DeSantis stokes culture wars as 2024 profile grows

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is leaning into the culture wars as he weighs a 2024 bid.

The Florida governor and rising GOP star on Thursday suspended a Tampa-area elected state attorney who had signed a pledge not to prosecute those who seek out or provide abortions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the seminal case that protected the right to abortion. 

It’s only the latest item on a growing list of moves designed to win over the Republican Party’s conservative base amid speculation that DeSantis could pursue a bid for the White House in the coming years.

“He is sending a message to Republican voters and to the American people that he is a leader, and he is willing to make very difficult decisions that many other elected officials aren’t, and he is willing to fire people who people think are untouchable, and that is crucial for someone that’s going to run for president in 2024,” said Terry Schilling, the president of the conservative grassroots organization, the American Principles Project. 

DeSantis’s office billed the Thursday announcement suspending State Attorney Andrew Warren, a rising star in Florida Democratic circles, as official business. But for many, the episode was merely the latest effort by DeSantis to court a growing national conservative base — something he’s done with increasing vigor in recent years.

Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida and an ardent critic of DeSantis, described the governor’s announcement as a “political stunt,” noting how his press secretary Christina Pushaw teased the announcement the night before as the “liberal media meltdown of the year.”

“The evidence is in their words. You had literally his spokesperson calling it the liberal meltdown of the year,” Kennedy said. “They were looking for a reaction, they got their reaction. Everything they do is a stunt, and it’s aimed at Republican voters in early primary states.”

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It was a familiar tactic for DeSantis, whose name has shot to the top of the list of potential GOP presidential candidates over the past two years. In that time, he has defied public health officials’ advice on the COVID-19 pandemic, cracked down on public protests, banned the teaching of so-called critical race theory in public schools and picked a high-profile fight with Walt Disney World, one of the state’s biggest tourist draws.

And for many conservatives, including Schilling, that combative approach to politics and business is exactly what makes DeSantis attractive.

“In reality, we’re reaching a point in time where you can’t really separate politics from doing the right thing,” Schilling said. “Ron DeSantis took on Disney, for crying out loud. This is a guy that’s willing to take on powerful interests if it means protecting the people he’s representing.”

Even during his first bid for governor in 2018, DeSantis drew attention for his controversial, no-holds-barred campaign style. One ad at the time showed DeSantis telling his young daughter to “build the wall” as she played with toy blocks. At another point in the campaign, he faced criticism after he warned Floridians not to “monkey this up” by voting for his Democratic rival Andrew Gillum, who is Black.

Since then, DeSantis has made a name for himself as a hard-charging culture warrior willing to push the limits of his authority to further his vision of conservatism. While that strategy has made him a much-hated villain to Democrats, it’s won him the praise of many Republicans who have begun carefully eyeing him as a successor to former President Trump.

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“Ron DeSantis is a master class in how to speak to the base; how to antagonize Democrats in a way that, I think to a lot of Republicans, looks entirely reason-based,” one Republican donor said. “He’s not doing these incoherent rants like Donald Trump did. He’s methodical, and that’s why he’s coming up as fast as he is.”

And indeed, DeSantis’s political rise appears very real. Not only has he emerged as one of — if not the most — powerful governors in recent Florida history, but he has asserted himself as one of the most influential Republicans in the country at a time when the GOP finds itself out of power in Washington. 

DeSantis has raised more than $100 million for his election campaign, while meeting with influential Republican officials and donors far from his home state. Earlier this year, for instance, he met with top Trump donors in South Carolina, stoking speculation that he may be considering a bid for the White House.

He’s also among only a few prospective Republican presidential hopefuls who have declined to rule out a 2024 campaign if Trump decides to mount another bid for the White House. And in the event that Trump doesn’t run again, early polling suggests that DeSantis would be a heavy favorite to win the GOP nomination. 

A Harvard CAPS-Harris poll released this week found that, without Trump on the ballot, DeSantis would lead his closest rival, former Vice President Mike Pence, by a 15-point margin.

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“I do think that voters are going to have a hard time choosing between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis because they are so similar in what they offer,” Schilling said. “I don’t think there is a DeSantis without Donald Trump opening that huge door for him and showing what you can actually do through the political lens and at the same time, I’m so impressed with Ron DeSantis. He’s stepped up in ways that no other governor has.”

In the meantime, however, DeSantis is waving off questions about his future political ambitions, saying only that he’s focused on winning a second term in the governor’s mansion in November. His chances, at least for now, appear solid: He’s raised far more money than either of his prospective Democratic rivals — Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — and what little public polling there is in the race shows DeSantis with wide leads over both of his potential opponents.

Of course, things could change before Election Day. But DeSantis’s relative comfort with his reelection has given him an opportunity to lay the groundwork for his political future, Kennedy said.

“He’s making a calculation,” Kennedy said. “The Democrats are in disarray in his perspective and so, to him, he sees no reason to compromise.”

“He thinks he can win Florida,” Kennedy added. “And at the same time, he’s trying to position himself as the new Republican leader; the new Donald Trump.”

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