Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis faces catastrophic Hurricane Ian as the political world watches

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Hurricane Ian’s looming threat to Florida is poised to be the biggest challenge of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ first term in office, and it could affect his political future as the nation gets a close look at how he steers the state through a natural disaster.

Ian is expected to make landfall Wednesday on the state’s west coast as a powerful Category 4 hurricane.

The storm was already churning through national politics on Tuesday with news that President Biden, who was set to label Mr. DeSantis as an “extremist” at a speech this week, hadn’t even called the governor ahead of the storm. His appearance in Orlando was canceled because of the hurricane.

“An election is coming, and I guess he can’t muster the ability to pick up the phone and call the governor,” Lora Ries, who served as acting deputy chief of staff at the Homeland Security Department and is now at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told The Washington Times. 

Mr. Biden had planned the Florida trip to stump for Mr. DeSantis’ trailing Democratic opponent, Rep. Charlie Crist. As of Tuesday, the president had yet to call Mr. DeSantis.

In addition to running for a second term as governor, Mr. DeSantis is considered to be a leading Republican contender in the 2024 presidential race. 

Instead, Mr. Biden phoned the mayors of Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa to discuss preparations for the impact of Hurricane Ian.

In a Rose Garden address, the president touted the federal response and a surge of federal assistance.

“My administration is on an alert and in action to help the people of Florida,” Mr. Biden said. He said he told the three mayors, two of them Democrats and one a Republican, “Whatever they need, contact me directly.”

As much as Mr. Biden is eager to show the nation he’s on top of the storm, the real test is for Mr. DeSantis, who took office in 2019 and has never governed during a major hurricane. 

“Hurricane management can make or break a governor,” said Brad Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy.

Approval ratings rose for Jeb Bush, a Republican, with his handling of the eight hurricanes that affected Florida while he was governor. Numbers plummeted for his brother, President George W. Bush, who was blamed for responding too slowly to catastrophic flooding in Louisiana caused by Hurricane Katrina. The disaster also overwhelmed the Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s handling of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 gave the Republican a huge boost in polls ahead of his reelection in a state that voted for Barack Obama by 17 percentage points. 

Ian will make landfall less than six weeks before Mr. DeSantis faces voters in his bid for a second term, and many Florida communities may still be recovering from the storm. 

Mr. DeSantis faces a much larger audience as an undeclared but leading contender among possible Republican presidential hopefuls, and a sizable victory in Florida’s gubernatorial contest will bolster his national image. 

Mr. Coker, who lives in northern Florida, said Mr. DeSantis has a big opportunity to seal more voter support ahead of Nov. 8 by putting aside politics and focusing on preparation and response to the storm.

“If he passes the test, it probably puts his 2022 reelection race away,” Mr. Coker said.

Mr. DeSantis declared a state of emergency for all 67 Florida counties on Saturday and has been on camera daily urging residents to heed evacuation warnings as the storm track wobbled. He announced steps he has taken to prepare the entire state for impact and recovery. 

“This is a 24/7 thing and, of course, we are going to see it all the way through,” Mr. DeSantis said at a press conference in Pinellas County. “And we’ll be here on the back end as well.”

Although he has not talked with Mr. Biden, as DeSantis aides confirmed, the governor has been in contact with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell about the federal government’s involvement, which will center on distributing money to those who need aid after the storm. 

“FEMA is integrated in what we are doing,” Mr. DeSantis said.