DeSantis tests the limits of his combative style in Disney feud | National government and new policies

By STEVE PEOPLES and BRENDAN FARRINGTON – Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ growing feud with Walt Disney World is testing the limits of his combative leadership style while sending an unequivocal message to his rivals that virtually nothing is off limits as he charts its political future.

The 43-year-old Republican has repeatedly demonstrated an acute will to fight during his decade-long political career. He turned on former aides and rejected the GOP Legislature’s rewrite of congressional maps, forcing lawmakers to accept a version more to his liking and prompting voting rights groups to file lawsuits. . He also delved into simmering tensions with Donald Trump, which is remarkable for someone looking to lead a party where loyalty to the former president is a requirement.

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But DeSantis’ decision to punish Disney World, one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations and one of Florida’s largest private employers, took his fighting mentality to a new level. In retaliation for Disney’s criticism of a new state law condemned by critics as “Don’t Say Gay,” DeSantis on Friday signed legislation removing the theme park from a decades-old special agreement that allowed him to govern itself.

For critics, including some in his own party, such a brutal wielding of power suggests DeSantis is operating with a sense of invincibility that could come back to haunt him. Others see an ambitious politician emboldened by strong support in his state and a mountain of campaign money seizing the opportunity to further stoke the nation’s culture wars, turning himself into a hero among Republican voters in the process.

“When you listen to Ron DeSantis, it’s just outrage: ‘Here’s why you’re wrong and here’s why I’m right,'” Florida Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, the state’s former GOP chairman, said. “It’s this righteous outrage and willingness to fight back that makes people love Ron DeSantis’ message. As long as he continues to show he’s ready to fight, people will continue to flock to him.”

DeSantis is re-elected in November. But following his scuffle with Disney, he will stand before a key group of presidential primary voters this week when he campaigns for Nevada Senate candidate Adam Laxalt. The appearance marks his first of the year in a state high on the presidential calendar, though DeSantis’ aides insist it’s just a trip to help out a longtime friend .

Disney has drawn the ire of DeSantis for opposing a new state law that bans teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The DeSantis-backed bill has been condemned by LGBTQ activists nationwide as homophobic, though the measure, like others dealing with transgender athletes and racial history in schools, has become a central part of the GOP political strategy.

The Disney legislation, which does not take effect until June 2023, could result in massive economic benefits for the company, surrounding communities and the millions of people who visit the Orlando theme park each year.

DeSantis’ adherence to the legislation carries risks, especially if his antagonism toward Disney threatens the GOP’s standing with independents and women, who could play a crucial role in the fall campaign. Jenna Ellis, a former Trump administration lawyer, called the DeSantis-backed legislation “vengeful.”

Democrats facing a tough election year are eager to point out DeSantis’ moves as a way to frame the GOP as a party of hardliners. In an interview, Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison described DeSantis’ attack on Disney as the continuation of a “dividing agenda” to book interviews in conservative media at the expense of his constituents.

“The people of Florida deserve a governor whose first priority is them, not his own political ambition,” Harrison said.

President Joe Biden said at a fundraiser in Seattle that “this is not your dad’s Republican Party.”

“I respect conservatives,” Biden told donors Thursday. “There’s nothing conservative about deciding that you’re going to throw Disney out of its current position because…you think we shouldn’t be able to say ‘gay’.”

In a statement, DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske called the governor “a driven, driven leader who does exactly what he says he will do.”

Indeed, DeSantis’ friends and foes within the GOP agree that his crackdown on Disney is a major political victory among Republican grassroots voters already enticed by his pushback against pandemic-related public health measures over the past two years. years. They suggest it also taps into a growing Republican embrace of anti-corporate populism and parental control of education that resonates with a wider range of voters.

Republican pollsters have been privately testing DeSantis’ political strength beyond Florida for several months, finding that the only Republican with consistently more support than DeSantis among GOP voters is Trump himself. At the same time, DeSantis is sitting on more than $100 million in campaign funds.

“He’s a very smart guy at what he does and how he does it,” Republican strategist David Urban, a close Trump ally, said of DeSantis.

Those close to the Florida governor say there’s one takeaway message from the Disney fight above all else: that DeSantis, one of the few top Republicans who hasn’t ruled out running against Trump in a presidential primary of 2024, is not afraid of anyone, anything or any fight.

Tension between the two men has been mounting for months.

In an interview with The Washington Post last month, Trump took credit for DeSantis’ rise. And last weekend, longtime Trump loyalist Roger Stone released a video clip in which Stone calls DeSantis an expletive while greeting Trump at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida club.

So far, voters in Florida appear to be on DeSantis’ side.

Nearly 6 in 10 Florida voters approved of DeSantis’ career performance in a February poll conducted by the University of North Florida. The poll also asked registered Republicans about a hypothetical presidential primary between Trump and DeSantis. The result? Trump and DeSantis were about even.

Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist and prominent Republican fundraiser, said DeSantis has “a combination of popularity and instincts” that shapes the modern GOP.

“No other elected official, perhaps in the country, has the grassroots Republican support that Ron DeSantis has. So he’s incredibly powerful, not just a powerful politician, but a powerful head of government,” Ballard said. “The guy really has the reins of power in his hands.”

People reported from New York. Associated Press writer Anthony Izaguirre contributed to this report.

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