EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a five-part series called “How Florida got so conservative.”
Florida’s shift to the right has turned the Sunshine State under Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) into a model for other GOP-led states seeking to enact culturally conservative policies.
It has also turned DeSantis into a national Republican leader preparing to challenge former President Trump in the GOP primary for 2024, and a figure of controversy for groups who say his policies endanger vulnerable communities while infringing on the rights of businesses.
The state government under DeSantis has been at the forefront of a conservative effort on impose new restrictions on abortion and classroom instruction on race and LGBTQ issues.
That has led to a battle between DeSantis and The Walt Disney Co., one of the state’s and nation’s most powerful corporate entities, as well as groups representing Black and LGBTQ Americans.
Earlier this month, the state Senate passed an expansion of the Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, prohibiting “classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity” through the eighth grade. An initial bill had been limited to students in the third grade and under.
On abortion, DeSantis signed into law a bill that would restrict women from having abortions six weeks after a pregnancy, a point when many do not yet know they are pregnant.
The policies come with some risks: Trump is seeking to move to the center of DeSantis on abortion, and Democrats think the social policies will play poorly in a general election.
But DeSantis and his supporters believe the policies have helped him in Florida and will play well with voters across the country.
“Ron DeSantis saw an opportunity, particularly for Republican states — it’s something we talk about with the parental rights bill in particular — where you can help make policy for the rest of the nation,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist. “You don’t have to just be in Washington, D.C.”
In the meantime, it has also put Florida in the spotlight as a conservative laboratory, turning the state into the front-line battleground on a host of social issues.
A laboratory for GOP experiments
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the Parental Rights in Education bill at Classical Preparatory school on March 28, 2022, in Shady Hills, Fla. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP, File)
Florida has been at the forefront of the parental rights debate, and unlike bluer-leaning states such as Virginia, where Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) ran for parental rights in 2021, DeSantis has had free rein this legislative session to enact his agenda, with supermajorities in both of Florida’s legislative bodies.
DeSantis’s approach to education-related issues has proven influential in other ways, too.
In January, he garnered fierce blowback for rejecting an AP African American Studies course curriculum, arguing it was “indoctrination” and an attempt to “shoehorn in queer theory.” The move was praised by some conservatives but lambasted by critics, including the White House.
However, in a sign of the move’s resonance for those on the right, Youngkin later announced that Virginia would review the same AP course. The College Board later said it would revise the changes it made to the curriculum after facing accusations of bending to political pressure.
“He was in a perfect laboratory to see how far you could push the envelope on a lot of these things,” O’Connell said of DeSantis. “And now you’re getting some people in other places, even in dare I say, really red states like Oklahoma going, you know what? Florida is right. Why didn’t we think of this?”
As of March, lawmakers in at least 32 states have introduced parental rights legislation, according to an analysis from the National Conference of State Legislatures cited in the Christian Science Monitor. That same month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation branded as the Parents Bill of Rights.
Democrats say the governor and other Republicans across the country were strategic in targeting parents during the pandemic, when they were home with their children and had a front-row seat to virtual learning.
“I don’t know if it’s so much of Florida having turned into becoming a conservative state more than it is the Republicans have taken on issues — and they found sweet spots — on what resonates with normal people,” said Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D), citing the parental rights in education legislation.
A Spectrum News/Siena College survey released last October prior to the midterm elections found that 68 percent of Florida Republicans said they supported the Parental Rights in Education Act, while 76 percent of Democrats in the state said they opposed it. Forty-nine percent of independent voters in Florida said they opposed the measure, while 43 percent said they supported it.
More stories on Florida’s conservative shift:
- How DeSantis benefited from Florida’s changing politics
- How the pandemic turned Florida red
- Florida’s shift to conservative bastion
Democrats sound the alarm
DeSantis has especially received pushback from Democrats for his ongoing feud with Disney. (Associated Press/Wilfredo Lee)
Democrats argue the issue of parental rights is a guise for measures that negatively impact minorities and the LGBTQ community.
“They use words like ‘sexualization,’ or ‘indoctrinated your children,’” Jones said. “They’re taking these themes and they’re using them as their tool to hate and discriminate and create this conservative mindset or this conservative-type state that we’re not.”
But conservatives and Republicans maintain that Republican victories seen throughout Florida in 2022 are evidence that DeSantis and his allies have been provided with a mandate on cultural issues.
“There are effects that conservative governing has on the electorate, and it’s all about momentum,” said Terry Schilling, the president of the conservative group the American Principles Project. “If I’m a Democrat in Florida, and I am seeing everything that Ron DeSantis is doing and how he’s not afraid of us, how he’s not giving us an inch, how he’s not backing down, how he’s just getting stronger, I’m going to be demoralized.”
Schilling pointed to a shift in how he says many Republicans approached cultural issues, moving away from a strict, anti-government libertarian mindset to a belief that the government should play a bigger role in the cultural sphere.
“It was just an aberration where Republicans basically became libertarians across the board and didn’t want to do anything on these hot-button cultural issues,” Schilling said.
“The reason that Florida has stood out and really made a name for itself, probably as one of the most conservative states in the nation, is because Ron DeSantis took a chance,” he continued. “He took a chance, he passed a bill that he knew was going to give him grief from corporate America, academia, the LGBT movement, the mainstream, and he did. And he kept getting positive feedback.”
DeSantis has also received pushback from Democrats and some Republicans for his ongoing feud with Disney. Since the feud ignited over the Parental Rights in Education Act, DeSantis has moved to punish Disney by taking over the company’s self-governing district in Central Florida, which includes the company’s theme parks and resorts, and appointing his own board to oversee municipal services.
“I give him a lot of credit for being able to take on behemoths like Disney,” Schilling said, recalling the corporate pushback former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) received when he signed a law in 2016 that banned people from using bathrooms that did not match their biological sex.
‘We cannot continue playing checkers’
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions following his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives, Tuesday, March 7, 2023. (Associated Press)
Despite facing criticism from Democrats inside and outside of Florida for the policies, polls show DeSantis with solid approval ratings. According to a Mason-Dixon survey released last month, 59 percent of Floridians said they approved of DeSantis, up from 55 percent in September.
But the governor’s critics argue that DeSantis’s policies are less popular than his political brand.
“I don’t believe that Ron DeSantis’s agenda is popular in the state of Florida,” said Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida, an LGBTQ advocacy group. “I think DeSantis as a politician has made himself popular. I think his bravado is popular within the base of his party.”
Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida’s School of Politics, Security and International Affairs, pointed to DeSantis’s branding of the “Stop Woke Act,” which would restrict how race is talked about in the state’s colleges, businesses and workplaces.
“He’s very good at marketing in terms of how he frames issues and what he calls issues,” Jewett said. “Somehow, the term ‘woke,’ particularly for Republicans and conservatives, has become an evil term or bad word.”
Democrats and DeSantis’s critics warn that the “Don’t Say Gay” act and other measures have created a hostile environment for minorities and members of the LGBTQ community.
Zander Moricz, an LGBTQ activist who garnered national attention last year when he said he was told to omit references to his LGBTQ activism in his graduation speech, described the mood in Florida as “apocalyptic.”
“The more important thing for people to understand is that no matter where the legislation began, no matter what its intentions are, if you’re a marginalized individual in the state of Florida, your everyday experience is impacted by these laws,” Moricz said.
Jones, who is the first openly LGBTQ Black person elected to the state’s legislature, said he is sometimes scared for his life, given his public role in opposing many of the conservative measures.
“You find yourself having to defend your existence,” the state senator said.
Moricz and Jones both noted that the environment has made political organizing on the left much more difficult, and that the victories on the right have been a discouraging factor.
“People are becoming discouraged and they’re giving up and they’re not organizing anymore, because they feel like, ‘Well I tried and then failed, why would I keep doing it?’” Moricz said.
“There needs to be a refrain where we recognize, OK, we right now cannot change what’s happening in the legislature. The people in power are not listening to us. In the long-term, we need to build power, we need to register young voters, we need to register marginalized voters.”
Jones, who was recently named to President Biden’s reelection campaign’s advisory board, cautioned that it will take Democrats a while to regain traction in the state.
“I think it’s going to take a couple of cycles,” Jones said. “Republicans took 27 years to get to where they are now, and they did it strategically. They did it by going through school board races, building benches at city levels, building benches at county levels.”
“We cannot continue playing checkers. This is a chess game that has to be played.”
This is the fourth in a five-part series called “How Florida got so conservative.”
–Updated at 8:11 a.m.