- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2022

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis is on a roll in the Sunshine State, and the rest of the country is beginning to notice.

A cheering crowd near Miami watched the governor sign a trio of bills Friday aimed at reining in “woke” activism by the Walt Disney Co. This week, a group of enthusiastic supporters at a sports bar on the other side of the state watched him sign into law new voter ID requirements, tougher penalties for voter fraud and a bill to create a first-of-its-kind Office of Election Crimes and Security to investigate election wrongdoing.

“My message is just I don’t think there’s any other place in the country where you should have more confidence that your vote counts than in the state of Florida,” said Mr. DeSantis, winning another round of applause.

In this way, Mr. DeSantis has solidified his rising-star status in the Republican Party. He has burnished a reputation as a conservative champion that will serve him in his quest for a second term in November and a possible 2024 presidential run.

Mr. DeSantis has become a top antagonist for the political left, which denounced his public opposition to COVID-19 mandates and lockdowns and is suing to block several new laws, including an aggressive congressional redistricting plan that Democrats say amounts to Republican gerrymandering, as well as voting regulations and abortion restrictions. 

He rose to nearly rock-star status in the Republican Party while fighting critics. Three years into his first term as governor, Mr. DeSantis, 43, is beginning to overshadow other possible 2024 Republican presidential contenders and is creeping closer in popularity to former President Donald Trump, who dominates the party and remains the 2024 favorite.

“DeSantis is just running circles around them in terms of drawing attention,” said Brad Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy. “What did Mike Pence do last week? What did any of the long list of potential Republican candidates do? How much news coverage did they generate?”

Polls show Mr. DeSantis running close to Mr. Trump, and in some cases ahead of him, among likely Republican voters considering candidates for president in 2024.

Mr. DeSantis can promote his legislative victories thanks to Republicans who control both the Florida House and Senate and who have dutifully passed nearly all of his legislative priorities. 

“One of the things that is important to realize here is that right now, with Republicans locked out of power in Washington, D.C., DeSantis and the Florida state Legislature are America’s de facto congress for the Republican Party,” political strategist Ford O’Connell said.

Floridians are nodding in approval. Mr. DeSantis’ job performance rating as governor, according to a St. Leo University poll taken this month, is on the rise.

He earned an approval rating of 58.8% among Floridians, up from 56.4% in the fall. 

Over the past year, Mr. DeSantis has eschewed COVID-19 mandates and lockdowns, leading to strong economic growth in Florida and a rising influx of tourists, new residents and businesses.

He publicly taunted Democratic politicians who criticized his rejection of pandemic protocols and then vacationed maskless in Florida.

“Gov. DeSantis is benefiting from a strong economy and a lack of COVID cases in the state over the past few months,” said Frank Orlando, director of the Saint Leo University Polling Institute. “While he gets lots of national attention for provoking the ire of liberals on things like masking, it doesn’t seem to hurt him in Florida and, in fact, continues to raise his national profile.”

The St. Leo’s poll of Republicans found that Mr. DeSantis is a top pick among possible 2024 presidential candidates, trailing Mr. Trump, 64% to 55%. When Mr. Trump is excluded from polling, Mr. DeSantis places first with 66% of the vote, trouncing former Vice President Mike Pence, the first pick for only 27% of Republicans.

Florida and other Republican-led states enacted laws last year that banned private funding of elections, such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s “Zuck Bucks.” The state House and Senate this session endorsed Mr. DeSantis’ 15-week abortion ban, one of the strictest in the nation, a bill prohibiting sex education in early elementary school grades, and a measure outlawing “woke” training about racial injustice in corporations and schools.

Mr. DeSantis achieved another major win this month by redrawing the state’s congressional districts after rejecting his party’s proposal that would add two Republican-leaning seats. Mr. DeSantis sent lawmakers a map that doubles the Republican advantage with another four seats. 

The DeSantis map nearly wipes out Democratic redistricting gains elsewhere in the nation, further solidifying the chances that Republicans can win control of the U.S. House in November. 

The governor added a last-minute agenda item when the Legislature met in a special session last week and won passage of a bill ending Disney’s special tax district. Disney’s massive theme park has been allowed to operate autonomously and escape millions of dollars in development taxes for 55 years.

Mr. DeSantis targeted Disney with two bills. One prohibited “woke” corporate training centered on critical race theory and the second subjected the company to the state’s new ban on social media deplatforming of conservatives. 

The governor sent lawmakers the measures after Disney executives pledged to repeal his Parental Rights in Education bill, which bans sex education, including discussion of LGBTQ issues, for the youngest students.

Mr. DeSantis’ quick and brutal takedown of the corporate giant elevated his status even further in the party, although some Republicans criticized the move and Democrats roundly denounced it. Critics warned that the legislation would lead to property tax increases for the park’s surrounding jurisdictions, a claim the governor denies.

“We signed the bill and then, incredibly, they say, we are going to work to repeal parents’ rights in Florida,” Mr. DeSantis told a crowd of supporters as he signed the Disney legislation. “And I’m just thinking to myself, ‘You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re going to marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state?’ We view that as a provocation, and we’re going to fight back against that.”

Democrats believe Mr. DeSantis will be dragged down in polls as a consequence of his fight with Disney, which generates millions of dollars in tax revenue and employs 80,000 people in the state. 

“Attacking Disney, threatening to harm our state’s economic powerhouse that creates so many jobs and brings in so many tourism dollars is a boneheaded move however you look at it,” said Rep. Charlie Crist, the leading Democrat in the race to challenge Mr. DeSantis in November. “Ron’s a threat to our state’s economy, and he’s got to go in November.”

Mr. DeSantis leads Mr. Crist and Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Nikki Fried, another Democratic candidate, by double digits in hypothetical matchups in the governor’s race.

Mr. Coker said the battle over Disney’s special tax district isn’t likely to stir voters in Florida but the state’s new 15-week ban on abortions is more likely to help Democrats, particularly female voters in swing areas.

“I think that issue is much more controversial, much more divisive, and certainly most people have their opinions made up on that issue,” Mr. Coker said. “And there is a pretty significant number on both sides. If there’s an issue that might create serious problems for him down the road, I think it would be the 15-week abortion ban.”

Mr. DeSantis, who is ardently pro-life, triumphantly signed the bill on April 14, putting Florida on a growing list of red states that have imposed tighter restrictions in anticipation of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion’s legality at the federal level. 

“Life is a sacred gift worthy of our protection, and I am proud to sign this great piece of legislation, which represents the most significant protections for life in the state’s modern history,” Mr. DeSantis said.

Unable to defeat Mr. DeSantis in the Legislature, critics are suing to stop his agenda.

The American Civil Liberties Union plans to sue to block the abortion law, and Democratic lawyer Marc Elias is leading minority groups in a lawsuit challenging Mr. DeSantis’ congressional redistricting map on grounds that it is political gerrymandering, which is illegal in Florida.

A group of LGBTQ activists is suing to block the law banning sex education in kindergarten through third grades. They say it amounts to state censorship. 

Another group that includes educators, a company owner and a student joined in a lawsuit to reverse Mr. DeSantis’ Stop Woke Act, which bans schools and companies from forcing employees to undergo critical race theory training. The plaintiffs say the law violates First Amendment protections of free speech.

Critics of the bill eliminating the Disney tax district anticipate a string of lawsuits that could target the law on multiple grounds, including Disney’s First Amendment right to publicly oppose the sex education bill. 

Mr. DeSantis said he anticipated lawsuits against some of the new laws. Regardless of whether they survive legal challenges, the legislation garnered the governor a national following that could easily propel him beyond Florida and into the Republican presidential primary next year.

“No other GOP governor would have signed a bill ending Disney’s special status,” said Tim Swain, a Republican running for South Carolina’s state legislature. “No other GOP governor would have vetoed Republican-drawn redacting maps and demanded more. DeSantis uses the power the people have given him. He is simply on a different level. Future president.”

• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at sferrechio@washingtontimes.com.

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