Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is betting he can use one of Donald Trump’s biggest successes to turn voters against the former president.
Much of DeSantis’s rise to national prominence has been built on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The Republican star has sought to portray his state as “free Florida” — a place that got kids back into schools and allowed businesses like bars and restaurants to reopen much earlier than elsewhere. He has also opposed vaccine mandates that would make workers or students roll up their sleeves against their will.
DeSantis hasn’t formally declared that he is seeking the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, but his stance on vaccines is resonating with the growing ranks of Republican voters who are wary of COVID-19 shots and other inoculations. It has helped him win supporters beyond his home state, and set him apart from Trump, who is mounting his third White House run.
Many health experts agree that the development of COVID-19 vaccines in a matter of months was one of the former president’s biggest achievements. The Trump administration moved fast to funnel money to companies who could study and scale up the production of vaccines and drugs to blunt the outbreak and get the economy back on track.
Trump has touted the vaccines at his rallies despite resistance from his supporters. Meanwhile, seizing on lingering uneasiness over the rapid pace of the shots’ development, DeSantis has been using his powers as governor to sow doubt. He convinced Florida’s Supreme Court to open a grand jury probe of potential wrongdoing during the development of the vaccines, and he has ordered an end to mandates in his state.
DeSantis’s bona fides as a pandemic maverick position him to take advantage of discontent that’s been simmering since the last election. Trump’s handling of the virus helped cost him the 2020 race, and there are signs that persistent anger over lockdowns and mandates among Republicans could hurt the former president in 2024.
“COVID is a defining issue for DeSantis, and one that he can’t lose,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant, who worked on presidential campaigns including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 bid. “I also think COVID is an issue where Trump is unusually vulnerable with conservatives.”
DeSantis’s maneuver isn’t without risk. Republican opposition to vaccines isn’t unanimous, with polls showing a majority in the party have gotten COVID-19 shots and don’t consider it their top issue. Vaccine uptake in Florida, with its outsized senior population, has been relatively strong despite the governor’s rhetoric.
Overall, Americans approve of COVID-19 vaccines, which means a GOP primary fight about them could come back to haunt the eventual nominee.
Moderna Inc., Pfizer Inc. and Johnson and Johnson, with backing from the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, developed shots to shield against the virus in record time, and the U.S. government erected a vast infrastructure to distribute them. But after the success of the first wave of vaccinations, Americans have been slower to embrace booster shots that became available last fall.
Cathy Sheppard, a 59-year-old Republican and registered nurse from Barnsville, Ohio, got the vaccine only because her employer required it. She was a Trump supporter but is open to another candidate, and she said DeSantis’s opposition to mandates makes him appealing.
“When you make a vaccine so fast, I think people should have the right to either have it or not — and I don’t think your job should be based on it,” Sheppard said. “I’m still sitting on the fence on whether I think they helped or not or whether they actually hurt or not.”
Antivaccination sentiment has grown among Republicans, fueled by mistrust of government and misinformation on social media. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in December found that 44% of Republicans think parents should be allowed to opt out of traditional childhood vaccines for diseases like measles and mumps, compared with 20% in 2019. Among Democrats, the number was essentially unchanged at just 11%.DeSantis has recently stepped up his attacks on vaccine makers, specifically targeting Moderna and Pfizer, and in December, asked the state Supreme Court to impanel a grand jury to investigate alleged claims of wrongdoing in the creation of the vaccines. DeSantis said he will once again push for a bill defending health care practitioners’ “free speech” during the next legislature, while also creating a public health integrity committee in Florida to “offer critical assessment” of guidelines issued by other health authorities.
Since taking control of the House in January, Republicans in Congress have also have launched an investigation into the process that produced the COVID-19 vaccines and voted largely on party lines to block the federal government from requiring that health care workers get vaccinated.
While DeSantis surged to reelection in 2022, his state is no outlier when it comes to immunizations. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 69% of Florida residents have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, close to the national average. That puts it roughly in the middle of the pack for states, with rates ranging from 53% in Wyoming to 88% in Rhode Island. Public-health experts say there is little evidence for some of the claims about the COVID-19 vaccines that have spread on social media
There were early warning signs that the issue could haunt Trump if he chose to run again. The former president was booed by his typically fawning supporters at a 2021 rally in Alabama for encouraging the crowd to get vaccinated.
“I believe totally in your freedoms, I do,” Trump said. “But, I recommend: take the vaccines. I did it. It’s good. Take the vaccines,” he added, to jeers from the crowd.
Polls show many voters who backed Trump in 2016 but didn’t support his reelection were critical of his handling of the pandemic. Reuters Polling found the number of Americans who disapproved of Trump’s COVID-19 response increased from 47% in April 2020 to 59% in January 2021, shortly before he left office. (Despite Trump’s vaccine success, he was also faulted for hailing unproven treatments like hydroxychloroquine and suggesting injecting bleach to fight the virus.)
Those numbers signal that DeSantis has room to turn a Trump achievement into a liability.
“It could be the issue that is the final push moving wavering Trump supporters to DeSantis,” said Susan MacManus, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida, Tampa.
Trump has appeared to recognize the problem, and he has begun attacking DeSantis’s COVID-19 response. He accused DeSantis in a Jan. 29 post on his social-media platform of performing “FAR WORSE than many other Republican governors, including that he unapologetically shut down Florida and its beaches.”
DeSantis signed an executive order on March 17, 2020, closing bars and nightclubs and limiting public access to beaches. But he said he was following guidance from the Trump administration, and he was one of the first U.S. governors to reopen state businesses and attractions.
Trump also told reporters during a Jan. 28 campaign trip that DeSantis had “changed his tune a lot” on vaccines.
Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said the former president’s administration “worked tirelessly” to secure medical equipment and develop vaccines and therapeutics for people who wanted them, and that Trump “fought against any attempt to federalize the pandemic response by protecting every state’s right to ultimately decide what is best for their people.”
Conant said Trump is trying to stir doubts about DeSantis’s record, which “could really weaken the governor, given how important it is to his overall story.”
A spokeswoman for DeSantis declined to comment on Trump’s attacks. DeSantis has said that voters render a judgment on how an executive handles a crisis when they go to the polls.
“I’m happy to say, in my case, not only did we win reelection, we won with the highest percentage of the vote that any Republican governor candidate has in the history of the state of Florida,” he told reporters on Jan. 31. “What I would just say is, that verdict has been rendered by the people of the state of Florida.”
Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy in Florida, said he doesn’t think Trump’s attacks will be effective. “Trump keeps wanting to go there, fine, but I just don’t think that’s gonna be a place he’s going to score a lot of points,” Coker said.
In fact, there are signs that vaccine skepticism is highest among some of Trump’s strongest supporters, making his position a weakness in a Republican primary, said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, which is tracking antivaccine legislation there.
“If there was one thing about the pandemic that Trump did right, it was the vaccine,” Humble said, “and his voters are going to punish him for it.”
___ ©2023 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This story was originally published February 19, 2023, 5:00 AM.