TALLAHASSEE – Ron DeSantis was in Asia, and the drag queens had taken his place. Three hundred of them marched toward the state capitol on Tuesday, then rallied inside of it, chanting “drag is not a crime” to protest a bill that banned any “adult live performance” that children might see.
The bill had already passed. DeSantis was expected to sign it when he returned, at the end of a 60-day legislative session that has transformed Florida, bolstered his ability to run for president, and revealed a few small cracks in his Republican support.
“This session is different than what we’d seen in the past,” said Brandon Wolf, a spokesman for Equality Florida, which helped organize the drag queen rally. “The moderate coalition that sees LGBTQ people as worth fighting for appears to have evaporated in the wake of his presidential ambitions.”
DeSantis led the GOP to an unprecedented landslide last year, a victory that supercharged his appeal to Republican voters and donors worried that Donald Trump couldn’t win another general election. Their 34-seat majority in the House swelled to a 50-seat supermajority; just 12 Democrats remained in the 40-seat Senate.
That gave the governor’s party room to pass nearly everything DeSantis asked for. With one week left in the scheduled session, Republicans have banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy; opened the school voucher program to all parents of K-12 students, regardless of income; allowed juries to recommend the death penalty without a unanimous verdict; and allowed permitless concealed-carry for firearms.
More substantial conservative policy changes are in motion, and could pass before the legislature adjourns; a bill limiting collective bargaining by public sector unions, stopped by previous GOP majorities, is moving in this one. The size of the majorities has helped move bills and amendments helpful to DeSantis, even when powerful legislators in his party are skeptical.
On Wednesday, state Senate president Kathleen C. Passidomo told reporters that it was “absolutely not necessary” to change the state’s “resign to run” law and remove any worry that the governor would need to file a binding letter of resignation if he ran for president.
But Republicans added new language to their in-progress election reform bill anyway, clarifying that a candidate for president or vice president would not need to quit. Hours after the Walt Disney company sued over DeSantis’s effort to abolish its special business zone, the Senate voted to let the new, DeSantis-appointed board tear up the company’s old deal.
State Sen. Joe Gruters, a former state party chair who’s endorsed Trump, voted against that, explaining in a statement that “people’s pocketbooks are more powerful at influencing corporate behavior than the heavy hand of government.” But in a supermajority, that opposition didn’t matter.
“Privately, they’ll tell us — this goes too far, this is BS, this feels like a dictatorship, I’m so sick of this,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the leader of the Democratic minority in the House. “Publicly, they’ll push the button the way they’re instructed to.”
As DeSantis prepares for an expected run, Tallahassee Republicans have revealed more about how he’d govern, what agenda he might run on, and what limits he might face, by giving him power that almost no president gets to enact their preferred policies.
Democrats are basically irrelevant in state politics right now, and DeSantis has been eager to use his party’s clout to keep them that way: Rules changes prevent Democrats from using debate to delay legislation, and empower legislators to expel members who violate decorum, which would prevent a repeat of a 2022 protest Democrats staged over maps that created more safe GOP seats. The ultra-gerrymandered districts were themselves another DeSantis demand that Republicans initially resisted.
“Remember, when he ran for re-election, he didn’t talk about any of this,” said central Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat. “Like, he campaigned on the diaper tax break. That was my bill!”
Wielding poll numbers, but not much else, Florida Democrats have argued that this session’s agenda can be a burden if the governor runs for president. Some of his priorities, which haven’t made it to his desk yet, would reverse bills that previously passed with Republican support.
One would reverse a prohibition on Floridians under age 21 from buying firearms, which passed after the 2018 Parkland shootings and was signed by then-governor, now-Sen. Rick Scott. It survived a court challenge, but could be scrapped by Republicans who, in the words of one sponsor, are interested in “restoring the ability of young adults to exercise their Second Amendment rights.”
Another Scott-signed law, which may survive the session, made the children of undocumented immigrants eligible for lower in-state college tuition rates. DeSantis wants to get rid of it: “If we want to hold the line on tuition, then you have got to say ‘you need to be a U.S. citizen living in Florida.”
That challenged a political arrangement that has helped make Florida Republicans dominant — support from Latin American voters, who have often elected conservative politicians with a moderate streak on immigration. It would, if passed, reverse an achievement by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, a first-generation Cuban-American.
Jon Schweppe, the policy director at the conservative American Principles Project, suggested that some issues, like DeSantis’ feud with Disney and “book banning” measures, had been litigated in his re-election.
“DeSantis also took on both of these fights prior to his landslide victory last year, which presumably included votes from hundreds of thousands of independents and Democrats,” he said. “Staying the course on these fights is almost assuredly the best play for him.”
But will there be a backlash to more recent moves, in what used to be a swing state, where Republicans previously didn’t tack as far right on abortion rights and immigration? That’s still an open question.
The View From The 2024 Republican Field
DeSantis’s potential rivals, including Trump, see potential vulnerabilities in his Tallahassee wins, especially his quagmired conflict with Disney. “If Disney would like to move their hundreds of thousands of jobs to South Carolina and bring the billions of dollars with them, I’ll let them know I’ll be happy to meet them in South Carolina,” Nikki Haley told Fox News on Wednesday.
The pro-DeSantis Never Back Down PAC hit her back with a digital ad highlighting Disney’s use of LGBTQ content. “It’s mind boggling any Republican would side with a massive corporation who has an unprecedented level of self-governance over protecting children and families, but I guess 2023 is a strange time,” the group’s communications director Erin Perrine, told Semafor.
But New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have also repeatedly derided the Disney strategy — for an audience of reporters, sure, but also donors who worry that DeSantis’s “Free State of Florida” pitch is being replaced by a less-popular, too-strict conservative agenda.
The View From Wilmington
DeSantis’s conservative wins also sync up with what the Biden campaign wants to run against. Its launch this week portrayed the president as a defender of “freedom” against Republicans “banning books and telling people who they can love.” Pollster Celinda Lake told Politico that the “book banning” issue is testing “off the charts.” Tallahassee’s beleaguered Democrats have a display in their conference offices of books containing content about sex, race, and gender, along with placards listing the counties they’ve been banned in.
Room for Disagreement
Maybe this session isn’t the best preview of how DeSantis would govern after all. Josh Barro writes that DeSantis showed he “clearly knows something about appealing to an electorate beyond the Fox News base” in his first term by pitching himself to swing voters as a less partisan, competent administrator before his more recent hard right turn.
- Republican Florida legislators rarely criticize the DeSantis agenda on the record, but Politico’s Gary Fineout heard some quiet grumbling earlier this month: “We’re not the party of cancel culture,” one member said.