The presidential campaign-in-waiting and super PAC supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are trying to warm up the governor’s cold war with the journalists who cover him.
DeSantis had taken apparent pride in a combative operation, led by his former press secretary Christina Pushaw, that sparred with reporters on Twitter and often ignored their inquiries. Pushaw is poised to run his campaign’s rapid response operation.
But after weeks of relentlessly negative coverage of his nascent campaign, his staff have quietly begun the traditional campaign work of providing access for reporters and input for their stories, according to people close to the various DeSantis organizations and half a dozen journalists who have engaged with them.
The new DeSantis Glasnost has been run primarily through the Never Back Down super PAC. Two 2024 national political reporters said the comms team for the campaign-in-waiting has also been informally reaching out to reporters off the record to spin stories, and has begun to invite some down to Florida to meet key staffers.
"I'm so pushing media engagement. He can't operate like he did in FL,” one person close to DeSantis told Semafor.
"They have been super guarded in Florida, which I think worked very well for them there in a state environment,” the source continued. “It'd be one thing if we were leading or [if] we're only down five.”
My colleague Benjy Sarlin wrote recently that DeSantis had taken the lessons of Donald Trump “literally, not seriously.” Trump attacked the press — but also spoke to them constantly. And it’s now become a common refrain among political reporters that even Trump, a notoriously aggressive critic of his press coverage, has been much more accessible and eager to engage with political reporters in recent months than the Florida governor.
DeSantis still has not sat down with any of the non-Fox networks for a major interview in recent months, and often leaves political events without addressing the media. National reporters who had flown from Washington and Miami to cover the governor’s New Hampshire campaign stop were disappointed when he did not take questions from journalists at a diner or during a meeting with state legislators.
His staff have followed his lead enthusiastically, aggressively publicly admonishing reporters who publish critical coverage of the governor. The hardball tactics of the governor’s office already have pushed some national journalists on the beat to be more careful: Two of the 2024 campaign reporters said they don’t send any emails or texts to the governor’s office they wouldn’t think would end up in an angry or mocking tweet from his press staff.
But the pugilistic stance with the press has done the campaign-in-waiting no favors. The governor’s poll numbers have fallen in the months since his reelection. While DeSantis remains in second in most early primary polls, the governor’s absence from the media has created an opening for other media-friendly candidates like Trump and Vivek Ramaswamy to define the narratives in the race.
I caught a glimpse last year of the governor and his allies’ odd policy toward the news media of ignoring first, and complaining later.
In December, we published a straightforward story about DeSantis’ alternative Florida media ecosystem. While the governor’s team was aware of the piece before it was published, we didn’t receive a response or any information or context from DeSantis’ camp. But despite the fact that the piece we wrote wasn’t particularly negative, the governor’s team criticized the piece on Twitter at length after it was published.
Part of the response can be chalked up to the awkward limbo the governor has been in over the past several months. While Trump and other GOP candidates got into the race early, the Florida governor has waited, meaning the bulk of requests have fallen to his gubernatorial communications staff. That staff has been overwhelmed with a deluge of comment requests, and at times, have steered questions to other employees outside his government office. Now that the campaign is beginning in earnest, DeSantis will have a larger and more official 2024 staff to respond to reporters’ queries.
VIEW FROM THE NETWORKS
DeSantis’ team may soon have one advantage over Trump. While Trump’s team has privately made it clear that they viewed the CNN town hall as a success and would welcome others, the networks do not want to repeat CNN’s apparent mistakes, and are only seeking one-on-one live or pre-taped interviews with Trump.
ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT
Some of DeSantis’ allies believe he will thrive by throwing himself into a more hostile press interview environment.
“Let the tiger out of the cage,” the person close to him said. “You can always dial it back in if it's not working.”
- One curveball: Journalists at ABC News have wondered whether DeSantis’ ongoing legal battle with Disney in Florida will impact the outlet’s access with the campaign and treatment by the governor.
- DeSantis’ combative press aide Christina Pushaw started her Florida career with a cold email to the governor’s office. Under her, “what was once a largely behind-the-scenes communications role has become one of the loudest pro-DeSantis drumbeats on the internet,” the Miami Herald wrote in an early profile of the governor’s most visible public spokesperson.
- Semafor examined the old DeSantis strategy, which was to deal almost exclusively with a handful of obscure, fawning Florida blogs. Sample headlines: “DeSantis-Endorsed School Board Candidates March to Victory”; and “Casey DeSantis: ‘I Am a Testament That God is Great and God is Good, and Hope is Alive.’”
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