2024 GOP debate: DeSantis’ rivals try to turn his Florida record against him


The sustained assault on his performance in Florida marks a new moment in DeSantis’s presidential campaign, as emboldened rivals like Nikki Haley and Chris Christie blast away at one of his last remaining pillars of political strength.

“They see him bleeding out and they’re trying to get those voters to come their way,” said Jason Cabel Roe, a national Republican consultant unaffiliated with any presidential candidate. “It’s the only thing he’s got left. If you’re with him it’s because of his record.”

Not long ago, such attacks would have been unthinkable. During his first five years as governor, DeSantis earned seemingly universal acclaim on the right for his policies in Florida: glowing depictions in conservative media, grudging respect or genuine admiration from peers and competitors in Republican politics.

Whatever else happened to DeSantis in the presidential campaign, it seemed, he’d always have Florida.

DeSantis began the year far ahead of the GOP pack, trailing Trump by roughly 13 points in January and exciting donors looking for an alternative to the former president. But DeSantis is now some 40 points behind the frontrunner, and finds himself falling to third place or below in some early-state polls. Donors are frustrated, and his single-digit opponents sense an opening, which they tried to capitalize on during Wednesday’s faceoff.

During the first presidential debate held in Milwaukee, his rivals barely mentioned his record as governor. That completely flipped this week as he took on flak from Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and even former Vice President Mike Pence.

Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, questioned DeSantis’ stance on energy, including contending that he banned fracking in Florida. (DeSantis advocated for a ban, but it was never enacted.) Pence brought up that spending levels had increased during DeSantis’ tenure and mentioned that Nikolas Cruz, who was convicted of killing 17 people in the Parkland high school mass shooting, was sentenced to life in prison instead of getting the death penalty — suggesting that DeSantis was weak on crime. Pence failed to note that DeSantis was sharply critical of the decision and responded by pushing through a change in Florida’s death penalty law.

The Florida governor became a rising conservative star with his stances against Covid-related lockdowns and mandates, but he also got locked into battles over education, including a feud with Disney over the state’s contentious “parental rights in education” bill, known by critics as “Don’t Say Gay,” that banned instruction of gender studies and sexual orientation in lower grades. It’s this track record that DeSantis used as the framework for most of his campaign.

Some Republican consultants didn’t find the attack lines effective. A 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll taken immediately found that Republican primary voters who watched it told pollsters that DeSantis had done the best job. But the effort by his opponents reflects an attempt to undercut DeSantis’ main selling points to GOP voters.

Some Florida Republicans, meanwhile, bristled at the attacks on DeSantis’ record and said it’s not a true reflection of the job he has done as governor. Ryan Petty, whose daughter was killed by Cruz in Parkland, ripped into Pence on social media.

“How dare you use the Parkland tragedy as a cheap political hit,” Petty wrote on social media. “You should apologize immediately. Governors don’t pick juries and they don’t force them to vote for justice.”

Christian Ziegler, the chair of the Republican Party of Florida who has not endorsed anyone in the race, called the attacks in the debate a “typical political tactic” to “find a point or two” to use to criticize DeSantis.

“But if you want the full story, all you have to do is look at the domestic migration numbers broken down by state to see that Florida is the #1 state people are moving to,” Ziegler said. “Politics aside, it’s clear that Florida has a strong brand and is the best governed state in the country.”

DeSantis’ team also snapped back at Haley, issuing a statement touting his record on insurance policy after Fox News moderator Stuart Varney questioned why Florida has such a high rate of uninsured residents. His campaign also asserted that he won the debate based on the very record that came under attack. By the end of the evening, DeSantis was challenging Trump to a one-on-one faceoff.

“Desperate candidates need to get their facts straight,” campaign spokesperson Bryan Griffin said in a statement regarding Haley’s critique that her opponent opposes fracking and banned offshore drilling.

Griffin highlighted DeSantis’ recent energy plan and vowed he would lower gas prices if elected.

Florida Democratic Party chair Nikki Fried welcomed the newfound attention to DeSantis’ record and ripped into him for suggesting he did not support a ban on fracking.

“Ron has always tried to spin his narrative and was able to get away with it in Florida,” Fried said. “Floridians have caught on and thank god the country has as well.”

One of the biggest criticisms of DeSantis’ record has repeatedly come from the only Republican candidate to skip the debates. Trump — who boasts of appointing Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade — has pivoted to excoriating Florida’s six-week abortion ban, which Desantis signed into law in the near dead of night, and warning such measures could cost Republicans the White House. Trump also has criticized DeSantis’ handling of Florida’s property insurance crisis which has resulted in substantial rate hikes for residents.

But for the rest of the field, other issues served as fodder for attacks.

“All these candidates have a ton of [opposition research] on DeSantis and figure, might as well get it out now,” said national GOP consultant Alex Conant, who isn’t working for any presidential hopeful. “There’s no strategic reason ‘cause it’s not like he’s a threat to any of them.”

Ben Lefebvre contributed to this report.


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