Sep 15, 2023, 6:37am EDT

DeSantis camp bets on COVID, LGBT backlash to return to 2024 relevance

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

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The News

Ron DeSantis is ramping up his COVID talk on the campaign trail, calling out scattered mask mandates that have been popping back up, criticizing new booster shots, and tying it all to Donald Trump’s record.

“I fought against Fauci when he was popular,” DeSantis said during an interview Thursday. “It’s easy for Republicans to ding him now because he’s unpopular with the broader electorate. Back then, Donald Trump used to cite Fauci’s poll numbers as a reason why Fauci was somebody that should be listened to.”

The COVID focus is nothing new: DeSantis became well-known among conservatives over his handling of the pandemic in Florida. But it’s become a bigger part of his message in recent weeks amid rising Republican concerns about new outbreaks potentially bringing back old restrictions.

“As the left pushes a new wave of COVID hysteria, Ron DeSantis is the only candidate with a proven record of fighting back and capable of bringing a reckoning for the wrongdoings committed,” campaign spokesman Bryan Griffin told Semafor.

His allied Never Back Down super PAC, in the meantime, is hoping a transgender-focused message will help power a comeback. It’s running ads in Iowa featuring footage of influencer Dylan Mulvaney, drag queens, and an old viral clip on the right of a breastfeeding transgender parent. Tying it all together: Headlines about Trump saying in 2012 that he’d be open to transgender women competing in his beauty pageants.


It’s broadly similar to an attempted viral video — eventually traced to the DeSantis campaign’s meme department — that drew significant attention over the summer for some of its odder imagery.

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Shelby’s view

COVID, anti-wokeness, “gender ideology” — these are all themes DeSantis has gone to in the past that are central to his brand. But they’ve also failed to make a dent in the race thus far, while the bar for even just getting headlines gets higher with every poll showing Trump up by 30, 40, and even 50 points.

The biggest immediate threat to DeSantis (and really the whole field) right now isn’t being attacked so much as being ignored. So to the extent there’s a good sign for him this week, it’s that the focus on these topics has forced responses from Trump, providing team DeSantis with more opportunities to go on the attack.

During his Thursday interview with Megyn Kelly, Trump claimed he had no idea “who gave” Fauci a presidential commendation in his final days in office while arguing that DeSantis had followed lockdown policies similar to other governors in the early pandemic.

DeSantis swiftly hit back: “Was that the immaculate commendation that just happened to happen?” he asked in a radio interview, adding that Trump’s response was “really pathetic.”


Kelly also brought up Trump’s past comments supporting tolerance for transgender people, noting both his pageant comments and an interview in 2016 where he said Caitlyn Jenner would be allowed to use the women’s restroom at Trump Tower. Trump also criticized North Carolina’s “bathroom ban” at the time.

Trump pleaded ignorance, saying he was unfamiliar with the issue then, but subsequently took action to block the military from integrating transgender soldiers.

“This was a brand new subject,” he said. “It hadn’t exploded. I mean, nobody talked about it, really.”

Candidates have had no luck making attacks on Trump for flip-flopping or hypocrisy stick so far, though, including on these specific topics. The question remains for DeSantis: If familiar attacks inside his comfort zone haven’t worked by now, when will they?

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Room for Disagreement

One former DeSantis staffer argued that continuing to home in on the same core topics could still pay off for the Florida governor, because large chunks of voters only begin tuning in later in the campaign.

“I think that the people that are paying attention now are open to being moved, I think, or not committed anywhere,” they said. “So this messaging maybe has more of an effect on that.”

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Ron DeSantis is also perfecting his electability argument when it comes to Trump: During a recent interview with CBS News, the Florida governor argued that if Trump is convicted of any felonies, his chance of getting elected president “is as close to zero as you can get.”