Florida Democrats see opening in DeSantis's handling of masks, vaccines

WASHINGTON — Democrats in Florida have not had a good run lately. In 2018, their gubernatorial candidate, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, lost narrowly to Ron DeSantis, a close follower of then-President Donald Trump. Two years later, in the presidential election, Joe Biden lost there to Trump. On the same night, Democrats also lost two congressional seats in Florida.

But DeSantis’s handling of the Delta variant surge in recent weeks has reenergized Democrats, who believe they can prosecute an effective case against him in next year’s gubernatorial campaign — and also use his weakness to their advantage in congressional elections.

“His vulnerability on Delta cannot be overstated,” says Daniel Uhlfelder, a Florida attorney who recently started a political group that has run a series of withering anti-DeSantis ads.

To be sure, not everyone agrees with that assessment of DeSantis, one of the nation’s youngest governors and a potential Republican candidate for the presidency in 2024. “I don’t think it hurts him that much yet,” a Florida-based Republican insider told Yahoo News. “There’s a good chance that this thing will peter out,” he added, referring to the Delta surge.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a news conference at a Regeneron monoclonal antibody clinic in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Wednesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

(Representatives for DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment.)

DeSantis is a case study in modern politics, where careers are made and unmade in the time it takes to send a tweet. In fact, it was a tweet from Donald Trump in 2018 that helped DeSantis win the Republican primary, and then become governor. And it was celebration of DeSantis’s resistance to lockdowns and masking in conservative media that made him a hero of the right for the first half of 2021.

Then the Delta variant came along, frustrating the plans of anyone who had plans to speak of — including the governor of Florida. Even as the state has become the center of the coronavirus pandemic in the nation, DeSantis has spent much of August fighting school districts that wanted to impose mask mandates. He has also done little to encourage vaccinations, instead pushing a treatment that some consider controversial.

The battle over masking in schools may be popular with hard-line conservatives, but it is not especially popular with parents or educators concerned about the Delta variant, which appears to escape some of the protections offered by vaccines and thus requires added measures.

Students in facemasks on their first day in school after summer vacation at the St. Lawrence Catholic School  in north of Miami on Wednesday.
Students on the first day in school after summer vacation at St. Lawrence Catholic School, north of Miami, on Wednesday. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

Encouraged by the White House, a growing number of school districts have declared they will defy the governor and instead mandate masks. Miami and Tampa joined the ranks of those districts on Wednesday. “We should not allow ourselves to be scared by the governor’s threat,” one Miami school board member said.

That’s practically music to the ears of Florida Democrats, who have watched in trepidation as DeSantis has ascended to the highest echelons of Republican politics, so much so that in a recent straw poll he topped Trump.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., in June.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

“Very David vs Goliath story with the school boards,” one Democratic operative in Florida wrote to Yahoo News in a text message. “The mask mandates for kids are popular with parents! So it's hard to see this as a winning battle for DeSantis. These locals look like heroes. His only hope is Delta just disappearing.”

Wastewater surveillance in Orlando and its suburbs indicates that the Delta variant is not going away just yet, with local officials finding “very concerning” levels of coronavirus there.

That isn’t good news for anyone, regardless of their political affiliation. Democrats, though, believe that DeSantis’s response to the pandemic has been wholly political and that only opposing him politically can rectify the situation. To that end, the state’s congressional delegation held a press conference on Wednesday to call attention to Floridians’ plight — and flog DeSantis for his mishandling of the pandemic.

The press conference opened with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz calling Florida “one of the most dangerous and least prepared places to be in America. And no one bears more responsibility for that than Gov. DeSantis.” Wasserman Schultz was the head of the Democratic National Committee in 2016. A close supporter of Hillary Clinton, she was widely seen as one of the figures responsible for contributing to Trump’s victory. She has little evident zeal for seeing yet another Republican attain the presidency.

A nurse administers the Pfizer vaccine at a COVID-19 clinic at Lyman High School in Longwood, Fla., on the day before classes begin for the 2021-22 school year.
A nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccine at Lyman High School in Longwood, Fla., on the day before classes began for the school year. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Much the same goes for her congressional peers, some of whom remember DeSantis as a House backbencher with few allies or friends in Washington. They have not exactly cheered his rapid ascent. “‘We need the governor to get off the campaign trail, and we need him to do his job,” Rep. Ted Deutsch said at Wednesday’s event.

Even as he is continuing to battle school districts on mask mandates, DeSantis is being forced to defend his decision to endorse the antibody treatment Regeneron, which Trump received when he contracted COVID-19 last fall. The treatment is effective, but most public health experts agree that vaccination is a far better means to bring the coronavirus to heel.

Trouble also arrived in the form of an Associated Press investigation revealing that one of DeSantis’s top donors has invested in Regeneron through his hedge fund. The investigation found no clear evidence of wrongdoing but recalled earlier accusations of preferential vaccine access by the fundraising-savvy governor.

DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, denied the accusations detailed in the Associated Press report, which she described as being full of “baseless innuendo.” For his part, the journalist who published that investigation, Brendan Farrington, said he woke up in the middle of the night to “death threats and hate messages.”

He asked for people not to kill him.


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