GRUNDY CENTER, Iowa — Hank Miller, a 64-year-old Iowa farmer, began paying attention to Gov. Ron DeSantis during the coronavirus pandemic, when the Florida governor had a constant presence on Fox News highlighting his state’s reopening.
Although Miller voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, he now plans to support DeSantis in part, he said, because he was “disappointed” in Trump for following the advice of the nation’s top expert infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci. , who DeSantis has said should be prosecuted.
“I liked how DeSantis responded to the pandemic,” Miller said at a coffee shop in Grundy Center, Iowa, where DeSantis was campaigning on Saturday. “He didn’t just shut it down.”
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DeSantis, far behind Trump in the polls in Iowa and nationally, is clearly hoping such sentiments are widespread among Republican primary voters. The governor’s record on COVID-19 provides perhaps his starkest contrast with the former president, whose administration led the way in developing the coronavirus vaccines that are now deeply unpopular with the Republican base.
The virus could be a key issue for DeSantis, who has sometimes struggled to give voters a clear argument for why he would be a better president than Trump, the Republican front-runner. But there are questions about whether a pandemic that many Americans believe is long over will resonate with the electorate in 2024.
Now, a recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases gives DeSantis an opportunity to put pressure on the argument. In response to the uptick, a small number of schools, universities and hospitals have ordered students, patients and employees to wear masks again. DeSantis and other Republicans have seized on that as evidence that the COVID-19 debate, which they view as a civil rights battle, is far from over.
DeSantis emphasized that point Saturday during his swing through Iowa. “When you have people going back on restrictions and mandates, it shows that this issue has not gone away,” he told reporters outside the Grundy Center coffee shop. “This shows that if we are not accountable to my government, they will continue to try to do this.”
Since returning to the campaign trail after Hurricane Idalia, which hit Florida last month, DeSantis has seemingly made the virus his No. 1 issue. He has appeared repeatedly on Fox News and other conservative media in the past week touting his pandemic policies, and has done interviews with local news media in Iowa and New Hampshire. He even held a press conference in Jacksonville — in his role as governor — to promote his handling of the virus.
“I can tell you here in Florida that we have not and will not allow the dystopian visions of paranoid hypochondriacs to control our health policy, let alone our state,” DeSantis said Thursday at the event in Jacksonville , which in the absence of formal policy announcements had the feel of a campaign rally.
DeSantis is benefiting from a clear shift in the national mood on the virus, even among Democrats. Only 12% of Americans say they typically wear a mask in public, according to a poll conducted in August by Yahoo News and YouGov.
After first lady Jill Biden was recently diagnosed with COVID-19, President Joe Biden joked with reporters at the White House about not wearing a mask. Even though he tested negative, Biden said he was told to continue masking up for 10 days.
“Don’t tell them I didn’t have it on when I came in,” Biden said, holding up his mask.
As DeSantis has once again raised the issue of COVID-19, the Trump campaign has responded by accusing DeSantis of hypocrisy, pointing out that he did issue shutdown orders and at one point praised Fauci.
“Lockdown Ron should take a look in the mirror and ask himself why he is trying to mislead voters,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement.
But while many Republican governors closed their states at the start of the pandemic, DeSantis was early to fully reopen.
Trump, who has always been skeptical of masking and other public health measures, has also started talking about COVID-19 restrictions on the rails.
“The radical Democrats are doing their best to reignite the COVID hysteria,” Trump said Friday at a rally in Rapid City, South Dakota. He also downplays the role Fauci played in his administration.
Still, as Republican candidates try to revive the pandemic as a political issue, they may face virus fatigue.
During DeSantis’ Saturday bus tour of Iowa, several voters said in interviews that the pandemic was not a top concern for them in 2024, even as they admired the governor’s record.
“We don’t need to hear about it,” said Dave Sweeney, a retired farmer who said he was trying to choose between supporting DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. “It’s not really a problem anymore.”
It’s possible that the public in places like New Hampshire, which has imposed stricter public health measures than Iowa, will be more receptive.
In the lead-up to his presidential campaign, DeSantis signed a series of public health bills in Florida that he often references along the way, including laws banning mask and vaccine mandates. He also initiated a state grand jury investigation into possible “misconduct” by scientists and vaccine manufacturers. (No charges have been filed.)
Although DeSantis says his COVID-19 policies protected Floridians from government overreach and kept the economy afloat, the state suffered a disproportionate number of coronavirus deaths during the virus’ delta wave in 2021 after DeSantis quit preaching the virtues of vaccines, a New York Times investigation found.
Still, such criticism is unlikely to matter in a Republican primary, where many voters underestimate the severity of a virus that has killed more than 1 million Americans since 2020.
“I think it’s a common cold,” said Roger Hibdon, 32, an engineer at Grundy Center. “I’m not worried about it.”
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