighting a culture war,” Buck said. “He is actually an intelligent politician who understands the rule of government.”
And at a moment when some Republicans have moved away from former President Trump and are looking for other options, it places DeSantis’s brash, aggressive, Trumpian-style front and center for prospective voters.
“It demonstrates broadly that you can have everything you like about Donald Trump and still a competent government,” Buck said.
One Florida Republican consultant said the attention on DeSantis has put him in a prime position to take on Trump in a primary.
“Nobody can argue with the fact that Donald Trump is the most popular, the most beloved Republican in the country,” the consultant said. “But when you turn on the news, you see scandals, you see lawsuits. Then you look over and Ron DeSantis is out there talking about hurricane relief and securing the border. I think that’s right where he wants to be.”
The Martha’s Vineyard migrant move has sparked a legal fight, angering Democrats and perhaps annoying some Republicans, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The Texan was the first GOP governor to really start sending migrants to Democratic enclaves.
Yet if migration holds some risks for DeSantis, his response to the devastating hurricane is likely more important for his political future. It could also likely do him more harm if voters are unhappy with his actions.
“In situations like this, you have a lot more to lose from a bad performance,” Buck said.
DeSantis has already come under criticism on the preparedness of his state and whether officials there made the right evacuation calls.
In an interview with CNN, he pushed back on questions about whether officials in the state should have evacuated residents in southwest Florida sooner than they had.
Officials there had first predicted that the hurricane would make landfall around the Tampa Bay area.
“Were you guys in Lee County? No, you were in Tampa,” DeSantis said to the reporter, after he was asked about not having a mandatory evacuation in the county that saw the most devastation until the day before the hurricane made landfall.
At the same time, he also made headlines for saying Florida is “a Second Amendment state,” while threatening would-be looters from stealing property from areas hit hardest by the storms.
“I can tell you, in the state of Florida, you never know what may be lurking behind somebody’s home,” he said at a news conference late last week. “And I would not want to chance that, if I were you, given that we’re a Second Amendment state.”
Strategists say the tough part for DeSantis, who faces reelection in November, will come in the following weeks and months, when he continues to advocate for his state. And while some political observers say he has demonstrated leadership in the aftermath of the hurricane, others say he’s unrelatable in key moments.
“He is leadership-by-press conference,” said Susan Del Percio, a longtime Republican consultant. “But the connect has to be, do those press conferences lead to services?”
“This is the part where it’s important to go to communities and relate to people and show you care,” Del Percio said. “It doesn’t seem like Ron DeSantis has that gene … It doesn’t seem like he’s that warm and fuzzy guy.”
On Wednesday, DeSantis will once again be in the spotlight when he is expected to appear side-by-side with President Biden, whom he has repeatedly criticized.
Political observers say his public interactions with Biden will also provide a compare and contrast for voters of the two men, who could be rivals in the 2024 race.
It will give the viewing public an opportunity to decide whether DeSantis is worthy of taking on the president, one Republican strategist said.
“These moments matter,” the strategist said.
Buck said the optics, particularly in the aftermath of the hurricane, have boosted DeSantis’s image and have given him a “level of seriousness that’s not often attributed to him.”
“He has projected an image of control and that’s he’s on top of this and is able to put politics aside,” he said. “He’s proven he’s not just a caricature … and he can use this down the road.”
Max Greenwood contributed.