JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis is on a roll in the Sunshine State, and the rest of the country is beginning to notice.
A cheering crowd near Miami watched him sign a trio of bills Friday aimed at reining in “woke” activism by the Walt Disney Company. This week, another group of enthusiastic supporters at a sports bar on the other side of the state watched him sign into law new voter ID requirements, tough penalties for voter fraud and the creation of a first-of-its-kind Office of Election Crimes and Security to investigate election wrongdoing.
“My message is just I don’t think there’s any other place in the country where you should have more confidence that your vote counts than in the state of Florida,” Mr. DeSantis said, winning another round of applause.
In this way, Mr. DeSantis has solidified his rising-star status in the Republican Party. He’s burnished a reputation as a conservative champion that will serve him in his quest for a second term in November and a possible 2024 presidential run.
He has become a top antagonist for the political left, which denounced his public opposition to COVID-19 mandates and lockdowns and is suing to block several new laws, including an aggressive congressional redistricting plan they say amounts to GOP gerrymandering, as well as new voting laws and abortion restrictions.
Along the way, Mr. DeSantis fought back against critics while rising to nearly rock-star status in the GOP. Three years into his first term as governor, the 43-year-old Mr. DeSantis is beginning to overshadow other possible 2024 Republican presidential contenders and is creeping closer in popularity to former President Donald Trump, who continues to dominate the party and remains the 2024 favorite.
“DeSantis is just running circles around them in terms of drawing attention,” said Brad Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy. “What did Mike Pence do last week? What did any of the long list of potential Republican candidates do? How much news coverage did they generate?”
Recent polls show Mr. DeSantis running close to Mr. Trump or in some cases ahead of him, among likely GOP voters considering candidates for president in 2024.
Mr. DeSantis can promote his legislative victories thanks to Republicans who control both the Florida House and Senate and who have dutifully passed nearly all of his legislative priorities.
“One of the things that is important to realize here is that right now, with Republicans locked out of power in Washington D.C., DeSantis and the Florida state legislature are America’s de facto Congress for the Republican Party,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said.
Floridians are nodding in approval. Mr. DeSantis’ job performance rating as governor, according to a St. Leo University poll taken this month, is on the rise.
He earned an approval rating of 58.8% among Floridians, up from 56.4% in the fall.
The higher rating follows a year in which Mr. DeSantis eschewed COVID mandates and lockdowns, leading to strong economic growth in the state and an influx of additional tourists, new residents and businesses.
He publicly taunted Democratic politicians who criticized his rejection of Covid protocols and then vacationed maskless in the Sunshine State.
“Governor DeSantis is benefitting from a strong economy and a lack of COVID cases in the state over the past few months,” Frank Orlando, director of the Saint Leo University Polling Institute, said. “While he gets lots of national attention for provoking the ire of liberals on things like masking, it doesn’t seem to hurt him in Florida and, in fact, continues to raise his national profile.”
The St. Leo’s poll found that among Republicans, Mr. DeSantis is a top pick among possible 2024 presidential candidates, trailing former President Donald Trump, 64% to 55%. When Mr. Trump is excluded from polling, Mr. DeSantis placed first with 66% of the vote, trouncing former Vice President Mike Pence, who was the first pick for only 27% of Republicans.
In addition to leading other red states with new voting and election laws in 2021, such as banning “Zuck Bucks,” a reference to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s private funding of elections, the GOP-led House and Senate this session endorsed Mr. DeSantis’ 15-week abortion ban, one of the strictest in the nation, as well as a bill prohibiting sex education in early elementary school grades, and a measure outlawing “woke” training about racial injustice in corporations and schools.
Mr. DeSantis also achieved a major win this month, redrawing the state’s congressional districts after rejecting his own party’s proposal that gave the GOP an additional two Republican-leaning seats. Mr. DeSantis sent lawmakers his own map — one that doubles the GOP advantage with another four seats.
The DeSantis map nearly wipes out gains made by Democrats in redistricting efforts elsewhere in the nation, further solidifying the chances Republicans can regain control of the U.S. House in November.
The governor added a last-minute agenda item when the legislature met in a special session last week, winning passage of a bill ending Disney’s special tax district, which has allowed the massive theme park to operate autonomously and to escape millions of dollars in development taxes since it was awarded by state lawmakers 55 years ago.
Mr. DeSantis targeted Disney with two additional bills, one prohibiting the company’s “woke” corporate training centered on critical race theory and a second bill that would subject the company to the state’s new ban on social media de-platforming of conservatives.
Mr. DeSantis sent lawmakers the measures after Disney executives publicly sparred with the governor and pledged to help repeal his Parental Rights in Education bill, which bans sex education for young students, including discussion of LGBTQ issues.
Mr. DeSantis’ quick and brutal takedown of the corporate giant elevated his status even further in the GOP, although some Republicans criticized the move and Democrats roundly denounced it and warned it would lead to a property tax increase for the park’s surrounding jurisdictions, a claim the governor denies.
“We signed the bill and then, incredibly, they say, we are going to work to repeal parents’ rights in Florida,” Mr. DeSantis told a crowd of supporters as he signed the Disney legislation. “And I’m just thinking to myself, you’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re going to marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state? We view that as a provocation and we’re going to fight back against that.”
Democrats believe Mr. DeSantis will be dragged down in polls as a consequence of his fight with Disney, which produces millions in tax revenue and employs 80,000 people in the state.
“Attacking Disney, threatening to harm our state’s economic powerhouse that creates so many jobs and brings in so many tourism dollars is a boneheaded move however you look at it,” Rep. Charlie Crist, the leading Democrat in the race to take on Mr. DeSantis in November, said. “Ron’s a threat to our state’s economy and he’s gotta go in November.”
Mr. DeSantis leads both Mr. Crist and Agriculture Secretary Nikki Fried, another Democratic candidate, by double digits in hypothetical matchups in the governor’s race.
Mr. Coker said the battle over Disney’s special tax district isn’t likely to stir voters in Florida but said the state’s new 15-week ban on abortions is more likely to help Democrats, particularly female voters in key swing areas of the state.
“I think that issue is much more controversial, much more divisive and certainly most people have their opinions made up on that issue,” Mr. Coker said. “And there is a pretty significant number on both sides. If there’s an issue that might create serious problems for him down the road, I think it would be the 15-week abortion ban.”
Mr. DeSantis, who is ardently pro-life, triumphantly signed the bill into law on April 14, putting Floriday on a growing list of red states who have imposed tighter restrictions on the procedure as the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to rule on abortion’s legality at the federal level.
“Life is a sacred gift worthy of our protection, and I am proud to sign this great piece of legislation which represents the most significant protections for life in the state’s modern history,” Mr. DeSantis said.
Unable to defeat Mr. DeSantis in the legislature, his critics are suing to stop his agenda.
The ACLU plans to sue to block the new abortion law, while Democratic lawyer Marc Elias is leading minority groups in a lawsuit challenging DeSantis’s congressional redistricting map on the grounds it is political gerrymandering, which is illegal in Florida.
A group of LGBTQ activists is suing to block the new law banning sex education in kindergarten through third grades, arguing it amounts to state censorship.
Another group that includes educators, a company owner and a student joined in a lawsuit to undo Mr. DeSantis’s “Stop Woke Act” that bans schools and companies from forcing employees to undergo critical race theory training. The plaintiffs say the law violates First Amendment free-speech protections.
Critics of the bill eliminating the Disney tax district anticipate a string of lawsuits that could target the law on multiple grounds, including accusing Mr. DeSantis of violating Disney’s First Amendment right to publicly oppose the sex education bill.
Mr. DeSantis said he anticipated lawsuits against some of his new laws. Regardless of whether it all survives legal challenges, signing the legislation into law garnered him a national following that could easily propel him beyond Florida and into the GOP presidential primary likely to get underway late next year.
“No other GOP governor would have signed a bill ending Disney’s special status,” Tim Swain, a Republican running for South Carolina’s state legislature, said. “No other GOP governor would have vetoed Republican-drawn redacting maps and demanded more. DeSantis uses the power the people have given him. He is simply on a different level. Future president.”