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DeSantis embraces Disney battle as part of ‘fighter’ political persona

The governor, his mind on a 2022 reelection and beyond, has used the friction to raise campaign cash and his profile.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former Navy JAG prosecutor, has cultivated the persona of a political pugilist for years.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former Navy JAG prosecutor, has cultivated the persona of a political pugilist for years. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Apr. 2|Updated Apr. 5

MIAMI — Taking fire from Democrats, Hollywood and even Mickey Mouse after signing the “Parental Rights in Education” bill that critics have dubbed Florida’s “don’t say gay” legislation, Gov. Ron DeSantis stood on a stage overlooking the Miami River last week and told a crowd that he would not bow to the pressure.

“I can tell you this,” DeSantis said during a March 30 reelection fundraiser where some people paid to see Florida’s Republican governor together with mixed martial artist Jorge Masvidal. “I have only begun to fight.”

DeSantis may be embroiled in a national bout over lessons on sexual orientation and gender in schools, but he appears perfectly comfortable in that ring. With his mind on reelection and perhaps more, DeSantis has welcomed the furor while using the friction to raise money and his profile — all while presenting himself as a defender of American values.

“The governor’s got all the right enemies when you think about what activates the Republican base,” said Rob Schmidt, a South Florida-based Republican pollster with McLaughlin & Associates.

DeSantis, a former Navy JAG prosecutor, has cultivated the persona of a political pugilist for years. He became a known commodity for conservatives while defending former President Donald Trump during Fox News hits. As governor he has often found himself at odds with the Biden administration over COVID regulations and masks, engaged in testy confrontations with reporters and, at times, even fighting intraparty feuds with other Republicans.

Now, on his reelection campaign, the governor is explicitly using combative campaign messaging as he seeks a second term and ascends as a national player in GOP politics.

He tells supporters on his campaign website that he’s “fighting an uphill battle against the liberal machine.” And in a fundraising email titled “Hollywoke Punches Florida” — sent after the hosts of the Oscars poked fun at the “Parental Rights” legislation the governor signed March 28 — he promised that he’s “not backing down.”

Related: The 'don't say gay' bill DeSantis just signed, explained

‘You have not caved’

During his event March 30 with Masvidal, which according to Florida Politics included a $250 VIP session with both men, DeSantis accepted a belt that Masvidal won in a previous victory in the octagon. The belt is inscribed with the letters BMF, which stands for “baddest mother f---er.”

Masvidal, who one week earlier was charged by police with punching another fighter outside a South Beach steakhouse — he has pleaded not guilty — told the crowd that DeSantis “fights for you, fights for me, fights for my kids, fights for my freedom.”

DeSantis, whose campaign turned video from the Masvidal event into a digital ad, held the fundraiser two days after signing the legislation. DeSantis and proponents of the bill have said the language that has proven so controversial — part of a broader education bill — is intended to stop public schools from teaching inappropriate lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity to young students.

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Critics have warned that the bill was written in an intentionally vague manner to suppress talk of gender inclusiveness in schools, intimidate teachers into avoiding the topic and target LGBTQ students. DeSantis has called those criticisms disingenuous, saying parents deserve to know if “woke gender ideology” is being taught in their kids’ schools.

A Politico/Morning Consult poll of voters nationwide found 70 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of independents supported the measure, while slightly more than half of Democrats opposed it.

“So many Republican governors in red states, who really are some of the weakest people in the country, have caved,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said to DeSantis after inviting the governor onto his prime-time program last week to discuss the controversy. “You have not caved.”

A view from the other side of the political aisle

Shevrin Jones, Florida’s first openly gay state senator, says political ambition is driving DeSantis’ actions and words.

“He’s sticking to the divisive politics that’s a carryover from Donald Trump. Because he saw that it worked,” said Jones, who represents a large swath of South Florida’s Black community. “So he’s moving forward with it. Because he believes it’s what’s going to get him reelected and potentially give him the leverage that’s needed to become president of the United States, regardless of what it does to people or regardless of what people think about him and his policy and his ways.”

The DeSantis campaign did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Republican strategists say DeSantis has tapped into a trend in which parents, after being at home with their kids for months during the pandemic, are more interested in what is happening in the classroom. He’s also struck a vein that Trump focused on in his campaigns, earning support from voters who feel attacked by Washington and the press, and even pop culture touchstones like Disney.

“Voters and parents in Florida and across the country are tired of big corporations telling them how to think, feel and live their life,” said Stephen Lawson, previously a spokesperson for DeSantis’ 2018 campaign who now runs a political strategy firm in Georgia. “I think the governor is tapping into that emotion, which is politically the smart move, but it’s also just the right thing to do.”

DeSantis has always shined in big political fights, starting with his rejection of Big Sugar money when he ran for governor, Lawson said. But the conflict with Disney is a “master class” in this strategy that will only “continue to raise his visibility nationally,” he said.

When it comes to the jab about the education bill during the Oscars, Lawson said that’s all upside for DeSantis. The entertainers might as well have counted it as “an in-kind donation for his reelection campaign,” he said.

Alex Patton, a longtime Gainesville GOP pollster who’s been critical of the governor, said that DeSantis’ messaging surrounding his fight with Disney has shown rapid and smart political calculus. But he said it’s possible the fight could hurt other Republicans if Disney continues to freeze political contributions in Florida, a step the company took over the controversial education bill.

The Florida Division of Elections campaign finance database shows that Disney companies gave at least $4 million to state campaigns and candidates during the 2020 campaign season.

DeSantis remains a strong contender to keep his keys to the governor’s mansion in November, according to recent polling. And he has broadened his appeal beyond Florida, often ranking only under Trump as the politician Republicans would most like to see on the 2024 ballot.

Mercedes Schlapp, a former White House strategic communications director under Trump, said DeSantis is following “a Trump-inspired model” of campaigning, using merchandise to tap into national themes popular among conservatives and standing defiant in the face of heated criticism. She said it’s a method that taps into the frustration of conservative and independent voters who feel like there is a “radical agenda that’s seeping into every aspect of our lives, from our job to our schools.”

“At the end of the day, he’s being effective,” she said. “He knows when to punch.”

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