“You look at this girl, Ocasio-Cortez or whatever she is, I mean, she’s in a totally different universe," DeSantis, who is running for governor, said over the weekend at a campaign stop. "It’s basically socialism wrapped in ignorance. And it’s problematic.”
Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old democratic socialist, has become a national figure since her shocking primary upset last month over a nearly 20-year incumbent, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.). She has since been campaigning across the country with the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to boost primary candidates on the Democrats' left flank.
Many conservatives have seized on her win, trying to portray her — and the Democratic Party — as too radical for most Americans. While she is certainly far to the left of most Republicans, many of the ideas she supports, such as Medicare for all, gun control, a living wage and criminal-justice reform, are increasingly popular with many Americans outside the GOP.
That alone is not why DeSantis's comment was not the wisest political move. It is also important to consider the impact of minimizing the concerns of young female voters, which is what many interpreted DeSantis as doing with the phrase “this girl.” And “Ocasio-Cortez or whatever she is” came off as a jab at the racial and ethnic identity of the candidate, who was born in the Bronx and is of Puerto Rican descent.
Ocasio-Cortez took note of this in her response to DeSantis.
Puerto Ricans are expected to have unprecedented influence in Florida in the midterm elections. DeSantis, whom President Trump endorsed last month, is leading a crowded GOP primary in a couple of polls. Republican voters will decide on their nominee at the end of August.
Last fall, in the weeks after Hurricane Maria, The Washington Post's Elise Viebeck and Joel Achenbach reported that at least 100,000 Puerto Ricans were expected to relocate, at least temporarily, to Florida, bringing the state's total number of voters of Puerto Rican descent to more than 1 million. That is just one slice of the Hispanic population of Florida.
“All politics is about motivation, and at this point, the Hispanic community here is extremely motivated against Trump,” Anthony Suarez, a lawyer and former Florida House member, told Viebeck and Achenbach.
DeSantis risks inflaming that large population with comments that could come off as insulting to them. On the other hand, the state's many GOP-leaning Hispanic voters could be indifferent to or in agreement with a candidate who is bashing socialism.
Still, DeSantis's words could matter beyond his race; his words handed Democrats a rhetorical gift with which to bludgeon him and other Republicans at a time when they need women and young voters.
The GOP has taken note of just how poorly they are doing with female voters. Trump lost Latinos and millennials in 2016, and there have been no signs the GOP is winning those voters back since Trump entered the White House. In fact, quite the opposite.
If DeSantis wants to convince women, young voters and Latinos that he is the best person to govern their state, referring to people who resemble the political newcomer generating the most buzz this year as “whatever she is” is probably not a winning approach.