The politics of Florida's raging COVID-19 outbreak under the bankrupt stewardship of GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis are proving to be particularly challenging for Senate Republicans.
Not only has DeSantis become the poster boy for dooming his constituents in service of political gain, but the southern swing state is also home to a dissonant mix of political interests as next year's midterms approach.
DeSantis, who is up for reelection next year, is 100% priming himself for a 2024 presidential bid—thus his insistence on sacrificing Florida lives at the altar of so-called "personal freedom." As ICUs fill up and the hospitalizations of children spike, DeSantis is literally telling his constituents to "just deal" with the soaring infection rates.
DeSantis’ sadistic 2024 calculation: the crueler, the better. But that's a real problem for Senate Republicans seeking control of the upper chamber and, in particular, the state's two GOP senators. Take Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, whose fate next year is almost surely tied to DeSantis at this point. Asked this week about the GOP governor's crackdown on in-school mask mandates, Rubio squirmed.
"He’s not telling them they can't wear masks; he’s telling them they can't mandate them," Rubio told CNN reporter Manu Raju, building the specious defense that voluntary mask-wearing provides kids some protection from infection. Research has shown it doesn't.
From there, Rubio claimed he hadn't had the chance to ask DeSantis about his rationale yet, so he couldn't possibly take a stand on the fact that the governor is leaving kids and parents to fend for themselves.
"I'm not going to sit and criticize it when I haven’t had the chance to talk to him about his thinking,” Rubio said. Raju had specifically asked him about the bedrock conservative principle that the state and federal governments should never interfere with local governance.
Rubio also lied about the efficacy of universal in-school masking, which has been shown to reduce child-to-child transmission to less than 1%.
"I personally feel like parents should have the choice about whether the kids want to wear a mask or not," he said. "I just honestly, I don't believe we can mask our way out of this, especially the younger kids are, the harder it is to enforce mask mandates anyway.”
Right, especially the younger kids—who can't get vaccinated—why even bother? Remember when Rubio was going to save the Republican Party? Rubio's determined spinelessness is exactly why Donald Trump crushed him like soggy marsh reed in 2016.
But Florida's other Republican Senator, Rick Scott, who's chairing the Senate GOP campaign arm, also danced around DeSantis questions like a barefooted beachgoer scorched by the sand.
In an NPR interview earlier this week, Scott refused to say DeSantis' name; accused Democrats of "fearmongering" on COVID-19 even as his state hit 19,000 new cases a day, reaching a record-breaking 24,753 new cases by Wednesday; and dismissed "mandates" while dodging questions about DeSantis dictating to local school systems what they can and can't do.
"I think what the government should be doing is providing good information and let businesses and let people make their choices," Scott said. "I think what this has been used - all right? - is it's been used by a lot of people for fearmongering. And I think that this is a significant virus."
Questioning Scott’s “fearmongering” characterization, NPR's Ari Shapiro interjected, "With 19,000 cases a day and hospitalization rates that are..."
Scott tried to cut him off, conceding, "Ari, it's a significant issue."
He continued by saying that the government has to "inform people" so they can make a "good decision."
"What you can't be doing is shutting this economy down again, shutting down our school systems, so that our kids don't get educations. That's wrong," Scott said.
Shapiro responded, "You're saying the government should not be telling people what to do. At the same time, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is saying schools that want to set their own rules about masks are not allowed to. He signed legislation saying private businesses cannot require proof of vaccination. ... Aren't those measures another version of the government interference that you're objecting to?"
Scott declined to answer directly, offering, "I've been very clear that a private business gets to make its choice, and you as a customer, an employee, you get to make your choice." Then he declared himself "pro-vaccine" but wouldn't touch DeSantis with a ten-foot pole.
That's a lot of ducking and weaving in the space of a couple of minutes or so.
If you've been following along, Senate Republicans have been trying to turn the corner on the delta outbreak by eagerly declaring themselves pro-vaccine a half dozen months after the White House began setting out timelines and inoculation goals immediately after Joe Biden's inauguration. Until delta started ripping through red states with the lowest vaccination rates, Republicans were happily sitting on their hands and hoping Biden would fail.
Now Senate Republicans, in particular, are engineering a moderation makeover for their caucus while House Republicans plant their flag on the GOP fringes.
But in their race to dazzle the GOP base with depravity, DeSantis and other Republican governors are destroying that thin veneer faster than Senate Republicans can concoct it.
Meanwhile, Rubio would say anything to win reelection if someone would only tell him what to say, and pro-seditionist Scott is trying to mainstream the party right as a red-state horror show unfolds under DeSantis' command.
Watching it all unfold with glee is Mar-a-Lago-based Trump, who wants nothing more than to see McConnell fail and Little Marco grovel while knocking his mini-me apprentice down a notch. Trump, a constant thorn in McConnell's side, will surely find a way to make his home state's politics simply impossible for every GOP Floridian who has a major stake in next year's elections. But DeSantis, Rubio, and Scott, who's also eyeing a 2024 bid, will bear the brunt of it.