The GOP Governors And COVID: Breaking Down The DeSantis, Burgum And Hutchinson Records

Republican presidential candidates Ron DeSantis, Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum have something in common: They were in governor’s mansions for most or all of the time the federal government said COVID-19 was a public health emergency.

Through the end of that emergency on May 11 of this year, more than a million Americans perished, countless businesses closed and then reopened, and the unemployment rate shot up beyond 14% and then almost as quickly came back down. 

But as the U.S. returned to some, albeit altered, sense of normalcy, the questions remain: Could more lives have been saved? Did the economic road back have to be so long and bumpy?

To answer those questions for the three presidential candidates/governors, HuffPost looked at Centers for Disease Control and Infection data, government economic statistics and private sector estimates.

The three governors present very different profiles. DeSantis took a lot of criticism for being slow to close public spaces in his state, including beaches, at the start of the pandemic. And while he waded into the presidential race as the frontrunner to upset Donald Trump, his campaign has sputtered, and he’s turned to the culture wars as a way to revive it.

Hutchinson, who left office in January after two terms as Arkansas’ governor, is the most old school of the group, having been a three-term congressman and serving the Bush administration as chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration and an undersecretary in Homeland Security.

He hasn’t been shy about his disdain for Trump and has called on him to quit the race. But he’s had trouble gaining traction, competing with former congressman Will Hurd and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie for the Never Trumper primary lane.

Burgum, now in his second term as North Dakota’s governor, has touted himself as the business candidate, playing to his history as a former software exec who sold his company to Microsoft for a billion dollars. On his website, he proudly notes he was called the “Best Entrepreneurial Governor” by Forbes.

Here are some of the big takeaways.

Florida under DeSantis did pretty well in terms of preventing COVID deaths – at least before vaccines were available.

For health outcomes, HuffPost looked at two measures: COVID deaths per 100,000 state residents, adjusted for age, and potential years of life lost to premature deaths, with premature deaths defined as those occurring before the age of 75.

The CDC reported deaths per 100,000 residents for each state for the first and second years of the pandemic, 2020 and 2021. Averaging the two years’ data together, Florida saw a rate of 84.05 deaths per 100,000, while North Dakota saw a rate of 96.4 and Arkansas a rate of 108.95.

For the nation, the average for the two years was 93.15 deaths, according to CDC data.

Because COVID poses a higher death risk to older people, age-adjusting is one way to try to control for differences in states’ populations.

The CDC figures did clearly indicate DeSantis’ state fared worse when it should have been easier to stop COVID.

In 2020, before there was a vaccine, Florida had the 11th lowest age-adjusted death rate, at 56.4. But in 2021, as the COVID vaccine became available and public spaces and workplaces became more crowded, the ratings shifted and Florida fell back to 33rd place, with a rate of 111.7.

The figures appear to reflect DeSantis’ increased skepticism of the usefulness of vaccinations as 2021 wore on. While an early proponent of offering the shot to anyone over 65, by March 2021 he had taken the stance that most people could decide for themselves whether to get vaccinated or not, according to The New York Times.  

The overall U.S. rate in 2021 was 101.3 deaths per 100,000, age-adjusted.

The DeSantis campaign declined to comment on the data, but pointed HuffPost to a CNBC interview last week where the governor touted his COVID response as bucking the Trump administration and Anthony Fauci, a key pandemic adviser.

“We understood, yes, this one virus is very important. But that can’t be [to] the exclusion of everything else,” he said. “So we wanted to make sure people lived a whole life and could make their own decisions.”

North Dakota was hard hit by the pandemic economically and has yet to fully recover.

On the economic side, HuffPost examined two measures of economic vigor: how long it took the number of jobs to bounce back to pre-COVID levels and the growth rate of GDP during most of the public health emergency.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, it took Florida and Arkansas both 20 months to return to the number of jobs in the last month before COVID hit (February 2020).

But North Dakota, under former software executive Burgum, still has not returned to its pre-pandemic level of jobs as of July, according to the BLS.

For the nation as a whole, it took until June 2022 ― 28 months later ― for employment to exceed pre-pandemic levels.

North Dakota’s energy-dependent economy also took it on the chin during the pandemic. Of the three states looked at, only North Dakota’s economy had shrunk between the first quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2023, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

The state’s economy shrank by 0.7% over that period, compared to Florida’s 4.1% and Arkansas’ 2.3% growth rates.

Like other oil patch states, North Dakota was hit first by the drop in demand for oil at the start of the pandemic as people worked from home and then the rise in demand for renewable energy. Employment in logging and mining, which includes oil and gas exploration, dropped by more than a third in 2020 and has yet to fully recover.

Despite all this, North Dakota’s jobless rate remains one of the nation’s lowest, at 2.0% in July.

By any health measure, Arkansas performed the worst of the three states in preventing COVID deaths.

On the health front, the worst-performing state of the three during the COVID emergency was Arkansas under Asa Hutchinson, by just about any measure.

The state lagged both Florida and North Dakota in the CDC stats on deaths per 100,000 residents, posting a mark close to 109 for 2020 and 2021 combined, when the national average was 93.

Even when controlling for age and comorbidity factors like body mass and smoking that make COVID more lethal, in a Lancet medical journal study, Arkansas came in well behind Florida and North Dakota, ranking 33rd of 51 states and the District of Columbia in terms of deaths per 100,000.

It also did the worst on another metric: potential years of life lost due to premature death, defined as deaths before the age of 75. According to an estimate by the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, Arkansas saw 6,883 years of potential life lost prematurely per 100,000 residents from April 1, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2022.

That’s significantly more than North Dakota (5,396 years) or Florida (5,627 years).

Neither the Hutchinson or Burgum campaigns responded to requests for comment on the data.

“Tonight’s debate stage will feature GOP governors like Ron DeSantis and Doug Burgum who have dangerous records of failure that made life and the economy worse for working families in their states,” said Devon Cruz, national press secretary for the Democratic Governors Association.

“They have consistently put their own divisive politics ahead of keeping families safe and growing the economy, focusing on attacking fundamental freedoms and pushing extreme [Make America Great Again] policies instead of addressing the biggest issues facing families like creating good-paying jobs for the middle class and improving public education.”

CORRECTION: A prior version of this story inaccurately referred to May 11, 2020, in one instance; it has been updated to refer to 2023.