When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) rolled out legislation barring classroom lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation last year, he set off a national wave of conservative legislators aiming to imitate what critics called the “don’t say gay” law.
In many states, the new front in the culture war sparked protests and opposition from parents, educators and the LGBTQ community.
But in Florida, the bill passed with the help of a Miami Democrat, state Rep. James Bush.
Now, in the midst of one of the most conservative legislative sessions in recent Florida memory, DeSantis is building a laundry list of conservative policy wins that seem custom made to generate applause among Republican faithful along the presidential campaign trail, and outrage among Democrats across the nation.
Back in Tallahassee, some of those Democrats are helping him build his record.
DeSantis is among the Republican governors this year who have expanded education savings accounts that students can apply to private school tuition. That bill won four Democratic votes. A massive housing package that will preempt local rent controls passed by wide bipartisan margins. And legislation DeSantis backs that would open media outlets to more defamation lawsuits won approval in a subcommittee, with the help of state Rep. Kimberly Daniels (D).
Many legislatures have long histories of bipartisanship. In some states, tradition dictates that the minority party swallow their pride and vote for the majority party’s leadership candidates. In others, like Texas, majority Republicans still allow minority Democrats to chair committees. Legislators in many states give broad bipartisan support to final budget bills, after the policy battles are fought and won or lost.
But that bipartisanship rarely extends to more controversial and contentious issues — and almost never in cases in which the leader pushing the controversial item is so obviously gearing up to run for president.
“He is clearly the strongest governor in state history,” said James Clark, who teaches Florida history at the University of Central Florida.
DeSantis’s agenda has not been wholly bipartisan. On Monday, he signed a measure allowing state residents to carry concealed firearms without a permit, after the House and Senate approved the bill on party-line votes.
Democrats say the instances in which DeSantis has been able to win some of their votes are mirages amid an arch conservative agenda.
“The governor is pushing an extremist agenda as he prepares to attempt to run for president, but the Democrats who voted for the voucher expansion bill did so because of their own beliefs, not because of any loyalty or friendship with him,” Florida House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell (D) told Pluribus News in an email. “The Democrats are a ‘big tent’ party, and that means lots of differing opinions sometimes.”
“Each of those representatives had their own reasons, but none of them were to make Ron DeSantis happy,” Driskell said.
As he travels the nation in advance of an expected presidential campaign, DeSantis will compete for a spotlight with several other former governors, all of whom have their own records to tout. Two former governors — South Carolina’s Nikki Haley (R), who later served as then-President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations and Arkansas’s Asa Hutchinson (R), who said Sunday he would run — are already in the race.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who joined Trump’s ticket after a term as Indiana’s governor, is also widely expected to enter the race.
Though Trump remains the outright favorite for the Republican nomination, the governors have historical reasons to be optimistic: Prior to Trump, five of the last eight Republican presidential nominations were won by current or former governors.