By BRENDAN FARRINGTON and ANTHONY IZAGUIRRE
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Gov. Ron DeSantis is poised to position himself on Tuesday as a champion of conservative causes during a State of the State address that will likely be as much about his national ambitions as it is an assessment of Florida’s response to the pandemic and a series of crippling storms.
The address comes at the outset of a 60-day legislative session that has added significance this year because it will likely be used to launch DeSantis into a highly anticipated presidential campaign.
The Republican-dominated Legislature, eager to promote DeSantis’ political prospects, is expected to sign off on virtually all of the governor’s agenda, which is packed with issues ranging from race to immigration to gender that could prove popular in a GOP presidential primary.
Instead of focusing on rising rents and cost of living, a property insurance market that’s in distress and preparing for rising sea levels in a state vulnerable to climate change, DeSantis will kick off a session where the GOP will push issues like telling teachers which pronouns they can use for students, making guns more available to Floridians, keeping immigrants that are in the country illegally out of the state, and criminalizing some drag shows as Tennessee recently did.
Though DeSantis is unlikely to formally announce a presidential campaign before the Legislature wraps up its work in May, he’s already making big moves toward a White House bid. He participated in a high-profile donor retreat last week in Florida before traveling to California, where he delivered a broadside against what he argued were excesses of liberalism. Later this week, he’ll travel for the first time this year to Iowa, which will host the nation’s first Republican presidential caucus in 2024.
Even without an official campaign in place, DeSantis is emerging as a leading alternative to former President Donald Trump, a fellow Floridian who has already announced his third White House bid. DeSantis’ strength is fueled in part by commanding a nearly 20 percentage point reelection victory last year in a state that’s often infamous for close elections.
He’s done so by limiting how issues such as race and sexuality can be taught in schools, banning transgender girls and women from school sports, rewriting the state’s political maps to favor Republicans and dismantle a congressional district that favored Black voters, attacking private businesses that disagree with his ideology and cracking down on Black Lives Matter protests.
“Our governor is truly America’s governor. He has defended our conservative values, challenged the individuals and institutions who pose threats to others, and posed innovative solutions to better our state,” Republican state Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said Tuesday. “It is often said that states are laboratories for democracy. Under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, Florida is more than a laboratory. We are a model.”
DeSantis acknowledges that his decisions as governor are based on what he thinks is right and not necessarily what’s popular in the mainstream. He said that’s why he was able to turn a 32,000-vote, recount-confirmed victory in 2018 into a 1.5 million vote victory last year — the largest margin a Republican governor has ever won in the state.
“We beat the left day after day after day,” DeSantis said Sunday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. “Don’t worry about the polls, don’t worry about the daily news cycle, and for Pete’s sake don’t worry about the media, what they say. Do what is right and the voters will reward you.”
He’s also been an almost nightly subject of jokes on late night shows such as “Saturday Night Live” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” but the more critics mock DeSantis, especially those he calls the “liberal elite,” the more he galvanizes support among his base.
While most candidates who jump into a presidential race two years out spend early campaigning days raising money, traveling the country building support and boosting their name recognition, DeSantis still has $70 million in a political committee just four months after his reelection.
And he’s already a star de jour at GOP events nationally.
“You don’t see the flag of Florida standing behind him anymore. They’re all American flags,” said Democratic state Sen. Jason Pizzo.
DeSantis’ State of the State is sure to include some of the same “anti-woke, pro-freedom” messages he’s taken around the country.
The book he released last week is titled, “The Courage to be Free,” and its subtitle foreshadows his 2024 plans: “Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.” Instead of the Trump slogan of “Make America Great Again,” DeSantis is building the case to make the nation look more like Florida and less like states such as California and New York.
“These liberal states have gotten it wrong,” DeSantis said. “It all goes back to ideology. I think it goes back to the woke mind virus that’s infected the left and all these other institutions.”
But Democrats see it as intolerance and misdirected priorities. They point to efforts to build off a new law that critics call “Don’t Say Gay” that limits discussion of gender and sexuality in schools. A new GOP proposal would limit how schools can use gender pronouns, while another would criminalize some drag shows.
“The number one cause of death amongst children in our country is gun violence, but again, they’re concerned about who goes to what kind of drag show,” said Democratic state Senate Leader Lauren Book. “You’ve got ‘Don’t Say Gay.’ Now 2.0, ‘Don’t Say They.’ Let’s make sure that people can pay for their light bill and can put food on their table and pay for prescriptions and put gas in the car.”