Jul 7, 2023, 12:07pm EDT
politicsNorth America

America is moving on from COVID. That’s not good for Ron DeSantis.


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The News

Mask mandates are finished, even in hospitals. The federal COVID emergency ended two months ago, along with the last federal vaccine requirements. And last week, for the first time since Gallup began asking Americans about the pandemic, a majority of them said that it was “over.”

That shifting attitude has started to show up in the race for president. Ron DeSantis, whose battles against mask and vaccine mandates made him a Republican star, has lost ground as voters move on from the pandemic. And attacking Donald Trump’s early handling of the COVID outbreak, accusing the former president of destroying “millions of lives” by supporting stay-at-home measures and not firing top health officials, hasn’t paid off.

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David’s view

One reason COVID policy is a tough sell for DeSantis: The states that get first crack at picking a GOP nominee had experiences much closer to Florida’s than New York’s or California’s.

Stay-at-home orders in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina were ended before the CDC recommended it; in all three states, public schools were allowed to re-open for the 2020-2021 school year. Mask mandates ended in Iowa in February 2021; in New Hampshire two months later; and in South Carolina, McMaster ended local mask mandates in May 2021.

The “Faucian dystopia” that DeSantis talks about preventing in Florida never came to Dubuque or Nashua or Spartanburg. That wasn’t necessarily a problem for DeSantis, said Iowa GOP strategist David Kochel; he could “connect to the audience” by praising Gov. Kim Reynolds for handling COVID like he did.


“It’s not at the top of the issue set, but it is something of a threshold you have to clear,” said Kochel. “I don’t think it lessens DeSantis’ effectiveness. It probably makes it easier.”

Another reason for the fade: Stay-at-home orders and vaccination were least controversial among older voters, the likeliest to show up for Republican primaries. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, 95% of retirement-age voters got vaccinated; a smaller share, but still a majority, received booster shots.

One more reason: Much of the organizing power against mandates and school closures has already transferred to other causes. Moms for Liberty led the way. In 2022, when DeSantis keynoted the group’s first national conference, he spent about half his time recounting his conflicts with the media and medical authorities to protect “the free state of Florida.”

At last week’s Moms for Liberty conference in Philadelphia, DeSantis didn’t mention COVID, masks, or school closures in his 25-minute speech, discussing them only when the group’s co-founder Tiffany Justice praised his pandemic response in a Q&A.

That was the cause that built Moms for Liberty, which was started in 2021 by parents upset over COVID restrictions in schools. But it had since moved on to campaigns against the material being taught in those schools. Justice told Semafor that reopening schools was the opening act in a larger effort to roll back progressive influence in education.


“It’s not about any specific issue,” Justice said. ”I mean – it was about the masks, but it wasn’t about the masks. It was about school closures, but it wasn’t about the school closures. It’s about parental rights.”

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The View From Trump World

After DeSantis suggested that he’d have fired then-NIAID director Anthony Fauci, the Trump campaign put out a 30-second compilation of DeSantis’s early, cautious responses to the pandemic —– including some praise of Fauci.

“Every single thing that he criticizes President Trump for, he supported,” said Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller. “It’s gone from him telling revisionist history stories to an issue of credibility and hypocrisy.”

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Room for Disagreement

“COVID is absolutely something he needs to focus on in the NH primary,” said Jason Osbourne, the GOP leader of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and an early DeSantis endorser. The governor, said Osbourne, needed to highlight “both the assaults on liberty and the insane spending that together have wreaked such devastation on the American economy and the entire world.”

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The View From Republican Voters

When pressed, Republican voters tend to agree with DeSantis. “They want [Fauci’s] head on a spike,” said GOP pollster Robert Blizzard, whose surveys for Public Opinion Strategies have shown DeSantis performing slightly better than Trump in swing states.

Fewer voters are focused on the pandemic now, but the DeSantis approach is still compelling for conservatives who haven’t moved on. Travis Gilson, 41, showed up for DeSantis’s first Iowa rally, fully in support of a probe into how the federal government recommended stay-at-home orders for so long.

“What drove this? What did the President know? When did Fauci know all that stuff?” Gilson said. “Let’s get it out in the open; let’s hold people accountable for what happened, so everyone knows, hey, if you try this stuff, again, there’s gonna be consequences.”

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  • Matthew Yglesias suggested in May that DeSantis was “struggling” without COVID in the news; the issue had let him appeal “to a non-zero minority of people who were not otherwise Republicans,” but it was over.