TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s Republican-led Legislature is handing Gov. Ron DeSantis a series of culture war victories that are leaving Democrats increasingly worried he may be unstoppable heading into a 2022 reelection and possible presidential run.
The Legislature, which wraps up its two-month session this week, passed “anti-riot” legislation that DeSantis called for in the aftermath of last summer’s nationwide racial justice demonstrations. It approved a bill targeting Big Tech companies for “censoring” GOP voices. State lawmakers also passed a bill that bans so-called vaccine passports, an issue DeSantis has used to highlight his hands-off pandemic response that’s endeared him to Republicans across the country.
Those bills were some of DeSantis’ top priorities going into the legislative session and will give him campaign trail talking points as he prepares a 2024 bid for president. They’re also favorite topics of the Trump-supporting base of the Republican Party across the U.S. DeSantis’ embrace of such red meat issues has helped fuel the first-term governor’s national ascent and has some Florida Democrats concerned about their chances to beat him in the upcoming gubernatorial race.
“What we’re seeing is Ron’s regime in action — freedom, fairness, and the balance of power lost this session,” Democratic Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a likely 2022 challenger, said in an interview.
A Florida Democratic consultant not currently aligned with any potential gubernatorial candidate said the political fuel the Legislature delivered to DeSantis is bad news for Democrats.
“I don’t know that I see anyone on our side who can beat him,” the consultant said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they did not want to be seen as criticizing Democrats. “Even the culture war-type issues he picked poll well. They are not super unpopular.”
DeSantis has remained popular in the state, netting a 53 percent approval rating from a Mason-Dixon poll taken in March, in part because he didn’t enact widespread lockdowns during the pandemic and blocked local governments from instituting mask mandates. His legislative wins on issues like the anti-riot measure, coupled with his handling of the pandemic, have propelled DeSantis onto the national stage and will only serve to help him develop a well of big-name supporters as he looks to his future.
“Governor DeSantis is emerging as one of the leading Republicans at developing and implementing real solutions,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in an interview. “His opening couple years have been very, very impressive and have earned him national attention as a Republican leader.”
Saul Anuzis, the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, said DeSantis’ celebrity status is on the rise in national GOP circles. In recent months, DeSantis has become a Fox News and Fox Business fixture, appearing or being mentioned more than 500 times on the networks between March 1 and April 21, according to a service that tracks media appearances.
“He comes to all the Republican Governors Association events, and he is normally surrounded by members who want to meet and take pictures with him,” Anuzis said.
Democrats considering challenging DeSantis have used his hard-right policy agenda to continue cultivating his boogeyman status among liberal voters, who have been unable to elect a Florida governor in more than two decades but are motivated to torpedo DeSantis’ national rise.
The Democrats have used not just the anti-riot bill to begin early attacks on DeSantis, but also a sweeping elections bill that DeSantis has not been the leading voice on. They have also criticized legislation DeSantis already signed that would require collection of online sales taxes, a move that would bring in about $1 billion to the state, a massive tax hike.
Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who is now a Democratic member of Congress, and Democrat Rep. Val Demings are also widely considered to be running for governor. Neither returned a request seeking comment about how they think DeSantis fared this session.
The biggest fight of the 2021 session was over the anti-riot bill that DeSantis’ political foes cast as an unconstitutional crack down on protests. The legislation, which DeSantis called “the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country,” increases penalties for a host of already illegal acts committed during a “riot,” and makes it more difficult for local governments to cut police funding, a direct shot at the “defund the police” slogan. It has been blasted as racist and unconstitutional by dozens of speakers who opposed the legislation during each of its legislative committee stops.
The bill, however, has polled well in Florida, and DeSantis will no doubt use it as a messaging cudgel during the 2022 campaign. A poll conducted in January by Republican pollster Ryan Tyson showed 64 percent support an “anti-rioting” bill, including 41 percent of Democratic primary voters.
Lawmakers in Tallahassee also approved a bill that gives DeSantis’ broad authority to invalidate local government executive orders and forbids “vaccine passports.” DeSantis, through an executive order, already temporarily banned vaccine passports. But he lobbied the Florida Legislature to prohibit their use in state law.
“It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society,” DeSantis told reporters earlier this month.
Democrats, though, have branded him “DeathSantis” over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and stress that Florida has had more than 2.2 million cases, and nearly 35,000 deaths.
“The fact is 30,000 of our fellow Floridians have died and that’s nothing to brag about,” Crist told POLITICO last month.
National Republicans, though, continue to be impressed as his profile grows through efforts like his anti-rioting bill.
“I think it’s a good idea that will play well with the grassroots,” Anuzis said. “I think nationally he is very intriguing given what happened with his Covid response, the results in the state in 2020, and the bill dealing with rioting. He is someone to watch, and I think clearly on everyone’s short list for potential presidential candidates.”