Home Covid-19 'Full-throttle': How the Florida Legislature is making Ron DeSantis a GOP juggernaut

‘Full-throttle’: How the Florida Legislature is making Ron DeSantis a GOP juggernaut

Florida’s Ron DeSantis wanted to target social media companies for their content moderation policies, crack down on protests following Black Lives Matter demonstrations and punish a major corporation for crossing the GOP in the culture wars. 

The Legislature delivered legislation he could sign on all three fronts — and fast, putting him out front as other Republican governors followed with similar moves. And it’s only scratching the surface.

For more than a year, Florida Republicans have made the state a test kitchen for conservative ideas that made DeSantis a favorite among GOP voters, who consistently rank him as their second choice to run for president in 2024 just behind Donald Trump. DeSantis has been able to wade into national culture wars by signing into law bills inhibiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation, gender and race, barring protesters from picketing outside a person’s home and limiting tenure at the state’s public universities.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds the signed Parental Rights in Education, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, at Classical Preparatory school in Spring Hill on March 28.Douglas R. Clifford / Tampa Bay Times via AP

DeSantis has hogged the headlines and the spotlight, starting with his management of the Covid pandemic in 2020. But he wouldn’t be such a GOP juggernaut this year without his hand-in-glove relationship with the Legislature, which moved with such dispatch that Republican governors in other states such as Texas and South Dakota often have to play catch-up to him.

With DeSantis facing re-election this year and as more Republicans push him to run for president in 2024, state leaders say get ready for more.

“We’re already going full-throttle and we’re not slowing down,” Republican state Rep. Randy Fine, a top DeSantis ally, told NBC News, predicting lawmakers will expand school choice vouchers and gun rights when the Legislature meets next year. DeSantis might take more control over higher education, too.

Some around Tallahassee see the wave of legislation speedily advanced this past year as the result of DeSantis’ “total dominance” over state lawmakers. But for most Republicans, it’s merely a matter of seeing eye to eye. DeSantis has become a state and national Republican leader, Fine said, because he’s in touch with what grassroots conservatives want, and he knows how to articulate it.

“We haven’t fought about a lot, because we all genuinely agree,” Fine said, adding, “There’s this misconception that the governor has sort of beaten us into submission. I think that it’s not true. We are a very conservative Legislature.”

Florida’s political makeup is also changing under DeSantis. Once considered a purple state, it’s increasingly red. The Florida Senate is no longer the moderate body that used to act as a check on the more conservative House or on past Republican governors such as Rick Scott and Jeb Bush.

And DeSantis’ approval ratings in the state are higher than Scott’s ever were, and they rival or exceed those of Trump’s among Republicans. This increases his leverage — especially in the Florida Senate, where its outgoing president, Wilton Simpson, courted the endorsement of DeSantis, who gave it in April after the Republican demonstrated sufficient fealty.

DeSantis’ gruff take-no-prisoners style — and his zeal in prosecuting culture war issues on gender, race, sexual orientation and Covid mask mandates and lockdowns — have made him as admired as he is feared in the GOP. Some conservatives have privately grumbled that he is taking too much credit for legislative wins; other Republicans think he has just gone too far.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis scolds students for wearing masks during his visit to the University of South Florida.WFLA

“You have a lot of the sort of spineless, moderate Republican types in the Legislature who would have never done anything on this topic if it wasn’t for the governor,” state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, an “ultra-MAGA” lawmaker who is running in Florida’s 7th Congressional District, said of the recent legislation targeting LGBTQ discussions in school. “It’s all coming from the governor.”

In recent months, it’s the swift targeting of Disney that’s drawn the most attention. After the company’s CEO pushed back on the Parental Rights in Education legislation, branded by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, DeSantis called for Disney’s in-state privileges to be reconsidered. Quickly, the Legislature moved to strip the company of its special ability to self-govern the central Florida area home to Walt Disney World, while also eliminating a carve-out for Disney in a separate so-called anti-censorship social media law DeSantis signed. 

April 22, 202202:36

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a lone Republican to vote against the elimination of Disney’s self-governing privileges, said the speed with which the bill targeting the company advanced was irresponsible and did not “meet the standard of transparency that Florida pretends to offer.”

“It’s all about staying in the headlines,” he said, adding he thought it was unlikely the special district would be entirely eliminated. “It’s just largely kabuki theater.”

Some of the controversial laws DeSantis signed may prove to be just that. Last week, a federal appeals court blocked the social media law he signed last year over free speech concerns. On the Disney front, the bill he signed provided the Florida government with roughly one year to figure out how to move forward with the elimination of the special district. It’s not yet clear how it will do so.

DeSantis last week suggested the state would take over the district from Disney rather than turning it over to local governments should it ultimately be dissolved. 

State Rep. Spencer Roach, a Republican, said that while the legislation targeting Disney’s special district moved quickly, there had been some discussion among Floridians about reconsidering the company’s legal privileges in the state, but that “the political moment had not presented itself” until recently.

Still, he said “in Florida right now, nothing surprises me.”

The episode shined light on just how influential DeSantis is among Florida Republicans. State Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat, said the ordeal caused him further concern amid a 12-month stretch that has seen the governor take on one hot-button issue after another.

Wilton Simpson,Chris Sprowls,Ron DeSantis
Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, right, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, left, applaud as Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a joint session of the Legislature in Tallahassee on Jan. 11. Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

It’s “a situation where the governor wants to play the governor, the Senate president, the speaker of the House and the chief justice,” Jones said in an interview, adding that GOP lawmakers “fear the wrath of the governor if they go against him.”

“Whether or not they agree with his beliefs, on camera, they stand with him,” he said. “But behind the scenes, many of them do not agree with the direction of the governor, they will not go against him.”

Separately, an ongoing court battle over the state’s new congressional maps came about after DeSantis rejected the Legislature’s version and instead demanded the body move forward with maps he approved — something within his power as governor.

The DeSantis-approved map targets a pair of districts held by Black, Democratic lawmakers in Reps. Al Lawson, D-Fla., and Val Demings, D-Fla., who is running for Senate. The maps have been subject to a number of stops and starts in the courts, and voting rights groups are now seeking for the state Supreme Court to block the new plan.

The episode marked one of his most significant splits with Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature  — but it also proved to be a fight few, if any, state GOP lawmakers wanted to take up.

State Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican who sponsored the Parental Rights in Education bill, said that if DeSantis was not “satisfied” with the maps approved in the Legislature, then lawmakers had little choice but to make amends.

“We have the best governor in the country, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “And his ability to make judgments and decisions that are very much based on sound guidance. And we’ve responded to that, we’ve responded gratefully to it.”

“I thought he had good arguments for his map,” Baxley added. “And we did the map we thought was best and he had a different view on how to do this whole thing.”

Brandes, who is leaving office later this year because of term limits, said the Legislature “just didn’t have the fight in it on this issue.”

“There was no desire to put up a challenge,” he said. “I think the governor has incredible leverage right now.”

That leverage is more than apparent to political observers. Last month, DeSantis won a presidential preference straw poll at the Wisconsin Republican Convention, beating out former President Donald Trump. DeSantis has consistently polled as the leading alternative to the former president. Polling of his gubernatorial race has been limited but mostly shows him with a decent cushion against potential Democratic rivals.

But a survey of 1,200 registered Florida voters conducted in mid-May by Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio and obtained by NBC News showed DeSantis earning 47 percent of the vote and his top Democratic rival, former Gov. Charlie Crist, earning 48 percent — essentially a tie when the poll’s margin of error of +/- 2.9 percent is factored in. The poll didn’t screen for likely voters, however, and experienced political pollsters and consultants — including Fabrizio — expect the November electorate to be more Republican than a registered voter poll would show at this point.

Brandes said DeSantis would be able to use his pull in Republican primaries, where his name recognition and popularity far outweigh that of the little-known state lawmakers. More broadly, DeSantis’ national platform only further enhances the dynamic.

Jones said House Bill 1, the so-called anti-riot bill targeting protests last year, marked the beginning of the current dynamic between DeSantis and the Legislature.

“That is where Gov. DeSantis’ profile started rising, because he was going against the ‘woke agenda,’” Jones said. “And people across the country saw it. And so he just kept moving with that.”

“I just think it’s extremely dangerous for us as a state that we are giving all of this power to one man and to one party,” he said. “Because I believe other states are following what Florida is doing, because they believe if Florida can do it, then we can.”

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