DeSantis seeks wins on guns, abortion before facing Trump in 2024
TALLAHASSEE, Fla., Feb 10 (Reuters) - When a newly elected Florida legislator endorsed a bill allowing residents to carry a concealed firearm without a permit, he was both demonstrating his fealty to Ron DeSantis and helping to burnish the governor's conservative credentials for a possible White House run in 2024.
State Senator Jay Collins' support for the concealed-carry bill was key to DeSantis' efforts to secure a suite of legislative victories this spring ahead of an anticipated announcement that he is seeking the Republican Party nomination, according to interviews with nearly a dozen lobbyists, lawmakers and strategists in Tallahassee.
Those efforts include installing hand-picked loyalists like Collins in the Republican-controlled state legislature who could then help ensure passage of proposals on guns, abortion and other Republican red-meat issues, they told Reuters, providing DeSantis with a strong record of conservative wins.
Former President Donald Trump, who is leading in national opinion polls nearly a year ahead of the first primary contests, has targeted DeSantis as a "RINO," a Republican in name only.
Yet DeSantis, 44, remains wildly popular with voters in his state after winning re-election by the widest margin of any Florida governor in 40 years, giving him a solid platform from which to launch a presidential bid.
DeSantis has yet to make a final decision on a presidential run, those close to him told Reuters. But he is reaching out to potential staff and donors, raising money, and traveling around the country to raise his profile.
The expectation is that DeSantis will wait until the legislative session is over in early May to launch his campaign, allies said.
"Having vast political capital is an asset," said David Johnson, a longtime Republican operative in Tallahassee. "With a cooperating Republican supermajority in both houses, DeSantis' agenda will never have better timing for legislative accomplishment."
DeSantis' office did not grant a request for an interview. In response to questions about how DeSantis' goals for this spring's session might play into his future political plans, DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said in an email: "The governor has been clear about his priorities for Florida."
Griffin also noted the support DeSantis' proposals receive from lawmakers.
If DeSantis does enter the race for the Republican nomination, he will join a field still dominated by Trump. The former president this month unleashed a flurry of critical social media posts at DeSantis, including calling him a "RINO GLOBALIST."
In response, DeSantis said he was keeping his focus on Florida. "I don't spend my time trying to smear other Republicans," DeSantis said at a press conference on Wednesday.
In recent weeks, DeSantis and his allies in the legislature have rolled out several proposals that the governor expects will be well received by conservatives in and outside of Florida, those close to him said.
He called a special session of the legislature where lawmakers voted on Friday to strengthen the authority of DeSantis' new election police force to investigate and prosecute voter fraud, although there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the state.
The legislature also approved more interstate flights of migrants such as those he chartered last year from Texas to Massachusetts.
In response to last year's spat with Walt Disney World over its opposition to the Republican measure called the "don't say gay" bill by opponents, the legislature on Friday granted DeSantis control over the special tax district that governs the park.
When the regular session launches in March, the legislature will be poised to act on DeSantis' priorities, introducing bills that would allow juries to impose the death penalty without unanimous agreement; stop public pension fund managers from considering environmental, social and governance (ESG) provisions in their investment decisions; defund diversity and equity programs at state colleges and weaken teachers’ unions.
DeSantis has said he would sign a bill to ban abortions as early as six weeks if passed by lawmakers. He signed a bill last year banning abortions after 15 weeks.
He also continues to push back hard on what he sees as efforts to impose a liberal agenda in public schools. Last month, he said Florida would not allow an Advanced Placement high school course in African American studies, contending the curriculum would indoctrinate students on “queer theory.”
Such efforts are aimed at bolstering what would likely be the central theme of DeSantis’ presidential campaign: that he has transformed Florida into the most prosperous conservative-leaning state in the country.
"We have articulated a vision for a free and prosperous state," DeSantis said at his second inauguration last month. "We have, through persistence and hard work, executed on that vision."
But, he added, "We are far from done."
Allies in the legislature are part of DeSantis' strategy.
Last year, DeSantis broke with convention to endorse Collins, a former Green Beret and the sponsor of the concealed-carry bill, over the candidate preferred by Republican lawmakers.
In a brief interview, Collins called DeSantis’ support “a blessing.” He resisted the suggestion that the legislature was a rubber stamp for the governor.
"All three parts of our state government work together,” he said. “This is a well-oiled machine.”
Blaise Ingoglia, another first-time state senator elected with DeSantis' support, authored the death penalty bill and will chair the committee charged with helping the governor cut taxes, also an item on his wish list.
A CLIMATE OF FEAR
DeSantis has wielded power in Florida unlike any other modern governor, the lobbyists, lawmakers and strategists who spoke to Reuters said.
Some of those Tallahassee insiders point to an episode last year involving Wilton Simpson, then president of the state Senate. Republicans in the chamber had presented DeSantis with a congressional redistricting map he disliked citing "legal concerns".
DeSantis used his executive veto power to block funding of a new sports complex and cancer research center in Simpson's home county, and then had Simpson and other Senate leaders stand with him at a public event as he announced the budget cuts.
DeSantis later presented his own, more aggressive map that was quickly approved by the Senate.
“They are afraid,” said Mac Stipanovich, a retired Republican lobbyist who recently left the party. “If you are interested in being the Republican nominee in any office in the state, there is no percentage in crossing Ron DeSantis.”
Simpson, now the state's agriculture commissioner, said the rift with DeSantis over the budget was “blown out of proportion.”
“The governor is a very strong man," he said, adding DeSantis and Republican lawmakers were in "lockstep" with how to run the state.
DeSantis' hard-right stance on issues such as guns and abortion risks alienating the suburban voters he eventually would need to win the presidency in 2024.
For now, allies say his actions are primed to win the primary over Trump, and he’ll worry about a general election later.
DeSantis has pointed to his mammoth re-election victory as validation of his approach.
“That verdict has been rendered,” he said, “by the people of the state of Florida.”
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