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DeSantis presidential campaign: Florida legislative session ends

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a conference titled Celebrate the Faces of Israel, Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, April 27, 2023.

Maya Alleruzzo | AFP | Getty Images

Florida’s legislative session is set to end Friday, capping a 60-day Republican blitz to send major bills to Gov. Ron DeSantis as he sets the tone for his anticipated presidential campaign announcement.

DeSantis, who is widely seen as former President Donald Trump‘s top rival for the 2024 Republican nomination, has long been expected to reveal his political plans after the session adjourns. He could announce a presidential exploratory committee as soon as mid-May, NBC News reported last week.

If he enters the race, DeSantis will ride into the presidential fray on a wave of new state policy that enacts much of the governor’s conservative wish list.

Florida’s GOP supermajorities in the House and Senate largely made good on their promise to get DeSantis’ agenda “across the finish line,” passing bills on issues ranging from abortion to guns to school vouchers.

The Legislature leaned into polarizing cultural fights that have helped elevate the governor nationally, bolstering his efforts to craft an image of a leader who takes on hot-button topics and delivers conservative outcomes. Measures such as the restrictive abortion law DeSantis signed could help him in a GOP primary, but may reduce his appeal in a general election.

Lawmakers have also passed multiple measures that could help clear DeSantis’ path to the White House, if and when he decides to run.

The Legislature voted last week to carve out a DeSantis-shaped exemption to the state’s “Resign-to-Run” law, by allowing candidates for president or vice president to run without giving up their jobs in Florida. Another measure effectively shields DeSantis’ travel records from public view.

“The entire session was focused on Governor DeSantis’ run for president,” said Jim Clark, a University of Central Florida senior lecturer and political commentator, in an interview. “The legislature gave him 99% of what he wanted.”

While a Republican trifecta has empowered DeSantis in Florida, he has come under heavy fire from Trump and appears to be trending lower in polls of the possible primary field, raising questions about his appeal outside his state.

“It seems to me that the more the voters get to know Ron DeSantis, the more problems he has,” Clark said.

The 2024 contest is in its early stages, as more candidates trickle into the primary months before the first Republican debate. DeSantis also holds a major fundraising edge over most of his potential opponents, and some big names on Wall Street are considering backing the governor if he runs.

‘Full steam ahead’

Republicans gained two-thirds majorities in Florida’s House and Senate in the November midterm elections, when Democrats broadly underperformed across the state. With the Legislature and governor’s mansion in political alignment and facing few obstacles, state lawmakers churned through legislation with unprecedented speed.

“Once it was gaveled in, it was full steam ahead,” veteran Florida political analyst Susan MacManus told CNBC.

DeSantis, in turn, quickly signed many of his priorities into law, all while he released a biographical book and toured the country in early steps toward a presidential run.

Among the most controversial new Florida laws is a ban on most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, which will not take effect until after a previous 15-week ban is resolved in the courts.

The move ensures abortion, a top issue in the last election cycle after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, will again be front and center in the 2024 presidential race. President Joe Biden in his reelection campaign launch railed against Trump-aligned “extremists” trying to control “what health care decisions women can make,” while Republican contender Nikki Haley called for “consensus” in an abortion-focused stump speech.

DeSantis also signed legislation allowing Floridians to carry concealed weapons without a permit. He signed both the abortion and gun bills with little fanfare in private settings, facts that critics have noted as they highlight the lack of support for both measures in polls.

On top of those issues, DeSantis in March waded into the “school choice” debate by signing a bill expanding Florida’s school voucher system. Supporters of school-choice initiatives say they give some students needed educational options, while critics say they hurt public schools. Vouchers are just one front in a wide-ranging battle about parents’ and children’s rights that also encompasses school curricula and LGBTQ+ issues.

MacManus said she expects that battle will be a major theme of the 2024 election.

Separately, DeSantis on Monday signed a bill making child rapists eligible for the death penalty. He vowed to defend the law up to the Supreme Court, which had banned capital punishment in such cases.

A day later, he signed a measure restricting state and local entities from giving preference to the investing movement known asĀ ESG. The nascent campaign, which broadly refers to investing strategies that prioritize environmental, social and governance factors, has become a target for conservative critics alleging progressive overreach by major corporations.

The supermajority’s full-court press to pass legislation from the opening gavel to the end of the session may be unusual, but it’s not surprising, MacManus said.

“You have to strike while the iron’s hot and that’s why elections matter,” she said.

“Democrats are well aware that their inability to make improvements in their representation in the legislature now [is] coming home to haunt them,” MacManus added.

Walt Disney War

GOP lawmakers have also backed DeSantis in his protracted fight with Walt Disney Co. stemming from the law that critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” The governor’s feud with one of his state’s largest employers has presidential undertones, as Republicans increasingly seek political appeal by targeting companies that take stances on social issues.

The battle began more than one year ago when Disney, under pressure from activists and many of its own employees, opposed the bill, which limits classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender ideology.

Soon after, DeSantis and his allies moved to dissolve the decades-old special tax district that had allowed Disney’s Orlando-area parks to essentially govern themselves. The governor’s actions stoked fears residents of the neighboring counties could be on the hook for a massive bill.

In February, lawmakers approved a new plan that left the district largely intact, but allowed DeSantis to handpick its board of supervisors. But the new board complained before they were seated, Disney struck a development agreement that effectively thwarted their power.

The governor’s board members then voted to undo Disney’s deal, alleging it was unlawful. Disney sued DeSantis and the board in federal court, accusing the governor of orchestrating a campaign of political retribution against the company for its speech. The board countersued in state court days later.

DeSantis’ possible GOP primary rivals have taken shots at the governor over his fixation on Disney, especially as the imbroglio drags into the courts. Some other Republicans have questioned the governor’s tactics. “I think it’d be much better if you sat down and solved the problems,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” last week.

DeSantis’ side seems undeterred. GOP legislators passed measures as recently as this week that single out Walt Disney World and further flex the state’s power over the company.

On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers passed a bill that would void Disney’s development agreement. DeSantis is expected to sign it into law.

The Legislature also passed a measure that would have the state transportation department conduct inspections of Walt Disney World’s monorails.

Earlier this month, the state education board approved an expansion of the controversial classroom bill at the root of the spat with Disney. The new rules extend the ban on classroom instruction of sexual orientation to high school grades.

“This bill is not really about protecting children and educators. This bill is about discrimination against people who are different than you are,” the state Senate’s leading Democrat, Lauren Book, said of the bill she called “Don’t Say Gay 2.0.”

DeSantis is leaning further into measures that have angered LGBTQ+ activists. He is also likely to sign just-passed bills targeting college diversity programs and limiting the use of preferred pronouns in schools. State Republicans have also approved a bill that would make it an offense for people to use certain bathrooms that don’t match their sex at birth. Transgender activists say the bill, dubbed the “Safety in Private Spaces Act,” puts them in danger.

It continues a trend for DeSantis, whose willingness to wield his power for right-wing cultural causes has made him a Republican darling and top name in the presidential rumor mill. His moves could play well in a Republican primary, where candidates will likely spar over who has the most conservative record on those issues.

Teeing off?

DeSantis’ agenda was stymied on a few key issues.

Legislation that would have weakened media protections against defamation claims was apparently shelved in what was seen as a blow to the governor. A bill that would lower the minimum rifle-buying age to 18 passed in the state House, but faced opposition from the Republican Senate president, Kathleen Passidomo.

DeSantis has nevertheless racked up a long list of political accomplishments in a condensed period, potentially giving him a firmer footing from which to launch a presidential bid. MacManus said if the Legislature’s goal was to help DeSantis tee up a White House bid, it did its job.

Yet, it isn’t clear if DeSantis is better positioned for a presidential run than he was 60 days ago.

In addition to passing his conservative-friendly agenda, the governor recently embarked on a campaign-style book tour touting his wins, released glossy videos hyping his state’s “blueprint” for success and even went overseas to meet with world leaders.

But his polling gap with Trump, the current frontrunner for the 2024 nomination, has never been wider, according to FiveThirtyEight‘s primary polling tracker. The pugilistic ex-president has homed in on DeSantis as his top rival and has spent weeks lambasting the governor on everything from his record in office to his personality. DeSantis has been less willing to strike back at Trump, who remains the Republican Party’s de facto leader and commands loyalty from a large swath of its voters.

“This is really strange,” Clark said. “We’re talking about a man who won 60% of the vote in Florida, and yet outside of Florida has had trouble connecting with people.”

Clark said the situation put him in mind of a classic episode of the long-running cartoon “The Simpsons,” where Homer Simpson becomes a beloved mascot for his town’s baseball team. He’s then recruited as the mascot for a much larger city’s team, but his antics fall flat on the bigger stage.

“I keep thinking on that,” Clark said.

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