Emergency management, however, is an area that Scott has used to boost his political capital. He successfully navigated the state through Hurricanes Maria and Irma during his eight years as governor, all while wearing a blue Navy hat, a nod to his military service that became part of Scott’s political brand. Hurricane Michael, which leveled parts of the Florida panhandle, pulled Scott from the campaign trail in October 2018, earning him limitless media attention in the midst of a nationally watched Senate race.
“This is gold for Rick Scott,” said Brad Coker, a pollster with Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, at the time. “It gives him the chance to raise his profile and show he can execute under pressure. It worked for Gov. [Jeb] Bush before him. And it worked for Scott after [Hurricane] Irma.”
Of course, Scott’s perceived advantage in crisis management is only an edge if he can maintain the perception that it exists. This is where Scott’s reputation for being surgical with a political shank comes into play. The former governor has taken a few stabs at DeSantis’ performance during the response.
In the early portions of the crisis, Scott sent out daily charts without any context showing the coronavirus’ growth on a percentage basis in Florida and other states (the numbers were not good), and called the early lack of communication out of DeSantis’ administration “alarming.” Scott’s team has grown accustomed to pushing back against the implication that he is feuding with DeSantis, but the hits keep coming.
On April 16, Scott released a 60-day Let’s Get Back to Work plan, a title that mirrors the “Let’s Get to Work” slogan he deployed for eight years as governor. Though that plan gained little traction, it was noticed because it stepped on the messaging of the sitting governor, who generally leads the state’s emergency management response.
Rubio has also urged caution, saying things like more contact tracing, antiviral coronavirus treatments and specific social-distancing measures should be in place before things open back up. But unlike Scott’s jabs, nothing Rubio has said has indicated he was trying to score points at DeSantis’ expense. Instead, he took a more direct route at self-promotion.
One of Rubio’s biggest official roles has been as chairman of the usually sleepy Small Business Committee, which crafted $377 million in funding for small businesses that was a key cog in Congress’ first $2 trillion coronavirus economic stimulus bill. That role gave Rubio a national “next act.” He used it to make a splash.
“Am I interested in potentially running for president one day? Sure, absolutely, because I ran once before. I don’t know if I will,” he told POLITICO in April. “I don’t know what the world is going to look like in four, five, six years or what my life is going to look like.”
Maybe one of DeSantis’ most significant 2024 moves came in another national swing state before he was even governor.
In 2017, DeSantis and a handful campaign staffers flew to Las Vegas for a meeting that they had been seeking for months with a donor who had the ability to singlehandedly change the trajectory of his race: Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate. This was especially important for DeSantis, who despite his Ivy League pedigree comes from a working-class family in west central Florida and lacks the built-in donor network or vast personal wealth of someone like Rick Scott.
Walking into the room at Adelson’s Venetian hotel, DeSantis had an in with a man that every Republican presidential aspirant courts in what is known inside GOP circles as the “Sheldon Adelson primary.” The winner, who was nearly Rubio in 2016, gets access to tens of millions of dollars and, equally as important, immediate national viability.
As a member of Congress, DeSantis was a hard-line supporter of Israel—Adelson’s most passionate cause—and he ran for governor on a platform that included a promise to be the nation’s “most pro-Israel governor.” When DeSantis got his meeting, the focus was not business or politics.
“Sitting in that room they were talking about, like, Bedouin tribes of Israel pre-biblical era,” said one aide who was at the meeting. “I’m not even sure I’m saying it right, it was just so esoteric. Sheldon knew exactly what [DeSantis] was saying, but everyone else in the room was lost.”
Adelson ultimately helped lead DeSantis’ finance team, a group that included a collection of conservative ideologically aligned national billionaires that normally would not play in a Florida’s governor’s race. “That initial list was a group of people who signal national aspirations,” said a DeSantis campaign adviser.
But DeSantis’ success with Adelson is a conspicuous exception in his fundraising. He is notorious for his poor skills tending to the run-of-the-mill millionaires who populate the national fundraising circuit. Multiple people who spoke to POLITICO said DeSantis lacks what is known in campaign parlance as “donor maintenance”—knowing something about your donors, calling them on their birthdays, sending them a note when their kid graduates from college.
“We would try to tell him you need to call these people other than when you are asking them for money,” said one former campaign aide. “That is a huge maintenance problem. He is just kind of a jerk.”