Jeb Bush was the education reform governor. Charlie Crist campaigned on pocketbook issues. Rick Scott was all about jobs, jobs, jobs.
Then there’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, chief of the woke police.
DeSantis rose to fame fighting COVID-19 restrictions, but lately has become the face of the GOP’s efforts to push back against liberal cultural values, particularly around race and LGBTQ issues.
The emphasis on conservative social issues is a big shift for a governor’s race in the nation’s biggest battleground state, but tracks with the GOP’s evolution under former President Donald Trump, who emphasized culture war fights after years of Republican leaders worrying they would scare off suburban voters.
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DeSantis’ ascent as a culture warrior has long been in the making, stretching back to his push against so-called undocumented immigrant “sanctuary cities” and a bill last year that banned transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports.
That legislation has captured the public’s attention more than anything DeSantis has done outside of his COVID-19 response, sparking commentary at the Oscars in Hollywood, a high-profile battle with Disney and even a billboard campaign promoted by New York City to invite LGBTQ Floridians to visit and live in the Big Apple.
DeSantis has elevated social issues in a way that Florida hasn’t experienced in recent memory, as highlighted by bills he supported that are now landing on his desk following the 60-day legislative session.
After recently signing HB 1557, DeSantis is now poised to approve the “Stop W.O.K.E Act.”
The first bill outlaws teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity at lower grade levels and also limits what can be taught at upper grade levels; the second targets how schools and businesses handle racial issues. One is largely a reaction to pro-LGBTQ activism, the other to racial justice initiatives that have gained prominence after high-profile instances of police killing unarmed Black people.
DeSantis isn’t choosing the issues.
They are driven by a shift in the GOP under Trump toward a politics of cultural grievance, and by what is catching hold in conservative media. One pundit recently described DeSantis as the Fox News candidate, because he so faithfully pushes legislation on the issues that fill Fox’s airwaves.
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High job approval ratings
Other Republican leaders have advanced similar bills, but DeSantis – widely viewed as a potential presidential candidate in 2024 – seems to be on the leading edge of every issue gaining prominence with conservatives, his antenna more finely tuned to the headlines in conservative media than past Florida governors. Polls show his approval ratings remain above 50%.
“In my opinion, he’s likely to run for president of the United States and what we’re seeing at the state level is we’re doing red meat issues,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who opposed HB 1557 and other controversial bills supported by DeSantis.
“The goal is to create a national platform at the state level, which is why the state’s taking on immigration, which is why the state’s taking on the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ issue and the woke bill and all these other things,” he added.
The result is a transformation of the Republican agenda in Florida that places less emphasis on traditional GOP issues such as tax cuts, economic development and school choice, and more on hot-button partisan battles.
The governor’s critics accuse him of ignoring key pocketbook concerns such as the state’s affordable housing and property insurance crisis in favor of more contentious issues, arguing he is pursuing a far right agenda that appeals mostly to GOP base voters he needs if he runs for president.
“I think the cultural issues he’s selected are divisive, they’re meant to be wedge issues, they can be very effective in ginning up your base and practically ineffective in making the quality of life of Floridians better,” said Crist, a former Republican governor turned Democratic congressman who is running for governor.
DeSantis backers believe he is highlighting issues that are important to many Floridians, and where the Democratic Party is out of touch with many regular voters.
Florida GOP Vice Chair Christian Ziegler argued that HB 1557 touches on the top priority for parents, the welfare of their children.
“If you are a parent there is no issue greater than protecting your children, period,” Ziegler said. “So I would take offense to anyone who says he’s not focused on kitchen table issues. I think the governor is laser focused on kitchen table issues and families in Florida.”
The governor’s playbook closely mirrors that of Trump, who used such politics to great success in Florida, a state where he tripled his margin of victory in 2020 while making inroads with key demographic groups, such as Hispanics, many of whom are more culturally conservative.
DeSantis’ reelection playbook is “definitely a big change” from past Florida governors said Frank Orlando, a political science professor at St. Leo University north of Tampa, but not surprising considering how successful it was for Trump.
“If you think about parties as evolutionary beings, the things that win will get mimicked,” Orlando said.
While pushing social issues may still be a liability with some moderate suburban voters, Trump showed how they could be leveraged to help the GOP make inroads with certain groups, including working class voters and Hispanics.
“The détente we saw on social issues, or maybe retreat from conservative social issues over the last 15 years, was driven by the fact that Republicans in the suburbs were losing upper-educated white voters,” Orlando said. “The Trump presidency cemented those voters may not be coming back no matter how moderate you are on those issues … you’ve got to make up for it somehow.”
Polling has been mixed on HB 1557, but conservatives are confident that the plain language in the bill is popular, regardless of the “Don’t Say Gay” tag.
“People are with us once they understand the overall intent of the legislation,” said Shawn Frost, a GOP campaign consultant and former Indian River County School Board member, adding that the legislation “preserves individual liberty and parental sovereignty and that’s what makes it popular to reasonable thinking people.”
Supporters of HB 1557 believe the Democratic Party has moved further left than the majority of voters on many social issues, such as transgender rights.
DeSantis has seized on the transgender issue, in particular, highlighting library books he is critical of and instances were schools allegedly approached transgender issues in ways he views as inappropriate. The governor even signed a proclamation declaring a female Florida swimmer who lost to a transgender opponent in the NCAA championship as the “rightful winner.”
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said it’s not DeSantis initiating a culture war, but the left.
“The only ones waging a ‘culture war’ are the small, radical minority of progressives who seek to erase the reality of biological sex and to normalize the indoctrination of young children in sex and gender ideology,” Pushaw said. “In other words, the culture war is being waged against us, and Governor DeSantis is taking a stand for normalcy.
“Moreover, the phrase ‘culture war’ is often used to gaslight and dismiss very real concerns, such as education,” Pushaw added. “Education is a top priority for parents of all political views, and fighting for high-quality, factual, developmentally appropriate education rather than indoctrination is a kitchen-table issue for Florida families.”
Pushaw dismissed the idea that DeSantis is pushing issues with an eye toward the 2024 presidential election, saying he “is running for reelection and focused on serving the people of Florida as governor. He has never indicated any interest in running for president and has always dismissed such speculation.”
DeSantis proclamation: Florida swimmer who lost to trans athlete is ‘rightful winner’
Lambasting Democrats over transgender policies is also a favorite topic for Trump.
“With their extremist sex and gender ideology the Democratic party is waging war on reality, war on science, war on children, war on women,” Trump said at a Michigan rally this month.
DeSantis isn’t the first Florida governor to try and satisfy the right wing of his party.
Bush once described himself as a “head-banging” conservative.” He moderated after losing his first run for governor, but also took positions that delighted social conservatives, such as fighting to keep Terri Schiavo alive when her husband wanted to remove life support.
Crist once was known as “Chain Gang Charlie” for his tough on crime approach, but eventually moved so far to the center that he struggled in a primary against U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and left the GOP to become an independent and eventually a Democrat.
Scott, while mainly targeting economic development, also emphasized cracking down on illegal immigration during his first term in office.
Even DeSantis, after barely winning in 2018 after a recount, tacked to the middle and highlighted environmental protection and other broadly popular issues, such as allowing medical marijuana in smokable form.
Lately, though, DeSantis has emerged as one of the most combative and partisan GOP leaders in the country – an image that thrills many Republicans.
“Ever since I’ve been involved, conservatives, the grassroots they’ve been begging for Republicans to have a spine and run towards the fight, and Ron DeSantis runs toward the fight,” Ziegler said.
What kept Republican leaders from moving too far right in the past was Florida’s status as a swing state, and fear of losing moderate voters, many registered as NPAs (No Party Affiliation).
But Trump’s strong 2020 showing delivered a big blow to Florida’s swing state image, and DeSantis is popular enough that he clearly isn’t worried about turning off voters with his stands on divisive social issues.
Tallahassee Democrat reporter James Call contributed to this report. Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org