With Ron DeSantis Setting the GOP Agenda, Democrats Should Be Worried

The GOP’s most intriguing politician is an uncharismatic governor who is trying to make the GOP’s culture war attractive to suburban moms.

Ron DeSantis, the 43-year-old governor of Florida, is in tears. Originally a tea-party-style fiscal conservative, he embraced a series of tough positions that put him second in early polls — OK, too soon — for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. -President Donald Trump.)

“He’s more aggressive on the left than any US governor in modern history,” Fox News expert Laura Ingraham said last month, when she devoted an entire hour of her prime-time show to DeSantis.

“I don’t know if it’s luck or intelligence, but this guy has a knack for framing problems and finding the right enemies,” said Republican strategist Scott Jennings, a longtime adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R- Ky. ).

Republican pollster Whit Ayres offered a more succinct explanation: “He’s Trump without the craziness.”

DeSantis rose to national prominence at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when he became the country’s most powerful opponent of vaccine lockdowns and mandates. Some states, like California, have kept schools closed for an entire year or more; DeSantis ordered Florida schools to reopen in August 2020 and threatened to withhold money from districts that rebelled.

It was kind of a gamble. Florida’s death rate from COVID has increased more sharply than states with stricter regulations. But many parents were grateful to be able to send their children to school. Many companies were also grateful; DeSantis allowed them to remain open.

The governor took the scientific debate over vaccine mandates and turned it into a high-profile political cause.

“Florida chose liberty over fauciism,” he declared.

The results were not as clear-cut as he sometimes claimed; Florida’s economy has grown more slowly than California’s over the past two years. But DeSantis moved on to other targets.

He ordered state agencies to audit companies to determine whether their workers were in the country legally.

He passed another law limiting what schools can teach about racism and other painful aspects of American history, and launched a statewide review that banned several math textbooks for alleged political content.

And most recently, he signed a bill banning discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in the first four years of elementary school, and potentially limiting subjects in the higher grades — the act opponents dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. ”.

When the CEO of Walt Disney Co., pressured by employees, declared that the company would fight to revoke the project, DeSantis retaliated. He passed a bill to strip Disney World, the company’s giant amusement park near Orlando, from its special tax status, which gave Disney broad authority over its holdings.

The episode reflected three of DeSantis’ political forces.

One is framing: in the governor’s account, his restrictions on teaching are about parental rights, not animosity toward LGBTQ rights. The official name of the law is “Parental Rights in Education Act”, not “Don’t Say Gay”.

Republican strategists believe DeSantis’s description appeals to parents of young children, including suburban parents who voted against Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

A Fox News poll this month reported that 55% of voters said they agreed with a ban on teaching about sexual orientation in the early grades, with even larger majorities among parents and Latino voters.

A second strength is DeSantis’ readiness to attack business leaders when they oppose him. He denounced not just Disney executives but social media companies as part of a cultural elite whose values ​​are vastly different from those of their constituents.

This made some mainstream Republicans nervous.

“He went too far in attacking Disney, especially in the fiscal district,” a GOP lobbyist told me, declining to be named. “That might cost you some support.”

It might be worth noting, though, that DeSantis has limited his business attacks largely to non-Florida-based companies — and that Disney World, one of the state’s biggest employers, is unlikely to move.

DeSantis’s third quality has been his relentless search for new causes to champion in an expanding culture war.

“It’s hard to teach that kind of sense of timing and when to jump into questions,” Jennings said. “DeSantis clearly understands.”

That, more than any other factor, distinguished him from Trump. Since 2020, the former president has seemed trapped in an endless cycle of complaints about the presidential election, which he claims (without evidence) was stolen from him.

DeSantis went beyond 2020 to set the Republicans’ agenda for 2022 — and likely 2024. He never directly confronted Trump, but he didn’t have to. He overtook him.

Whether he intends to run or not, he has already built the foundation necessary to seek the GOP nomination. He is cunning, hardworking, ruthless and often relentless – a populist without Trump’s self-destructive flaws.

Democrats must be worried.

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