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Team DeSantis is fighting everyone Black over the history of slavery

A swath of Black Republicans have joined the chorus decrying Florida's new African American history standards.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign is having a a rough patch. Since officially entering the 2024 presidential race, DeSantis has struggled to make headway in the polls. Bad news about his campaign’s fundraising and staffing continues to dominate the headlines surrounding him. He’s got two main things going for him right now: His remaining staffers are exceedingly loyal to him, and he’s still the governor of a state where his right-wing policies are carried out without hesitation.

But last week, both of those strengths became potential liabilities even within his own party. The Florida State Board of Education, whose members DeSantis appointed, recently released a new set of standards for teaching African American history that included language suggesting that students learn that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” NBC News reported on Friday that the majority of the work group preparing those standards objected to that language being inserted. If they hadn't been overruled, DeSantis would have been spared the intense backlash that followed.

Importantly, the criticism has come from not just Democrats like Vice President Kamala Harris, but a growing number of prominent Black conservatives. Rather than admit error, DeSantis’ team has gone scorched earth, leaving their boss looking less presidential and more like the kind of sensitive snowflake that the right has spent years mocking.

In a speech this month, Harris said that Florida’s education board wants to “replace history with lies” and that the state’s “extremist, so-called leaders should model what we know to be the correct and right approach if we really are invested in the well-being of our children.” A struggling GOP candidate dreams of that sort of direct attack having lobbed their way. As NBC News’ Jonathan Allen recently reported, Harris has become the go-to punching bag for DeSantis and his allies rather than President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump.

But Harris isn’t the only one with criticisms of the Florida standards. On Wednesday, Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., tweeted that “the attempt to feature the personal benefits of slavery is wrong & needs to be adjusted. That obviously wasn’t the goal & I have faith that FLDOE will correct this.”

As my colleague Steve Benen pointed out last week, Donalds’ criticism was as delicately framed as possible. In response, though, we had the likes of DeSantis campaign rapid response director Christine Pushaw coming for Donalds’ neck on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter: “Did Kamala Harris write this tweet?”

Manny Diaz, the DeSantis-appointed state school board commissioner, released a press release blasting the idea that “the federal government” could “dictate Florida’s education standards.”

The burgeoning Donalds vs. DeSantis storyline was interesting enough. Then Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., added his voice to the mix on Thursday. “What slavery was really about was separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives. It was just devastating,” Scott said in Iowa in response to a reporter’s question. “So I would hope that every person in our country — and certainly running for president — would appreciate that. People have bad days. Sometimes they regret what they say. And we should ask them again to clarify their positions.” And it's worth noting that former Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, also said on CNN last Monday that “Slavery was not a jobs program!”

Some context is required here: Donalds, like the majority of the Florida delegation in the House, has endorsed Trump over DeSantis. He’s also expressed interest in running for governor of Florida once DeSantis’ term expires, so it makes sense that he’d pick a fight to help raise his profile further. Meanwhile, Scott and Hurd are both actively trying to beat DeSantis for the GOP nomination. Major Republican donors are also considering Scott as a potential alternative to Donald Trump should the Floridian falter further, giving the senator’s comments an extra layer of political weight. In that light, there’s no love lost between DeSantis and any of those three men, and it lends at least some validity to Team DeSantis’ full-throated clapbacks.

The problem is that since then the number of conservative Black voices coming out of the woodwork to hammer DeSantis has only increased. Rep. John James, R-Mich., warned DeSantis on Friday that he’s “gone too far,” writing that “there are only five black Republicans in Congress and you’re attacking two of them.” And rather than be chastised in any way, DeSantis’ team has continued to be extremely aggressive in their dismissal of any complaints, regardless of the source.

Strategically speaking, this has been a major missed opportunity from DeSantis. Donalds, Scott and James are all members of a minority within a minority. All three are just as “anti-woke” in their rhetoric as the rest of the GOP, even as it drives a wedge between them and most Black voters and politicians. The smarter play would have been to listen to the critiques that have been offered, make some small tweaks to the standards to bring them onboard, and use their seal of approval as proof that DeSantis is a uniter and someone who can be trusted to educate America’s children without caving to the left and the “DEI” crowd.

But by lashing out, DeSantis’ campaign is wasting potential opportunities to make in-roads with Black voters in the general election should he actually win the nomination. And rather than going toe-to-toe with Harris like he wanted, he’s fighting everyone Black on both sides of the political spectrum. That might be satisfying in the short run, and maybe even a boon with some of the GOP voters he’s trying to attract, but it’s leaving him even more isolated at a time when his vulnerability is more apparent than ever.