DeSantis-Newsom debate is a showdown of 2 Disney states

Disney donated money to Newsom’s reelection, but Newsom included it in a transfer of funds he’s using to bash DeSantis.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis share a constituent in Disney. Both have leveraged that relationship but in opposite ways.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis share a constituent in Disney. Both have leveraged that relationship but in opposite ways. [ UNCREDITED | AP ]
Published Nov. 27, 2023|Updated Nov. 28, 2023

There are many ways to view this week’s unusual debate between Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gavin Newsom of California: Red state vs. blue. A presidential candidate vying for attention in the 2024 cycle vs. an ambitious governor possibly setting groundwork for the next one.

It’s also a battle of the two Disney state governors.

The two men share a constituent in that multibillion-dollar entertainment company — headquartered in California near its original park, Disneyland, while the larger Disney World is in Orlando. Both have leveraged that relationship but in opposite ways. And while Walt Disney Co. CEO Robert Iger has said the company plans to “quiet the noise” in the culture wars, the company hasn’t silenced itself completely since its showdown with DeSantis.

“If I were Newsom, I’d bring it up,” said Rick Foglesong, a retired political science professor who wrote a book, “Married to the Mouse,” about the history of Disney’s enormous influence in Florida. (He’s working on a sequel to update it for the DeSantis era, called “Divorcing the Mouse.”)

“I’d bring up that DeSantis is hurting his state’s economy, or potentially hurting it, as a way of undermining DeSantis … running on the basis of his success in Florida,” Foglesong said.

The debate, scheduled for 9 p.m. Thursday, will be broadcast by Fox News and moderated by host Sean Hannity.

In the 20 months since the DeSantis-Disney fight erupted over a law that restricts classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, Disney hasn’t objected publicly to any DeSantis-backed bills. But in federal court, its lawyers continue to confront the DeSantis administration after Disney sued the governor over his attempt to strip the company of some of its self-governing powers. That move by DeSantis came after Disney opposed the Parental Rights in Education law — which critics dubbed Don’t Say Gay — prompting the company to accuse the governor of violating its First Amendment rights. The first major hearing in that case is scheduled for Dec. 12 in Tallahassee.

The company has yet to resume political donations to Florida state politicians. Campaign finance records show no major donations from the historically prolific donor to any Florida candidates of either party in Tallahassee since March 2022.

Across the country, in California, Mickey Mouse’s wallet has remained open. In the time since its Florida giving ceased, Disney has donated more than $175,000 to candidates in California, according to state campaign finance records, though that pace of donations was slower than the previous year. Among recent donations was a $10,000 check to Newsom’s 2022 reelection campaign.

However, Disney’s money didn’t stay in Sacramento. Campaign finance paperwork shows that its contribution was part of $10 million left over from Newsom’s reelection that was transferred to a federal political action committee — one that the California governor has since been using to finance attacks on DeSantis and other Republicans.

That federal committee, called Campaign for Democracy PAC, fueled Newsom’s April trip to Sarasota to criticize DeSantis’ conservative overhaul of New College. It’s also the source of money for a recent pre-debate TV ad, in which Newsom criticizes DeSantis’ support of a six-week ban on most abortions in Florida. The ad ran in Florida and Washington, D.C., on Nov. 19 during “Sunday Night Football” and was slated to appear on Fox News during Hannity’s show for a week, according to Campaign for Democracy.

Does that mean Disney is picking a side in the Newsom-DeSantis jockeying?

Not quite. Nathan Click, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Democracy PAC, confirmed that the money transfer happened in bulk and Disney played no role in directing its check to Newsom’s new committee.

The company didn’t respond to emails requesting comment.

Still, Newsom is friendlier with the corporation, though their relationship hasn’t been completely without drama. He named Iger, the Disney CEO, to a high-profile COVID-19 economic task force during the pandemic. Iger then resigned from that task force after Newsom was reluctant to let theme parks reopen in the state and after Disney had already announced 28,000 layoffs — at a time when Disney World had resumed operations in Florida.

When Disney scrapped plans in May to build a $1 billion office campus in central Florida, Newsom took a victory lap. The 2,000 jobs that would have moved across the country instead remained in his state. Disneyland Resort alone employs more than 34,000 people just in Orange County, California, according to Disney.

“Authoritarian policies have consequences,” he said in a news release then that didn’t mention DeSantis by name.

Earlier this month — 16 days before the scheduled debate and amid the company’s legal wrangling with DeSantis — Disney released a report it commissioned that pegged its annual benefit to Florida at $40.3 billion. The report, from the international forecasting firm Oxford Economics, found that Disney generates more than 263,000 jobs in the state, far beyond the number solely of its own workforce.

DeSantis in August told CNBC that “we’ve basically moved on” from the fight with Disney and encouraged the company to drop its federal suit. He mentioned that he and his wife, Casey, got married at Disney World in 2009, which he pointed to as proof that he hasn’t always had a negative relationship with the company.

“All we want to do is treat everybody the same and let’s move forward,” DeSantis said, adding that Disney had “extraordinary privileges” of self-governance compared to other theme parks in the state. The measured comments were a tone shift from his previous threats that included building a state prison near Disney World.

Foglesong said he’s not sure the company is content to sit on the sidelines.

“Disney doesn’t want to get out too far in front and be negative like they’re from another political party, but they also can’t just wait and see,” he said. “It’s not in Disney’s interest to fan the flames. It’s in their interest to win.”