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Ruthless, Direct, Inflammatory: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has Recast Himself as a GOP Standout

Comment writer Matteo Cardarelli on how Ron DeSantis’ recent legislative activism has reshaped Florida and the culture wars.

Modern America has seen the War on Drugs and fought the War on Terror. Yet in the latest chapter of America’s evangelizing mission, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has a more bizarre target in mind. As part of his radical agenda to curtail the influence of the left in popular culture and schooling, DeSantis has kicked off what many have branded the ‘War on Disney.’

Ridiculous to some – at a recent press conference, an exasperated President Biden said “Christ, they’re going after Mickey Mouse” - DeSantis’ push to deprive the Fairytale Kingdom of its tax exemptions and establish oversight over the park’s content is symbolic of a larger agenda. It has focused the nation’s attention in recent weeks, as DeSantis increasingly pushes the boundaries of gubernatorial authority. Though the Disney spat is the most recent and perhaps eye-catching case, DeSantis has been far from idle on other fronts of conservative culture wars.

A controversial (unconstitutional, some say) redistricting proposal for Florida’s fifth congressional district was approved by the state legislature, de-facto eradicating black voters’ political voice in Northern Florida, and definitely tipping the balance of Florida’s congressional delegation in favor of the GOP. Though his opponents say the district represents a clear example of gerrymandering, with staunch Republican support only the judicial appeal process can stop DeSantis.

Equally controversial, the governor moved to ban material in Florida’s public education system that purportedly taught ‘critical race theory,’ as well as initiating a series of bans on discussing sexuality through his ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill. “We will make sure parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination,” he proclaimed at the Gainesville signing ceremony, before equating his opponents to disgraced filmmaker Harvey Weinstein. Pugilistic, uncompromising and definitely politically incorrect.

With Former President Donald Trump’s role as Party ideologue repeatedly called into question after a string of questionable endorsements, Republicans who have privately doubted the former President’s competence are looking for a new way forward. DeSantis is not just popular in his home state – with poll numbers placing approval ratings at above fifty percent – but has gained the national limelight through his slew of notable contributions to America’s culture war. A flagbearer of modern conservatism, despised by liberals, it’s hard to think of a politician that polarizes opinion so much. 

The truth is that in an era of mass politics, DeSantis has proved effective at controlling the media spotlight. Where DeSantis differs from his predecessors and counterparts is his willingness to tackle national issues on a public scale, ruthlessly centralizing power. And Florida Republicans, either cowed by DeSantis’ leviathanesque influence or buoyed by their frontline role in the culture wars, have run with it. DeSantis combines reactionary policies with a brash attack-minded legislative style. 

He has carefully positioned his state as a bastion of (in)tolerance: ‘Florida has become the escape hatch for those chafing under authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions’  So far, his appeal to conservatives at large has worked, with a net surplus of 260,000 people flocking to Florida from June 2020 to July 2021, the highest statistic nationally.

Yet the Governor’s current popularity was not always a given. He beat Democratic challenger Andrew Gillum by just 0.4% of the vote in 2018, hardly a broad popular mandate. His approval ratings lagged in the first few months of his term, as his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic came under strict scrutiny. DeSantis has seemingly weathered the storm, and proceeded not merely to implement his vision for Floridians, but to restructure the state’s political culture. His survival instinct and keenness in finding Floridians political pulse is what makes him a dangerous politician.

DeSantis’ uncompromising style of politics has alarmed the left. The scenes in Florida’s House Chamber after the Redistricting vote passed on April 21 showed the starkness of the opposition to DeSantis’ policies. Some Democrats present sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ and a senior member of the House Yvonne Hinson, who grew up in a pre-Civil Rights Act South, warned: “I’ve met Martin Luther King, I don’t just talk about him. He taught me peaceful protests, and here we are in 2022 rolling back the tide.”

But despite these warnings, the mood amongst everyday anti-DeSantis analysts is one of resignation. His fundraising ability remains unmatched, so far raking in a record $105 million for his impending re-election campaign. A sign of his national profile, many of these donations came from out of state sources. Conversely, his main opponents for the gubernatorial office lack even in-state name recognition to really compete. And in areas where Democrats have traditionally held the advantage, such as official voter registrations, Republicans have recently seized narrow leads. 

With the election set for November, and barring major scandals, DeSantis seems set for a second term. And despite his Trumpian credentials (the two are close, with DeSantis often touting his ties to the former President) it is possible that DeSantis harbors ambitions for 2024. So far, he has excluded the possibility of a run for the White House, but as his visibility increases and his popularity among conservatives skyrockets, those calls may become harder to avoid.

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