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Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis turns from combative politics as hurricane hits

Cooperation between DeSantis and President Biden has temporarily paused the rhetorical knife fight that was set to grow ahead of the midterms.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, stands with Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, during a news conference on Monday. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has regaled conservative audiences in recent weeks with a provocative pitch aimed at building his national profile: President Biden treats them like “second-class citizens,” unworthy of the rights and protections of more liberal Americans.

“If you stand up against his bad policies like we do in Florida, then of course he going to try to write you out over who is acceptable as an American citizen,” DeSantis said in early September on Fox News.

But since Hurricane Ian began spinning off his state’s shores earlier this week, DeSantis’s public view of Biden has shifted dramatically. The two men have privately resumed a cordial working relationship they first formed in 2021, after the collapse of a condominium tower in Surfside, Fla. Now, DeSantis says, Florida is getting what it needs from the federal government.

“We really appreciate FEMA’s responsiveness to this disaster,” he told one of Biden’s appointees at a news conference on Friday. “So thank you very much and thank you for being here.”

This new eyewall of political cooperation, left in the wake of a hurricane just weeks before the midterm elections, has temporarily paused the rhetorical knife fight that was set to grow in the coming weeks between the president and a governor with presidential aspirations.

Photos: Ian leaves a path of destruction in Florida

The DeSantis reelection campaign still sells $15 “Don’t Tread on Florida” beer cozies in his campaign store, but his daily message, delivered in multiple briefings, is that the federal government is a close partner that is properly reimbursing 100 percent of the state’s debris removal and emergency protective measures for 60 days. He appears to have dropped the spending concern he voiced as a congressman, when he voted against natural disaster relief funds that were paid for with the national debt after Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey.

Biden has responded in kind, pulling back on his own political efforts. With the storm spinning off the coast, Biden postponed a campaign rally in Orlando this week, which had been originally scheduled as an opportunity to go after the conservative agenda of Florida Republicans like Sen. Rick Scott. Instead, he delivered a version of the speech from the White House Rose Garden.

Biden and DeSantis spoke for a third time in nearly as many days Friday. They have now spoken six times since Biden became president, a White House spokesman said. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to directly answer a question Friday about how well DeSantis had handled the storm, saying the two men had a “working relationship that is about the people of Florida.”

“He complimented me. He thanked me for the immediate response we had,” Biden said Thursday of a recent conversation with DeSantis. It’s not a matter of my disagreements with him on other items.”

The detente speaks to the complicated politics of hurricanes, which have so far transcended the declining decorum of politics generally. Both Republican and Democratic leaders see federal, state and local coordination during natural disasters as a paramount concern.

“Hurricanes pause races. They don’t give an advantage,” said Democratic consultant Joshua Karp, who is working this cycle in Florida. “Floridians have seen a lot of hurricanes.”

While there are prominent examples of politicians appearing to benefit from disaster responses — President Barack Obama earned high marks for his response to Sandy days before the 2012 election — the effect is by no means certain. Hurricane Michael hit Florida weeks before the 2018 election, and public polls showed Scott, then the governor, initially lose ground in his Senate race, which he ended up winning by a fraction of a percentage point.

Stunning video shows destructive power of Hurricane Ian

The hurricane-induced shift in approach has been especially jarring for DeSantis, who developed his own style of political combat in recent years, sketching out a broad politics of grievance that describes the country as divided between a corrupt media, cultural, corporate and political elite and a broad coalition of more conservative traditionalists.

Earlier in September, DeSantis went on Fox News to call Biden “the American Nero,” a reference to the Roman emperor apocryphally remembered for having fiddled while his city burned. He has repeatedly claimed that Biden, along with other government leaders like Biden’s chief medical adviser Anthony S. Fauci, should be held accountable by Congress for violating their oaths of office.

The attacks have all been part of a systematic effort to raise his profile as a national Republican leader. Early test polls in key battleground states have shown him emerging as a primary contender for the 2024 presidential nomination, second only to former president Donald Trump.

DeSantis has used his administration to threaten fines against the Special Olympics for requiring covid vaccinations at an event in Orlando. He proclaimed the second-place finisher of a Georgia collegiate swimming competition the “rightful winner,” since she lost to a transgender woman. He used interest from federal covid relief grants to fly undocumented migrants from Texas, via Florida, to Martha’s Vineyard in an effort to “open people’s eyes.”

But in the face of the storm, both he and Biden have been working to demonstrate their competence in handling a government disaster response. DeSantis has staged multiple news conferences per day to update his state on the response and damage, listing state resources and assuring residents that they will receive help to rebuild.

DeSantis’s allies have argued that his edge in a possible presidential campaign will come from his ability to harness the same culture war appeal that Trump embraces, while outpacing Trump in his ability to demonstrate governing competence. Republicans in Florida, where DeSantis enjoyed a comfortable lead in his reelection race before the storm, have been pleased by his response so far.

“Floridians demand that their governor execute strong preparation, aggressive response and clear communication, especially during hurricanes,” said Christian Ziegler, a vice-chair of the state Republican Party and a Sarasota County commissioner. “And while we still have a long road ahead, thus far Gov. DeSantis has been relentless in his support of communication with and commitment to local governments.”

Trump and DeSantis: Once allies, now in simmering rivalry as 2024 nears

Other parts of the governor’s apparatus have shifted as well. DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw, who called Biden “a seemingly senile 79-year-old aspiring dictator” and denounced critics of DeSantis’s education policies as sexual “groomers,” has shifted her Twitter production this week to focus on educating Floridians on how to handle the hurricane, with occasional barbs for the press.

“The governor is focused on saving lives,” she tweeted at reporters before landfall. “Stop politicizing!”

Both the White House and DeSantis’s office have pointed to their collaboration during the aftermath of the 2021 condominium collapse as a model for their current responses.

“You recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one, and you have been very supportive,” DeSantis told Biden, during a discussion in 2021.

That tone returned this week. DeSantis bracketed the landfall of Ian with appearances on the nation’s premier liberal-bashing platforms, the Fox News shows hosted by Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. DeSantis has made 85 weekday appearances on Fox News since the start of 2021, according to Media Matters, while not once appearing on MSNBC and CNN, the other two major cable news networks.

In this appearance, however, he broke form, dropping the fury and grievance that are mainstays of the two shows. He told Carlson that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the efforts of Biden to help Florida, after Biden told him in a call “he wants to be helpful.”

“If you can’t put politics aside for that, then you are just not going to be able to,” DeSantis said Wednesday night.

“Amen,” Carlson said.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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