TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ′ deepening feud with Walt Disney World is testing the limits of his combative leadership style while sending an unmistakable message to his rivals that virtually nothing is off-limits as he plots his political future.
The 43-year-old Republican has repeatedly demonstrated an acute willingness to fight over the course of his decade-long political career. He has turned against former aides and rejected the GOP Legislature’s rewrite of congressional maps, forcing lawmakers to accept a version more to his liking and prompting voting rights groups to sue. He’s also leaned into simmering tensions with Donald Trump, which is notable for someone seeking to lead a party where loyalty to the former president is a requirement.
But DeSantis’ decision to punish Disney World, one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations and one of Florida’s biggest private employers, took his fighter mentality to a new level. In retribution for Disney’s criticism of the new parental rights in education state law, DeSantis signed legislation on Friday stripping the theme park of a decades-old special agreement that allowed it to govern itself.
To critics, including some in his own party, such a raw exercise of power suggests DeSantis is operating with a sense of invincibility that could come back to haunt him. Others see an ambitious politician emboldened by strong support in his state and a mountain of campaign cash-grabbing an opportunity to further stoke the nation’s culture wars, turning himself into a hero among Republican voters in the process.
"When you listen to Ron DeSantis, it’s righteous indignation: ‘Here’s why you’re wrong and here’s why I’m right,″" said Florida Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a former state GOP chairman. "And it is that righteous indignation and that willingness to fight back that endears people to Ron DeSantis’ message. As long as he keeps on showing that he’s willing to fight, people are going to continue to keep flocking to him."
DeSantis is up for reelection in November. But in the wake of his scrap with Disney, he will introduce himself to a key group of presidential primary voters this coming week when he campaigns for Nevada Senate candidate Adam Laxalt. The appearance marks his first of the year in a state featured prominently on the presidential calendar, although DeSantis aides insist it is simply a trip to help out a longtime friend.
Disney drew DeSantis’ wrath for opposing a new state law that bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The DeSantis-backed bill has been condemned by LGBTQ activists nationwide as homophobic, although the measure, like others dealing with transgender athletes and racial history in schools, has emerged as a core piece of the GOP’s political strategy.
The Disney legislation, which does not take effect until June 2023, could cause massive economic fallout for the company, the surrounding communities and the millions who visit the Orlando amusement park every year.
There are risks to DeSantis’ embrace of the legislation, particularly if his antagonism towards Disney threatens the GOP’s standing with independents and women, who could play crucial roles in the fall campaign. Jenna Ellis, a former Trump administration attorney, called the DeSantis-backed legislation "vengeful."
Democrats who are facing a tough election year are eager to highlight DeSantis’ moves as a way to portray the GOP as a party of extremists. In an interview, Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison described DeSantis’ attack on Disney as a continuation of a "divisive agenda" geared toward booking interviews on conservative media at the expense of his constituents.
"The people of Florida deserve a governor whose first priority is them, not his own political ambition," Harrison said.
President Joe Biden said at party fundraiser this past week in Oregon that this "is not your father’s Republican Party."
"I respect conservatives," Biden said at a DNC fundraiser in Seattle on Thursday. "There’s nothing conservative about deciding you’re going to throw Disney out of its present posture because ... you think we should be not be able to say, ‘gay.’"
In a statement, DeSantis’ spokesperson Taryn Fenske, called the governor a "principled and driven leader who accomplishes exactly what he says he will do."
Indeed, DeSantis’ friends and foes in the GOP agree that his crackdown on Disney is a major political victory among Republican base voters already enamored by his pushback against pandemic-related public health measures over the past two years. They suggest it also taps into a growing Republican embrace of anti-corporate populism and parental control of education that resonates with a wider swath of voters.
Republican pollsters have been privately testing DeSantis’ political strength beyond Florida for several months, finding that the only Republican consistently with more support than DeSantis among GOP voters is Trump himself. At the same time, DeSantis is sitting on more than $100 million in campaign funds.
"He’s a very smart guy in what he’s doing and how he’s doing it," Republican strategist David Urban, a close Trump ally, said of DeSantis.
Those close to the Florida governor say there is one message above all to take away from the Disney fight: that DeSantis, one of the few high-profile Republicans who has not ruled out running against Trump in a 2024 presidential primary, is not afraid of anybody, anything or any fight.
Tensions between the two men have been building for months.
In a Washington Post interview last month, Trump took credit for DeSantis’ rise. And last weekend, longtime Trump loyalist Roger Stone released a video clip in which Stone calls DeSantis an expletive while greeting Trump at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida club.
So far, Florida voters seem to be on DeSantis’ side. Nearly 6 in 10 Florida voters approved of DeSantis’ job performance in a February poll conducted by the University of North Florida. The poll also asked registered Republicans about a hypothetical presidential primary between Trump and DeSantis. The result? Trump and DeSantis were statistically tied.
Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist and a major Republican fundraiser, said DeSantis has "a combination of popularity and instincts" that is shaping the modern-day GOP.
"No other elected official, maybe in the country, has the Republican base support that Ron DeSantis has. So he’s incredibly powerful, not only a powerful politician, but a powerful government leader," Ballard said. "The guy really has the reins of power in his hands."