States, as Louis Brandeis said, have long been the laboratories of democracy. Today, they can also serve as the laboratories of authoritarianism—the places where a radicalized Republican Party tries to enact its agenda after a disappointing legislative record during Donald Trump’s presidency.
If one had to guess where the vanguard of MAGA policy making might be, the natural guess would be some historical redoubt of conservatism with an overwhelming Republican majority: the usual behemoth, Texas, perhaps, or a rural red state such as South Dakota, or a deep-South staple such as Mississippi. Some of those states have pushed the envelope on abortion and other culture-war issues, but the clear vanguard of Republican policy-making creativity at this moment is in Florida.
This isn’t an intuitive result. Florida isn’t bright red but a long-standing swing state. No presidential candidate has won it by more than five percentage points this century. Democrat Joe Biden lost it by less than 3.5 percentage points in 2020. In recent years, voters have approved a series of progressive ballot initiatives by large margins, including felon re-enfranchisement, medical-marijuana legalization, and a minimum-wage increase.
Yet in recent months, under the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida has enacted the controversial law known as “Don’t Say Gay,” which bans classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools; approved “close to the most egregiously partisan map in the country” in congressional redistricting; passed a ban on “critical race theory” that has led to dozens of math (yes, mathematics) textbooks being rejected; mounted a frontal assault on the state’s largest employer, Disney, over culture-war issues; issued punitive and repressive guidance on transgender students; and kneecapped tenure in the state’s universities.
DeSantis’s spree is worth heeding, not only because many of these moves are extreme in substance and not only because he is likely a serious 2024 Republican presidential contender who might seek to take his tactics national. His record is also striking for how he has managed to enact a hard-right agenda in a state that is closely divided—something that DeSantis or any other Republican will be seeking to do in the closely divided United States if they win the White House in 2024.
Perhaps the most important ingredient of DeSantis’s success, on prominent display during a special session this month, is his influence over the state legislature, where Republicans hold commanding margins in both houses. Lawmakers abruptly revoked a special tax status that was granted to Disney nearly six decades ago to encourage the construction of Disney World. The move, retaliation for the company’s criticism of the “Don’t Say Gay” law, turned back years of powerful Disney clout in Tallahassee. The legislature also approved DeSantis-drawn congressional maps deeply biased toward Republicans—despite the legislature’s previous concerns that the maps are unconstitutional—meekly surrendering after the governor rejected a bipartisan plan that had already passed.
Florida Democrats have not managed to be an effective opposition party for some time, and Republicans have controlled both houses of the legislature since 1997. That is partly a testament to favorable districts: The GOP has a 24–16 advantage in the state Senate, despite barely winning the total popular vote for state Senate races. But DeSantis enjoys a power over the legislature that his GOP predecessors did not.
“Historically, particularly in the Florida Senate, you’d see more independence,” says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. “They’d buck the governor. Jeb Bush experienced this, Charlie Crist, even Rick Scott.”
But not DeSantis these days. His command is striking in part because he entered office without such apparent muscle. He won the Republican nomination in the 2018 governor’s race, beating the front-runner, Adam Putnam, with the help of Trump’s endorsement. (Trump and DeSantis now appear to be frenemies. Trump seems to regard DeSantis as ungrateful; DeSantis seems to regard Trump as a barrier to the 2024 nomination.) He barely won the general election, squeaking past Democrat Andrew Gillum by some 32,000 votes, less than half a percentage point.
Early in this term, DeSantis’s approach was more conciliatory, and his public approval was higher, hovering near 60 throughout 2019, according to Morning Consult. Then came the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, DeSantis has presented himself as a scourge of lockdowns and overly cautious COVID measures. (He did eventually order a month-long lockdown, a decision he says he regrets now.) Initially, Florida fared better than many states, though its numbers eventually came to look pretty bad. He has since adopted a sort of soft anti-vaccine stance, never explicitly rejecting shots but declining to promote them and often appearing with skeptics.
DeSantis’s COVID politics hurt his approval with Democrats, driving down his overall numbers, but they endeared him to conservatives both in Florida and nationwide. His standing remained, and remains, strong among Republicans in the Sunshine State, and he became a darling of the national right-wing media, which saw in him a rare conservative COVID success story and also a politician who could combine elements of Trumpism with more traditional movement conservatism. The glow seems to have emboldened DeSantis. Taking Trump’s example, DeSantis has begun keeping legislators in check with the threat of criticism or backing primary challengers.
“His power and authority is not coming from his overall popularity. It’s coming from his popularity amongst Republicans. He is looked at as a terrific governor by most Republicans, but of course he’s built his nationwide reputation,” Jewett says. “This is the source of his power, particularly over the legislature.”
With the legislature at his beck and call, DeSantis has managed to push through a series of laws that have made his national reputation among conservatives even greater, creating a feedback loop for himself.
The strategy has its dangers. Courts could strike down some of DeSantis’s initiatives, including the new maps, though he might still reap many of the political benefits simply by presenting himself as a conservative champion. Like other ambitious politicians, he could also overreach. But there isn’t much sign of backlash in Florida yet. His approval remains above water, if not by much, though the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is not popular. Polls show him handily leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates ahead of his November reelection bid.
Given how successful DeSantis has been in pushing this slate of laws through in purple Florida, could he or another Republican enact an equally radical agenda in Washington, even though the electorate is moderate and a GOP presidential candidate has won the popular vote only once this century?
In national politics, as in Florida (and some other states as well), the structural design of government, for example the Senate, allows minorities or pluralities that hold power to enact policies that are unpopular or considerably more extreme than the general population would support. But national politics also creates different constraints on the executive. A president would struggle to replicate DeSantis’s power over the state legislature. Governors who are elevated to the presidency are often caught up short by how much harder it is to wield power at the national level.
If a Republican wins the presidency in 2024, he or she is likely to also have unified control of Congress for at least the first two years. The House and the Senate, filled with veteran lawmakers accustomed to having their own fiefdoms, are not so easily bullied as a term-limited, part-time legislature—though as Trump’s steamrolling of congressional Republicans, even after January 6, demonstrates, bullying them may not be so difficult as once imagined. Although federal courts frequently held Trump back, DeSantis might bring a more disciplined approach to policy making (he could hardly be less disciplined than Trump), and the next GOP president will also profit from the more conservative federal bench that Trump nominated.
By some indications, DeSantis may have pushed the envelope too far with his attack on Disney. The revocation of its tax status seems more likely to hurt local residents than the company itself, and DeSantis is opening himself up to accusations that he forced an increase in property taxes on citizens. Meanwhile, prominent conservative writers and donors have criticized the move as unnecessary and unwise. These critiques don’t constitute a break with DeSantis, but they might constitute a brake on DeSantis. Trump had no problem ignoring such friendly fire, because he owed little of his rise to the conservative and GOP infrastructure, but these people are DeSantis’s constituency. This might be one of the few forces able to constrain him.