In Florida, conditions have not yet reached such a crisis point, though its caseload is growing steadily. But because DeSantis waited so long to act, he and Trump could be punished if the outbreak ultimately imposes a heavy cost on the state. “If this does get worse and worse … I think DeSantis’s vulnerability is Trump’s vulnerability,” says Adam Smith, a Tampa-based senior vice president at the bipartisan firm Mercury Public Affairs.
Read: What will happen when red states need help?
In no other swing state has Trump’s relationship with a governor been as intense during the outbreak as his relationships with DeSantis and Whitmer. The two leaders, both elected in 2018, present different profiles. Whitmer, a former state senator, was at the vanguard of governors who moved quickly to shut down social and economic activity. She closed educational facilities on March 16 and imposed a statewide stay-at-home order a week later. DeSantis, a former congressman who soared from relative obscurity to win the gubernatorial nomination after Trump’s endorsement, closed educational facilities a day after Whitmer. But he conspicuously left open the state’s crowded beaches through spring break, and he didn’t impose a statewide stay-at-home order until April 1, after every other major state.
Trump’s hostility toward Whitmer—who, like other Democratic governors, has at times criticized the federal government for failures in testing and supplies—was perhaps most memorably expressed at his March 27 White House briefing. Trump said he told Vice President Mike Pence not to “call the woman in Michigan.” “You know what I say?” Trump added. “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”
Trump made clear his affection for DeSantis, meanwhile, a few days later. As DeSantis faced growing criticism at home and around the nation for his refusal to shut down Florida, Trump described him at another press briefing as a “great governor,” who “knows exactly what he’s doing.” When DeSantis finally issued his stay-at-home order, he made clear that he did so only after talking with Trump.
These divergent records frame the political risks confronting Trump from his relationships with these state leaders.
In Michigan, Democrats are sure to remind voters of his threats against Whitmer. He risks alienating those who think that a political grudge is driving the federal response. “There is an incredibly minuscule chance” that the clip of Trump talking about his conversation with Pence “does not make it into television ads, digital ads, and mailers throughout the state of Michigan later this year,” Goldman told me.
Whitmer has tried to soothe her conflict with Trump. Last week, she told my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere that she’d had a productive call with the president, and this week she praised the federal government for sending more medical equipment. But in her interview with Dovere, she also didn’t back away from her repeated criticism that an inadequate federal response had compounded the suffering in her state and elsewhere. “More people are going to get sick and more lives are going to be lost because we don’t have enough testing, because we don’t have enough [personal protective equipment], because there aren’t enough ventilators,” she said.