Bloomberg — Ron DeSantis has a plan to outmaneuver Donald Trump: Push Florida — and the Republican party — further to the right than ever. Some in the GOP are growing fearful he’s going too far.
The 44-year-old governor has orchestrated one of the most abrupt conservative takeovers of state government in modern US history, making a one-time swing state center stage in the the country’s culture wars. Last week, DeSantis signed a bill that prohibits abortion in Florida after six weeks of pregnancy, among the tightest restrictions put in place since the Supreme Court overturned the federal right to abortion last year.
DeSantis and Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature have also in the span of just 42 days further eased the state’s already relaxed gun laws, expanded school vouchers and helped shield insurance companies from lawsuits. Before a whirlwind legislative session ends next month, severe immigration curbs and new limits on transgender health care are also likely to be signed into law by DeSantis, who has pointed to a landslide re-election victory as a mandate.
“We find ourselves in Florida on the front lines in the battle for freedom,” DeSantis said in his State of the State address in March. “We won’t back down. And I can promise you this, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Powered by a roaring economy, DeSantis’s transformation of the Sunshine State into a conservative nirvana is likely to have staying power. The governor has been able to rely on Florida’s growing billionaire class to keep his campaign coffers flush, while drawing electoral power from voters excited by his culture-warrior stance.
For DeSantis’s opponents, the avalanche of conservative initiatives has created a feeling of powerlessness.
“This is a horrific time. We don’t have the numbers to make the difference that needs to be made,” said Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, who was arrested this month at a protest against the abortion ban at the state Capitol. “We can’t stop anything. DeSantis is doing all these things that have completely changed the landscape of Florida, simply because he wants talking points in his run for president.”
Despite his success in pushing through his agenda, DeSantis’s potential candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination has recently faltered. Trump’s lead over DeSantis in the polls widened after the former president was charged in Manhattan with concealing hush-money payments to an adult film star. DeSantis also hurt himself with comments about Russia’s war in Ukraine that angered fellow Republicans.
At the same time, some Republican officials and donors worry that the party has swung too far to the right. Thomas Peterffy, the billionaire chairman of Interactive Brokers, told the Financial Times that he was putting support of DeSantis on hold due to his positions on social issues.
DeSantis and other Republican presidential hopefuls face “a tricky balancing act,” said Adam Weiss, a political strategist who worked for Trump in 2020. “If Republicans move too far right, they will alienate the moderate voters who tend to make the difference in a general election.”
“We are pleased to see the legislature taking up many of the important issues proposed by Governor DeSantis leading up to session,” said Jeremy Redfern, the governor’s deputy press secretary. “We look forward to and expect much more to come before session ends.”
DeSantis’s maneuvers are one part of a broader transformation taking place in the US’s third most populous state and fourth-largest economy.
Florida’s lack of a state income tax, amenable weather and conservative politics made it a magnet for the wealthy during the Covid-19 pandemic. Billionaires including Ken Griffin, Carl Icahn and Orlando Bravo moved to the state, bringing along their businesses and hundreds of affluent employees.
As real estate boomed and pandemic restrictions eased, reviving tourism, Florida’s economy blossomed, growing about 4% in 2022. Unemployment is at an all-time low of 2.6%, and wages have increased 9% year-over-year. DeSantis beat Democratic challenger Charlie Crist by nearly 19 percentage points in last year’s gubernatorial race, a notable victory in an otherwise lackluster election season for the GOP.
Yet Florida’s metamorphosis has also had a darker undercurrent, with large increases in home prices and rents creating housing shortages. At Lotus Village, a homeless shelter that houses more than 520 women and children in Miami, there’s “unprecedented demand for our shelter beds,” said Constance Collins, who started the Lotus House nonprofit after a career as a real estate lawyer.
“We didn’t have enough affordable housing to begin with,” she said. “We have many people flowing into Florida right now from across the country and that has made a situation that was already difficult, more challenging.”
DeSantis signed into law a $711 million affordable housing plan on March 29. But some of his critics say he has focused too much on cultural issues and that laying the groundwork for his presidential run has pulled him away from its day-to-day business and its deeper problems. Last week, DeSantis flew back to Tallahassee from Ohio, where he was promoting his book, to sign the abortion ban, according to Politico. He then returned to the book tour even as densely populated Fort Lauderdale was flooded by heavy rain.
Political candidates frequently embrace more radical views to set themselves apart in primary races, but DeSantis’s overhaul is the starkest shift Florida has ever seen, according to Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican strategist in the state.
“Florida has become Alabama with palm trees,” said Stipanovich, who has also been a vocal critic of Trump. “DeSantis appears to embrace the philosophy that you can’t win the general if you don’t win the primary, so he’s trying to position himself as the most extreme candidate.”
Indeed, DeSantis’s rapid-fire remodeling hasn’t been embraced by everyone. A new law that allows people to carry a concealed gun without a permit was opposed by more than three-quarters of Floridians. The so-called Stop-WOKE law that restricts how race can be taught in schools is being challenged in courts. And a small number of Republican lawmakers from Democratic-leaning areas broke ranks on the abortion bill.
“I was not expecting these backwards social policies here. DeSantis didn’t start out with these far-right policies,” said Robert Morrison, who moved to Florida five years ago after retiring as a musician at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Morrison lives in Wilton Manors, a South Florida town with a high concentration of married same-sex couples. “I’m thinking about moving if this continues this way.”
Before the latest legislative barrage, in March 2022 DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Law, which prohibits teaching about sexual orientation through third grade. Dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by critics, it ignited a war between DeSantis and one of the state’s largest employers, Walt Disney Co., and has led to almost weekly controversy over removing books from classrooms and school libraries.
Parental complaints have led to more than 560 books being banned either temporarily or permanently from schools over the past year, according to advocacy groups. DeSantis has said only books with “pornographic, violent or inappropriate” content were removed.
Those skirmishes have led to disenchantment in a state that along with beaches and theme parks also has a vibrant literary and artistic culture.
Mitchell Kaplan, 68, created Books & Books in affluent Coral Gables in 1982. The shop is a staple of South Florida’s cultural life, though far away from its partying reputation. In its spacious patio, where musicians play at night, the words “Censorship leaves us in the dark” are painted on the wall.
“While it’s creating horrible amounts of damage in the interim, I believe that these policies will eventually be rejected by the public,” Kaplan said.
More conservative measures are likely to become law soon. Florida’s legislature is expected to take up a bill that would bring felony charges for “sheltering, transporting or hiring” undocumented immigrants. If passed, it would be one of the most punitive in the country, said Shannon Gleeson, professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
“This is devastating for undocumented workers, who often work in jobs that are more poorly paid, dangerous, and subject to discrimination and harassment,” Gleeson said.
Tessa Petit, who came to South Florida in 2001 from Haiti and is now co-executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said DeSantis is “so eager to win that he’s putting his base at risk.” Conservative Latinos helped power his re-election victory, with DeSantis netting 58% of the Hispanic vote, compared with 44% in his first gubernatorial run. That helped him become the first Republican to win Miami-Dade County, which is nearly 70% Hispanic, in 20 years.
Few aspects of life in Florida have been untouched by DeSantis’s revamp. In Sarasota, DeSantis has sought to remake New College of Florida, a small school similar in spirit to the liberal-arts colleges that dot New England, in the image of Hillsdale College, a Christian school in Michigan active in conservative politics. That has led more high-school students to say they won’t seek to attend a state-run university, a recent survey found. And in Lake Buena Vista, DeSantis is waging cultural wars at the gates of Walt Disney World.
Further conservative changes are possible. DeSantis is pushing to ban state and local governments from using environmental, social and governance criteria when issuing municipal bonds. He has also vowed to fight adoption of the digital dollar, the object of a Federal Reserve-backed study that DeSantis claims will be used to control citizens’ lives. And he’s backing bills that would restrict press freedom in the state.
To some of his wealthiest backers, DeSantis still makes a compelling choice. At a recent Palm Beach event, Griffin, the founder of Citadel and Citadel Securities, said that he’d love to see DeSantis run for president. The hedge-fund billionaire, who made Miami his home last year, sees DeSantis as the ultimate symbol of Florida’s improving education, crime and overall prosperity.
“I think the results in this state speak for themselves,” he said.
Read more on Bloomberg.com