FREPUBLICAN OF LORIDA Governor Ron DeSantis recently released his annual “Freedom First” budget. If that sounds like a campaign slogan, it’s no accident. DeSantis is running for reelection as governor in November and is believed to be planning a run for the presidency in 2024. With the state government’s legislative session in full swing (it ends in March), developments on Capitol Hill in Washington are worth watching. Tallahassee for what they show about the ambition of Mr. DeSantis, as well as the political direction of Florida. America’s third most populous state is drifting to the right.
In 2018, Donald Trump, a fellow Floridian who happened to be in the White House, transformed DeSantis’s career and helped the then-House member win the Republican gubernatorial primary by unexpectedly endorsing him. Mr. DeSantis’s defiant response to Covid-19 — fighting restrictions like mask mandates and pushing for schools to reopen — raised his stature nationally, as did his frequent attacks on President Joe Biden and their “biomedical safety status”. He describes Florida as the “freest state in the United States.” His record on Covid-19 has made him friends and enemies: Florida’s 64,000 deaths represent a higher per capita rate than the United States as a whole, but not as high as some predicted, given his aversion to common restrictions on coronavirus. other places.
Mr. DeSantis is using Florida as a peninsular podium to announce his policies. In his proposed $100 billion budget, he is pushing for a special police force to oversee state elections, which he calls an “election integrity unit,” and wants to make it easier to penalize companies that “facilitate migration.” illegal” to Florida. He envisions bonuses for police officers who move to Florida and wants to create a state volunteer militia that can work with the National Guard in emergencies.
The federal government and Biden may be DeSantis’ favorite enemies, but they are also funding parts of his agenda. Mr. DeSantis is proposing salary increases for teachers and police officers, as well as $1 billion to offer Floridians a state gas tax exemption. Florida will use at least $3.8 billion in federal stimulus for programs like these in the next fiscal year, the Florida Policy Institute, a think tank, acknowledges.
The legislature is in league with the governor to target social problems. It is about blocking discussions in the classroom on topics that make students feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological discomfort because of their race”, alluding to the critical theory of race, a topic that helped win to a Republican gubernatorial election in Virginia. Another proposal would ban discussions of sexuality and gender identity in public schools.
A bill banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy is likely to become law soon. Lawmakers are designing it so that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Mississippi, which pioneered the 15-week cutoff with its own controversial law, Florida “will have an enforceable law on the books,” says Chris Sprowls. , Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
What explains Florida’s shake to the right? Recently, the number of registered Republican voters surpassed the number of registered Democrats for the first time in modern history. Now 35.9% of registered voters identify as Republican. Democrats and independents are at 35.6% and 26.8% respectively. Republicans see momentum on their side. Mr. Sprowls says that people moving to Florida “are realizing that there is a reason they chose to come here”; that is, republican policies.
DeSantis’ car also plays its part. “This is a business town, and the Republicans you meet here are very DeSantis-oriented,” explains Steve Schale, a Democratic operative. Many comment that they have never seen so little dissent within the GOP when it comes to the governor’s agenda. DeSantis “has become the most powerful governor in the history of the state,” according to James Clark, author of “Florida’s Hidden History.”
With Republicans close to a large majority in the state House, Democrats are powerless to stop them. Evan Jenne, the House Minority Co-Leader, says Democrats have “a definite sense of humor.” He likens his current experience in state government to having to “lay on the railroad tracks, even though we know [the train] It will pass over us.”
This legislative session will test the extent of Mr. DeSantis’ power. He has weighed in on the legislature’s redistricting process, submitting his own proposed maps that would strengthen Republicans’ standing in future elections, the first known time a Florida governor has gone this far. Opponents say the proposal could violate state law. Another test will be whether the legislature creates its proposed election police force, which has received a lukewarm reception and is more “transparently political than other things it has proposed,” says Aubrey Jewett, a professor at the University of Central Florida.
All of this suggests that those who expect DeSantis to offer a more moderate brand of Republicanism than Trump may be wrong. Post-election pragmatism has given way to a penchant for bombast. The man rehearsing for a national role is complex: well-educated and clumsy, but without charisma. Ella Casey’s wife, who has been battling cancer, is impressive, quietly boosting her national campaign and advocating to donors for her husband’s “faith-based” policies.
At the moment the governor seems to be headed for re-election. Florida is booming: Most businesses have stayed open despite Covid-19, and people are moving to the state. That makes it more difficult for a Democratic opponent to make a persuasive speech. Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor, is now running as a Democrat, as is Nikki Fried, the state agriculture commissioner (although she muddied her prospects when she compared DeSantis to Hitler for acting like a dictator).
The most compelling candidate is Annette Taddeo, the first Latina Democrat to be elected state senator, representing Miami-Dade County. She thinks DeSantis’ biggest weakness “is that he’s worried about voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, not Floridians.” In November, Sunshine State voters will be able to express at the polls whether they resent their governor’s tone of national attention. One Floridian to watch closely will be Mr. Trump, who has been shooting sideways at his protégé-turned-potential rival. ■
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This article appeared in the US section of the print edition under the headline “A peninsular podium”