Florida's DeSantis gains popularity with Trump-like anti-'woke' agenda

Florida's governor is becoming the clear Trump alternative for Republicans.

February 19, 2022, 5:05 AM

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' recent battle with what he considers the "woke" agenda is pushing Florida further to the ideological right and helping position him as a possible contender for president, pitting him against none other than Donald Trump.

As DeSantis' popularity rises among Republicans, DeSantis has been closely mirroring the former president's language. In December, when he announced that battle, DeSantis called critical race theory "state-sanctioned racism" and termed related training "indoctrination."

Nearly a year before, Trump had slammed the teaching of the origins of slavery in America as "twisted" and a form of brainwashing.

DeSantis is arguably setting himself up to be the most "MAGA"-friendly governor in the Republican pack, a safe position for a potential GOP presidential candidate.

In a recent CNN poll, DeSantis is the only possible Trump-alternative candidate who netted more than 20% approval from respondents.

Vice President Mike Pence listens as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a discussion held at Port Everglades about COVID-19 issues related to the cruise line industry, March 07, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE

Over the past several months, DeSantis has mounted a series of conservative legislative proposals, many of which bolster talking points inspired by former Trump, with bills that restrict access to abortions, limit classroom discussion about sexual orientation, enable parents to sue schools based on curriculum and eliminate a majority Black voting district with an atypical and aggressive self-submitted redistricting map.

He is asking law enforcement to root out "election fraud," echoing the "Big Lie" that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

And just this week, DeSantis doubled-down on an attempt to take his state's redistricting into his own hands, submitting a new, even more contentious, Republican-leaning map than his initial proposal in January, which still includes the controversial elimination of a majority Black district in the north of the state.

This move comes after the Florida Supreme Court denied DeSantis' request to issue an advisory opinion on the constitutionality of that Jacksonville-area district, represented by Black member of Congress, Rep. Al Lawson. The introduction of a second map puts DeSantis at odds with members of his own party in the statehouse, who ignored DeSantis' initial controversial map in favor of their own version.

While veteran Florida-based political analyst Susan MacManus, a professor emeritus at the University of South Florida, says many other DeSantis watchers feel it's "surely unknown" the degree in which DeSantis may be shaping himself to be a viable Trump replacement given the potential volatility in the news cycle between now and 2024, she says it's clear that DeSantis has political foresight unique to the average incumbent candidate running for reelection. In the Florida governor, Macmanus says, she can "see someone who is able to look at the bigger picture a little bit further down than just tomorrow."

McManus adds that other Republicans -- especially those outside of Florida -- see DeSantis as a rising star and lightning-rod. "Everyone wants him at their annual fundraising dinners," she said.

Last summer, DeSantis blitzed through a series out-of-state at fundraisers in California, Nevada, and through the Northeast, a lucrative guest of honor guaranteed to rake in extra cash to GOP coffers beyond the Sunshine State.

Hesitant to say that DeSantis is "designing himself" to be the Trump-alternative, MacManus hears Republicans groups have a sort of love affair with DeSantis, and believe he brings something to the table Trump may not.

"Here's the comment -- always: 'He's better than Trump. I wish he would tone it down just a little bit, but I love his policies so much that I'm willing to hang with him.'"

One policy that has gained steam as DeSantis and other conservatives rally against the instruction of critical race theory is aptly titled the "STOP W.O.K.E Act," otherwise known as the "Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act."

Vice President Mike Pence listens as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a discussion held at Port Everglades about COVID-19 issues related to the cruise line industry, March 07, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE

The governor is also wading into culture war issues that don't directly impact Florida, most recently defending podcaster Joe Rogan, who faces major backlash for using a racist slur for Black people in clips now circulating on social media. DeSantis believes Rogan, who has since apologized, should have delivered another more aggressive message to those offended.

"But what I would say is don't give an inch. Do not apologize. Do not bow to the mob. Stand up and tell them to pound sand; if you do that, there's really nothing that they're able to do to you," DeSantis said in an interview with Fox News. "The only way they have power is if you let them get your goat."

DeSantis' response was not a far cry from Trump's, who urged Rogan to "stop apologizing to the Fake news and Radical Left maniacs."

"Joe, just go about what you do so well and don't let them make you look weak and frightened. That's not you and it never will be!" Trump wrote in a statement.

Earlier this month, DeSantis pushed back against calls to denounce a neo-Nazi protest in Orlando -- reminiscent of Trump's divisive "both sides" remark regarding the 2017 white nationalist "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville.

President Donald Trump speaks with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during an event at the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center on Oct. 03, 2019, in The Villages, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE

Despite their parallel messaging, Trump and DeSantis's bonds seem to be unraveling somewhat. In January, Trump appeared to call DeSantis "gutless" in a veiled criticism of politicians who have dodged disclosing whether or not they received the coronavirus booster. DeSantis, only a few weeks prior, declined to specify to Fox News if he indeed receive his latest jab. Following Trump's "gutless" remark, DeSantis told conservative podcasters that he regrets not being "much louder" in opposition to early coronavirus lockdowns under the Trump administration.

Democrats have no hesitation taking swipes at DeSantis' continued lurch to the right.

Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democrat looking to unseat DeSantis, said he was "deeply disappointed" in the incumbent.

"Gov. DeSantis continues to stoke the most divisive elements in our society, from his failure to condemn the Nazis to his promotion of a disgusting racial slur. Florida deserves better," Crist said in an emailed statement.

And the national arm of the Democratic party knocked DeSantis' recent politics as a "shameless ploy."

"Ron DeSantis's shameless ploys to cater to the far-right extreme would be laughable if they weren't costing Floridians their lives and livelihoods. While DeSantis focuses on playing politics and trying to book his next Fox News interview, President Biden and Democrats are stepping up to do the job he can't, or won't, do," Ammar Moussa, Democratic National Committee rapid response director, told ABC News.

"What is happening is our governor is competing with the governor of Texas over who will be the heir apparent to Donald Trump," Florida House Democratic Whip Ramon Alexander told the Washington Post as DeSantis unveiled "STOP W.O.K.E." "It's all about who can go to the farthest extremes of the Republican Party."

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