Listen to What Next:
Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has been undergoing an evolution. It all started in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, when it became clear Donald Trump had lost and his acolytes, like DeSantis, started looking for their next move. The governor began to fixate on a new word, woke, and was soon talking about “wokeness” all the time. According to him, Big Tech is woke, colleges are definitely woke, and so is infrastructure. The governor’s even proposed legislation that he calls the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” which stands for “Stop wrongs against our kids and employees.” It’s the same kind of “anti–critical race theory” law a lot of states have been passing, but with an acronym. Is this part of a strategy for DeSantis to prepare for a presidential run? To find out, I spoke with Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald’s Capitol bureau chief, on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing legislation that would tamp down hard on speech. The Stop W.O.K.E Act, for example, would bar schools and workplaces from facilitating conversations that could make someone feel responsible for historic wrongs because of their race, color, sex, or national origin. Then there’s the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would ban schools from encouraging discussions of sexuality or gender that aren’t “age-appropriate.” The problem is, what is and isn’t prohibited here isn’t clear.
Mary Ellen Klas: That’s the key thing. They don’t define it and the intention here is to just kind of freeze teachers in fear of what kinds of discussions they can engage in. Parents get to decide if it’s age-appropriate or not, because they have an enforcement tool under this law they could use to sue. The interesting thing is, school teachers and school districts have gone to the Capitol basically saying, This is unworkable, it’s not realistic to expect us to manage this. But it doesn’t seem as if that’s really what the government is concerned about. They’re not too focused on making this workable.
There are other pieces of legislation DeSantis has been pushing that also caught my eye, like this idea he was going to create election police to look out for some kind of fraud, and the idea that there’d be a 15-week abortion ban modeled after what Mississippi’s put out there. It’s all really conservative stuff, when what I’ve always thought about Florida is that it’s basically a purple state. Am I misreading it?
Florida continues to be a very purple place in its urban areas. However, overall the state has grown so much that I think we’ve actually tipped the balance and are now almost reliably red. That’s something that’s been playing out for the last few couple election cycles. The state’s just had a flood of new residents, many of whom are registering as Republican, and for the first time in more than 100 years, Republicans now outnumber Democrats in voter registration.
It’s Ron DeSantis’ goal to solidify this perceived Republican advantage through the redistricting process. He’s found a way to be extreme in this regard too, pushing a new voting map that would eliminate a Democratic district where a plurality of voters are Black.
If you think about what the governor’s long-term goal is, he wants to be known as a powerful Republican on the national stage. There’s nothing that could burnish his record more than if he helped get Congress Republican. Certainly one way to do that is to draw maps that give Republicans a greater advantage in Congress in Florida. So the governor did something that no governor has ever done publicly, and that is submitting a congressional map—
Is he allowed to do that?
I mean, everybody’s allowed to submit a map. There’s nothing preventing him from doing it. He submits legislation and then the Legislature just rewrites it. So it was along those lines that he submitted this map. So he sends the Legislature a map, and the map dismantles two of the plurality-Black districts, divides them up, and makes sure that there are 18 Republican seats and only 10 Democrat seats.
This was after a little bit of a pressure campaign from Steve Bannon, right?
Right. Bannon is taking credit for persuading this governor to submit a map because the Florida Legislature had moved forward with some maps that were pretty close to the existing maps. And that didn’t give Republicans this massive advantage. So Bannon got on his podcast, told all his viewers to write or call Ron DeSantis and tell him he needed to draw more partisan maps. That’s what happened.
Florida’s got a unique provision in our state constitution that mirrors the federal Voting Rights Act, and it says you cannot diminish the voting strength of a minority group. So when the governor dismantles these Black voting districts—one in the Orlando area and another in North Florida—the Legislature is wary. They were embroiled in a legal battle in the last redistricting cycle because they violated the standards in the state constitution. So the Legislature pushed back, the state Senate passed its map and ignored the governor’s map, and then it was on the state House’s plate. We’ll see this week how that plays out.
How have these ultraconservative moves affected DeSantis financially?
I think they’ve worked very well for him. He’s raised almost $100 million dollars for his gubernatorial campaign, and you can go very far with that kind of money in Florida.
When reporters look at this war chest DeSantis is piling up as he complains about a “woke mob”, they can’t help but wonder if he’ll be trying to spend it not only on his gubernatorial reelection later this year but on a presidential bid come 2024. Yet for DeSantis, running for president is complicated. Because Donald Trump is likely to run in 2024, and DeSantis owes a lot to the former president.
Ron DeSantis can credit Donald Trump with making him governor. DeSantis was only a little-known congressman when he ran for the state.
Did you think he was a shoo-in?
No, the person who looked like he was going to be the favorite was a former Republican congressman and agriculture commissioner, which is a pretty powerful job in the state. That was Adam Putnam. DeSantis challenges Putnam and Donald Trump, then endorses DeSantis. That allowed him to catapult over Putnam and a couple of other Republicans in the field, and then he won the primary.
I read that Trump even sent staffers to work with DeSantis.
Trump’s primary political director in Florida went to work for Ron DeSantis and was able to use his network and Trump’s base of supporters to really help elevate DeSantis.
Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump were politically close, not just ideologically aligned. Are they close now?
I think things have become increasingly very tense. I mean, we have heard DeSantis is resentful of the fact that Trump expects him to bend the knee so much, and Trump is resentful because DeSantis doesn’t seem grateful and loyal enough to him. Every time DeSantis is asked if he’ll be a candidate for president in 2024, his answer is, I am focused on Florida. I am running for reelection.
Of course, Trump wants to hear: “There is no way I’m going to challenge Donald Trump. If he wants to run, I’m 100 percent behind him.” But DeSantis is not saying that, and that has raised a lot of speculation. Many Trump supporters see Ron DeSantis as maybe a smarter Donald Trump, somebody who has a little more finesse and is certainly younger. It’s a difficult place for DeSantis to navigate because, as you mentioned, he’s got former staffers who worked for Trump. So in order for DeSantis to get elevated on the national stage, Trump has to be diminished or acquiesce, and we all know it’s very unlikely Trump is going to acquiesce.
Do you think DeSantis’ political fortunes rise or fall on whether all this legislation we talked about—the Stop W.O.K.E Act, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—passes or fails? Or is it sufficient that he just said these things out loud?
Well, a lot of a lot of these very controversial ideas get challenged in courts, many of which are throwing them out or putting a hold on them. It really hasn’t mattered. He’s able to say, I pushed this. It’s not law, but much of this is fighting for notion and the headline.
Many of these things will be challenged in court. I think they’d be enormous First Amendment violations if they are sustained and allowed to become law. They will have dramatic consequences on what people can say in Florida and how people can behave. They will have a chilling effect in business and schools. But I don’t think that is Florida Republicans’ ultimate goal. I think they just want to be in it for the fight.
I’ve covered the Florida Legislature for 30 years, and we never have seen them talk about the need to create legislation that prevents people from feeling bad because somebody may talk about this country’s racist past. No one has ever raised that as a threat. But DeSantis has shown that he can change based on where the political winds will take him.