The governor presiding over the new epicenter of the coronavirus is seemingly more focused on winning the approval of conservative media than on ensuring the health of his constituents. In the first half of 2021, Florida’s Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024, “had scheduled as many appearances with top Fox hosts—[Sean] Hannity (8 times), Tucker Carlson (6) and Laura Ingraham (7)—as he had meetings with his lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez (7),” the Tampa Bay Times reports. More telling still, DeSantis has reportedly yet to meet one-on-one with his Florida’s top public health official this year, per his schedules.
In a detailed exposé about the symbiotic relationship between DeSantis and Fox News, Times political editor Steve Contorno reviewed emails between DeSantis’s office and the network that totaled more than 1,000 pages. Contorno found that the governor is a mainstay on the network; he was asked to appear 113 times, “or nearly once a day,” in the period between November 2020 and February 2021, after Donald Trump’s loss. This heightened exposure has boosted DeSantis’s name recognition and made him a familiar face to important Fox viewers, potentially furthering his presidential ambitions. “He’s been given the first Fox audition for 2024,” Adam Goodman, a veteran Republican media strategist, told the Times.
Fox News pushed back on the paper’s conclusion that the network favor-traded with DeSantis, reportedly appearing “eager to play ball when DeSantis’ team pitched…‘exclusives.’” In a statement, the Fox said that it “works to secure interviews daily with headliners across the political spectrum which is a basic journalism practice at all news organizations.” But the governor is no stranger to leveraging cable news to serve his own ends; his rise in Florida politics was certainly aided by Fox hits, which he used to help win the gubernatorial GOP primary in 2018.
This latest iteration of apparent back-scratching happens to come as DeSantis falls under heightened scrutiny over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which he “has steadily expanded the powers of his office while using it to blunt that of local officials,” the Washington Post reports, and local leaders attempting to respond to surging cases and hospitalizations must answer to a governor who prides himself on rejecting mask and vaccination mandates. That approach has chafed on Florida mayors, many of whom have spoken out against DeSantis’s tactics. “I can’t mandate masks. I can’t mandate social distancing. I can’t mandate vaccinations,” St. Petersburg, Florida, mayor Rick Kriseman told the Post. “All I can do is encourage people to do the right thing, and that is about it.”
Certainly, the optics of DeSantis prioritizing meetings with Fox personalities above those with his state’s top health official aren’t great—especially as Florida struggles with an influx of COVID infections. But the question of whether doing so will impact his political fortunes is murkier. Polling earlier this month suggested that DeSantis’s hands-off approach was hurting him among Florida voters; the Hill reported that he’d fallen behind Rep. Charlie Christ, a Democratic gubernatorial rival, in a statewide survey conducted amid the virus’s surge (though the outlet noted that the poll is within the margin of error). Brad Coker, the managing director and chief executive of Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy, told the Post that the impact likely won’t hit until several months down the line. “If he works through this and the virus does not get ahead of him, he can say, ‘Look, I have been consistent,’ and voters are going to give him credit for that,” Coker said. On the other hand, “15 months from now, if the virus is still raging, and there are three more variants, and the vaccines don’t work, people are going to be frustrated.”
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