Biden blindsides Trump’s Florida ally
He singled out Gov. Ron DeSantis for harsh criticism over his coronavirus response.
MIAMI — Joe Biden lauded seven governors — drawn from both parties — by name on Monday, praising their leadership during the coronavirus crisis.
On Wednesday, he singled out one for sharp criticism: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In doing so, Biden managed to highlight both the crucial role Florida plays in the presidential race, and the equally critical role it occupies in the national debate over responding to the coronavirus crisis.
After images of drunken spring-breakers partying amid a contagion were broadcast nationally, DeSantis — a protégé of President Donald Trump — was thrust into the vanguard of Republican governors balking at issuing a broad shelter-in-place order to limit the spread of the virus.
As the state’s coronavirus caseload has increased, so has the criticism of DeSantis, making him an inevitable target for Biden in a state Trump must carry in order to win the White House.
“Floridians deserve science-based action from Governor Ron DeSantis,” Biden said in a written statement that faulted the “absence of leadership from President Trump.”
“While other large states continue to take strong, urgent, and sweeping action to stop the spread of COVID-19, Florida has not. I urge Governor DeSantis to let the experts speak to the public and explain why this is the case,” Biden said. “In this moment of growing uncertainty and anxiety, Floridians want — and deserve — to hear from the public health officials leading the charge.”
Republicans called Biden’s statement a desperate political move to damage the president by attacking DeSantis, a top ally whose successful 2018 primary campaign revolved around fealty to Trump.
Trump has since changed his residency to Florida, made sure to focus his attention deeply on the state and, on Wednesday, approved a disaster declaration to let federal aid flow more easily to the state.
Florida, which has the highest percentage of 65 and older population in the nation, has been slow to test for coronavirus. But as testing has ramped up, so have reported caseloads, which surged 35 percent in a day’s time to 1,977.
The president’s national poll numbers have improved since he began holding regular White House news briefings, where he occasionally praises DeSantis. At the same time, Trump has occupied the spotlight, Biden has been stuck at home, maintaining social distance as he slowly ramps up ‘virtual’ public appearances from a newly installed home studio in Wilmington, Del.
“The Gallup Poll today had President Trump at a 60 percent approval for how he’s handling the crisis and the governor’s polling was pretty close last week on how he’s handling it,” said Evan Power, chairman of the council of county chairs for the Republican Party of Florida.
“So it’s not a great move to criticize DeSantis or the president over this,” Power said. “It’s a cry for relevancy.”
After the March 10 round of primaries, Biden has struggled to capture the media spotlight as national TV news turn its near-complete attention to coronavirus and away from the 2020 campaign trail.
Over the period beginning March 11 through Wednesday, Trump has gotten 440,785 television mentions nationally compared to roughly 83,000 for Biden, according to TV Eyes, a program that tracks mentions.
Biden also received a fraction of the attention Trump got on March 17, the day the former vice president won a key bloc of primary states — including Florida — and essentially ended his primary contest with Bernie Sanders. In a typical election year, that performance would have given any presidential candidate a big shot of momentum and national airtime.
That day, Biden’s name was mentioned 5,417 times nationally, compared to Trump’s 16,488.
In a sign of Biden’s muted microphone, DeSantis wasn’t asked at either of his two news conferences Wednesday about the former vice president’s criticism. DeSantis went on to praise Trump for doing a “great job” but he chafed at the number of New Yorkers who are able to fly to Florida, potentially bringing the coronavirus, which would defeat some shelter-in-place containment strategies.
“The policies are ineffective because you have flights,” DeSantis said.
Echoing Trump, DeSantis reiterated that his cure-can’t-be-worse-than-the-disease approach accounts for the potential economic and social devastation from government-mandated social distancing.
“You’re going to see not only economic consequences from that, you are going to see a lot of public health consequences from that,” he continued. “I’m worried about the mental health impact of what’s happened. I’m worried about drug abuse, based on some of the dislocations. I’m worried about suicides. I’m worried about domestic violence. And I’m worried about child abuse. In any situation like that, all this stuff goes up. This is one of maybe the most significant situations people have faced.”
Biden advisers and Democrats say they expect the policies of DeSantis and Trump will ultimately lead to both a public health disaster and a bad economy for Trump, who was planning on running for reelection on his economic record.
In 2016, Trump won Florida by 1.2 percentage points. Florida’s large senior population lives off investments, making coronavirus a twin threat because it kills the elderly and social distancing is damaging the stock market.
“In a 1-percent state where the sitting GOP governor has been seen as slow to respond, it can make a difference,” said Greg Goddard, a Democratic consultant from the state who served as former presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar’s Southeast finance director.
The Trump campaign’s Florida spokeswoman, Emma Vaughn, accused Democrats of “politicizing a national emergency ... Now is not the time for partisan politics — we are Floridians first.”
Biden advisers say he’s focusing on Florida because it’s the poster child for dangerous policy rooted in political calculus, not public health. They point to editorials criticizing DeSantis, stories detailing the state’s relatively slow response and an infamous interview with drunk spring breakers expressing no worries in Miami Beach about getting coronavirus in a state with a sizable elderly population.
Biden’s criticisms of DeSantis and Trump came on the heels of a new national TV ad from a pro-Biden super PAC, Unite The Country, highlighting Trump’s statements downplaying the threat of the virus earlier this month. It was followed by House Democrats from the state who sent a letter to DeSantis urging him to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order.
One of the congressmen who signed the letter, Rep. Ted Deutch, said DeSantis needs to use his close relationship with the president to get more equipment and help for Florida.
“The governor has a chance to use that relationship he has with the president of the United States,” Deutch said. “So, yeah. Florida’s a really important state. But if Vice President Biden is pointing out what the governor is doing wrong, it’s a fair point to raise.”
Gary Fineout contributed to this report.