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Under cloud of coronavirus, DeSantis policy steps may help Trump with conservative voters

Staff Writer
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

TALLAHASSEE – While the coronavirus has clouded President Donald Trump’s election chances in the nation’s biggest toss-up state, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is looking to give conservative voters a reminder of what they get with the Republican brand.

He also is handing Democrats plenty to attack.

DeSantis recently signed a $92.2 billion state budget after slashing $1 billion in spending, quickly following that up by signing into law controversial abortion legislation and another bill aimed at reducing undocumented immigrants in the workforce.

While the state’s soaring coronavirus caseload and 14.5% unemployment rate have contributed to Democrat Joe Biden’s steady lead over Trump in Florida, the governor is clearly playing a key role for the president’s struggling campaign in his home state.

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While the coronavirus and economic fallout may eclipse virtually every other issue on the minds of voters, Republican allies say policy moves by DeSantis, if embraced by a sizable number of Floridians, could translate into a needed boost for Trump.

“It’s probably harder this year to make a connection, the way coronavirus is layered over the campaign,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, a leader among state social conservatives.

“But there is a chance that you see reverse coat-tails here, where the president is helped by the governor’s popularity,” he said.

But state Rep. Evan Jenne of Dania Beach, who will be a co-leader of House Democrats this fall, called the governor “tone deaf,” in his approach both to state spending and the pandemic.

He said the governor’s leadership gives Democrats plenty to criticize.

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“With the budget, he cut programs that were needed by people who were struggling before COVID and are struggling even worse now,” Jenne said.

While the state’s rapidly rising coronavirus numbers are likely to diminish DeSantis among many voters, the Florida governor has steadily topped Trump in approval ratings in polls since he took office in January 2019.

DeSantis also remains one of the president’s loyal allies.

He’s adhered to the White House approach to the coronavirus. DeSantis quickly reopened the state, ordered Trump-promoted hydroxychloroquine before the drug became questioned as a treatment method, and has repeatedly refused to enact a statewide mask requirement.

This week, DeSantis’ administration ordered Florida schools to reopen in the fall, a day before Trump said he wants schools open nationwide for the new school year. But with virus cases climbing, Democrats and many educators wonder how this can happen.

“We are seeing a total lack of executive leadership,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, the incoming Senate Democratic leader.

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DeSantis stood side-by-side with Mike Pence in Tampa recently, when the vice president said the “people of Florida can rest easy,” because hospital space, ventilators and medical supplies are on hand to deal with the surge in cases.

“There’s no question the governor is going to help the president win Florida, as a result of his own popularity,” said Florida Republican Chairman Joe Gruters, a Sarasota state senator. “Even with COVID-19, he’s proven he’s one of the smartest guys in the country, with a measured approach that flattened the curve, even though, yes, you’re going to have some increase like we’re seeing now.

“He also did the best job he could in keeping the economy open,” Gruters said.

The coronavirus response by the state and federal governments has divided most Floridians along partisan lines. But DeSantis’ latest policy steps may convince Republican voters that there are conventional reasons for turning out votes for the party in November.

The abortion law, which went into effect July 1, requires girls under age 18 to get notarized approval from a parent or guardian – or, otherwise gain consent from a judge before terminating a pregnancy.

The measure, long sought by anti-abortion advocates, reinstates a requirement declared unconstitutional 31 years ago by the Florida Supreme Court. It was approved by the Republican-led Legislature in February, with most Democrats voting against it.

While a court challenge is expected, DeSantis has recast the state’s high court with conservative jurists who may have a different view of the state’s privacy right, which the earlier court ruled shielded minors from needing parental consent.

The same day DeSantis signed the abortion bill, he also approved legislation toughening requirements for businesses to make sure that new hires are legally eligible to work in this country.

The governor had proposed a tougher step against undocumented immigrants, wanting lawmakers to require that the federal E-Verify database be used by employers.

Instead, amid pushback from state agriculture, hospitality and construction industries which often hire immigrant labor, the Legislature wants businesses to use either E-Verify or similar electronic databases, or just have federal I-9 forms completed by new workers, a standard U.S. Labor requirement in place 30 years.

Still, approval of the bill is seen as advancing Trump’s re-election theme of combating illegal immigration.

In signing the state budget, staggered by a loss of tax revenue from the pandemic’s economic toll, DeSantis said he “threaded the needle.”

While he cut heavily from programs and projects sought by local governments, community groups, colleges and universities, he shielded pay raises for teachers and state workers, along with key environmental spending.

DeSantis had earlier antagonized Democrats by ignoring their demands that he stop an already scheduled $543.2 million corporate tax refund for the state’s largest companies. Democrats said retaining that money could have eased the program cuts.

Jenne said that the governor was intent on satisfying his “corporate overlords.” Gruters said it was money owed companies facing a harsh time amid the pandemic.

“His decisions were not partisan,” Gruters said. “Look at the pay raises for teachers and money for the environment. These met promises he made to all Floridians.”

Gruters, though, acknowledged that the governor’s actions could guide voters.

“We are a team at the end of the day,” Gruters said. “The governor will help the president by moving the people of Florida forward through all this.”