For the past week, the foundering Ron DeSantis campaign has been in the midst of a putative reset: cutting a third of its staff, reducing exorbitant travel expenditures, and ending its mainstream media blackout. And what better way to kickstart a campaign “reboot” than by picking a public fight over slavery with Florida’s only Black Republican congressman, Byron Donalds?
The tiff centers on Florida’s new and much-criticized African American history standards. The guidelines—released last week—include a line requiring middle school students to be taught that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” DeSantis has claimed he “wasn’t involved” in the drafting of the new standards, but defended them nonetheless: “They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life,” he said at a press conference Friday.
Donalds—a deeply conservative politician who has said that critical race theory “spits in the face of the Civil Rights Movement”—wrote Wednesday morning that “the attempt to feature the personal benefits of slavery” in the new guidelines is “wrong & needs to be adjusted,” even as he called the standards “robust” and “accurate. He also noted that he didn’t feel that they were intentionally trying to highlight benefits of slavery.
But that didn’t sit well with members of the DeSantis campaign. Multiple immediately accused Donalds of shilling for the Democratic Party and compared him to Vice President Kamala Harris, who took a last-minute trip to Jacksonville on Friday to give a speech denouncing the new standards. “Maybe the congressman shouldn’t swing for the liberal media fences like Vice President Kamala Harris,” tweeted DeSantis press secretary Jeremy Redfern Wednesday. Not to be outdone, DeSantis campaign “rapid response” director and notorious online troll Christina Pushaw responded to a Donalds tweet with a gif of the vice president giving a thumbs up.
These comments were echoed by Florida Department of Education Commissioner and staunch DeSantis ally Manny Diaz Jr., who said the standards would not be revised “at the behest of a woke @WhiteHouse, nor at the behest of a supposedly conservative congressman.”
Donalds later acknowledged the DeSantis campaign’s more-rabid-than-“rapid” response to his criticisms Wednesday night. “What’s crazy to me is I expressed support for the vast majority of the new African American history standards and happened to oppose one sentence that seemed to dignify the skills gained by slaves as a result of their enslavement,” Donalds tweeted. “Anyone who can’t accurately interpret what I said is disingenuous and is desperately attempting to score political points.”
Donalds ended the tweet by reiterating his early presidential endorsement of Donald Trump, which came before DeSantis entered the race. Sensing a political opportunity here, Trump advisor Jason Miller released a statement calling Donalds “a conservative hero” and decrying DeSantis’s “attempt to smear” the Republican congressman.
Picking a fight with Donalds isn’t the only publicity stunt that DeSantis campaign has pulled this week. In an interview Wednesday with Clay Travis on OutKick, DeSantis was asked whether he’d consider current Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kenney Jr. as a running mate. Though DeSantis said they differed on too many issues for him to make RFK Jr. his veep, he did say he might want to “sic him on the FDA” or “sic him on the CDC,” where Kennedy could turn his anti-vaccine stances into federal policy.
The comments earned the Florida governor a rebuke from the generally pro-DeSantis National Review, which in the past has assiduously defended the Florida governor’s Covid record. “DeSantis has either hopelessly lost the plot in his campaign, or he’s myopically focused on appeasing the ‘New Right’ to the exclusion of all else,” wrote contributor Jeffrey Blehar, referring to the young, populist, culture-warring conservative activists who have dominated DeSantis’s campaign. (Young New Right star Nate Hochman, a former National Review staff writer, was fired from the DeSantis campaign this week after news broke that he had originated a video, stuffed with anti-vaxx content, that ended with a Nazi symbol superimposed on DeSantis’s face.)
Meanwhile, former Vice President Mike Pence took DeSantis’s RFK Jr. comments as an opportunity to get in a shot on abortion—an issue on which, ironically, DeSantis has attempted to run to the right of many of his competitors. “When I am President, I will only consider Pro-Life Americans to lead FDA, CDC, or HHS,” Pence tweeted. “To be clear, pro-abortion Democrats like RFK, Jr. would not even make the list.”