Playing to the party base for a 2020 Trump Florida win? Gov. DeSantis and the FL Legislature set the stage

President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron Desantis. Governor's office photo

In a fundraising email sent a few days before President Donald Trump’s May 8 campaign rally in Panama City Beach, Gov. Ron DeSantis laid out a political roadmap for Florida Republicans:

“Not only is Florida a do or die state for the president in 2020, but [Trump] can also point to Florida as solid proof that our shared conservative principals do in fact lead to prosperity.”

Trump lent his popularity with the Republican base to DeSantis when the relatively unknown DeSantis ran for Florida governor last fall. Now, DeSantis is the one enjoying high approval in Florida (61.8 percent approval, according to one recent poll) and Trump is the one with numbers tumbling. A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll last month shows Trump’s approval numbers in Florida have dropped 24 points since taking office – the biggest approval rating drop in any state that voted for Trump in 2016.

With a Republican in the governor’s mansion, a Republican in the White House, and a Republican-led Legislature, Florida’s GOP is hoping that a number of red-meat conservative laws just passed by the state Legislature will help deliver high approval and a 2020 Trump win in Florida.

Democrats will be fighting, of course, to tip the state blue. DeSantis only won the governor’s race by less than half a percentage point over Democrat Andrew Gillum. In 2016, Trump won Florida’s 29 electoral votes by just 1.2 percent over Hillary Clinton.

It’s easy to forget those “purple state” numbers at the Capitol, where Republicans moved – largely in lock step – to approve right-wing policies tailored to appeal to the party base. Anti-immigration. Arming school teachers. Expanding taxpayer-funded school vouchers to pay for private schools. Creating new barriers to get citizen-led constitutional amendments onto the ballot. And limiting the number of felons eligible for voting rights.

Republican House Speaker Jose Oliva of Miami attempted to brush back the notion that Republicans were making laws to appeal to the conservative base.

“It’s not for the base,” he insisted. “It’s for all Floridians. It’s been a fantastic session.”

Nonsense, says former Democratic state lawmaker and U.S. Congressman Jim Davis.

“Legislators are supposed to represent everybody, not just the people who voted for them,” he charges.“That’s how it’s supposed to work, and it’s not working in Florida.”

“Whether it’s encouraging arming teachers who are trying to teach classes, or people trying to vote after they thought they had earned their right to do so, or the very fundamental right to petition for change when [the] government won’t act,” Davis said, “these consequences are going to be painfully clear in the months ahead and well beyond.”

As the campaign for the White House gears up, it’s worth considering the political implications of some key measures conservatives proposed during the 2019 Florida Legislature:

Sanctuary Cities

The first thing that you need to take away from the at-times gut-wrenchingly emotional debate about the proposal that requires local governments to work with federal immigration authorities or face sanctions is that cracking down on so-called “sanctuary” cities is supported by the masses. (Despite the fact that there are no “sanctuary” governments in the state.)

Immigration advocates and Democrats warn that the new law will mean more immigrant deportations, but the majority of Floridians appear okay with that. A recent survey of over 2,000 Floridians conducted by St. Pete Polls showed that 52 percent believed the legislature should pass a law banning sanctuary policies, while only 32 percent opposed it. A Quinnipiac survey in March had the numbers at 61 percent in support and 27 percent opposed.

“The reality is that sanctuary cities affect people who have no legal right to vote. It affects those who are not citizens, and therefore have no real voice,” says Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of political science and international relations at Florida International University who has done extensive polling with Hispanic voters.

Gammara says the issue works well with the Republican base, noting that Trump and DeSantis campaigned on anti-immigration platforms. While anti-immigrant sentiment has proved costly to Republicans in places like California with substantial immigrant populations, Gamarra says that Florida Hispanics are a different political demographic.

“Immigration is not really the main issue affecting Hispanics in the state of Florida, so the research shows that they can get away with this,” says Gamarra, referring to state’s two largest blocs of Latinos – Cubans and Puerto Ricans.

Felon voting rights

Republican lawmakers insisted as the 2019 legislative session began that they would do all that they could to follow the will of voters who supported Amendment 4, the constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights for an estimated 1.4 million felons.

But the Legislature, instead, voted to limit voting rights for thousands of felons by adding a new requirement that felons pay all fines, fees and restitution before they can vote. (They can ask a judge for certain waivers).

Adding new hurdles to a measure as popular as Amendment 4 (it got more votes than any candidate on the ballot) has sparked fierce criticism in editorial pages around the state and the country.

Florida Republicans have “perfected the art of disenfranchisement,” wrote Slate. “A new tool created by Republican lawmakers to suppress the vote of minorities,” the Tampa Bay Times opined.

State Sen. Perry Thurston, a Democrat from Broward County, pointed out that most of the country (41 states) doesn’t require felons to pay all legal financial obligations before they can vote.

Nova Southeastern University political science professor Charles L. Zelden says that, by interfering with voters’ will, the legislature’s Republicans may have done themselves more harm than good.

That’s because Democrats incensed at the way the legislature handled felon voting rights may be more likely to turn out to vote in 2020.

“You don’t want to give the other side a reason to come and vote, and in many ways, they may have just done that,” Zelden says.

Messing with citizen ballot initiatives

Florida lawmakers changed the rules for citizen-led constitutional amendment campaigns – taking direct aim at progressive campaigns that are already in the works to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicaid to provide health insurance to more of the state’s needy, legalize recreational marijuana, and ban assault weapons.

Some conservatives reject moves to shut down citizen efforts to make statewide change. Constitutional amendments are the only avenue to enact policy the Florida Legislature won’t.

Darryl Paulson was a lifelong Republican who left the party after Donald Trump’s election. Now a professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, he says this proposal – and the GOP’s handling of felon voting rights – is why he can’t support the party any longer.

“A year ago, I was smart enough to realize I could no longer be a Republican,” he writes in an email. “I was not dumb enough to join the Democrats, but it is impossible to associate with a party that has so little respect for the views of its own constituents, and a party that consistently seeks to limit political competition rather that to win the battle of political ideas.”

One possible result: By hobbling progressive ballot initiatives headed for the 2020 ballot, conservatives could depress voter turnout.

Teachers with guns

Polls show the legislature’s measure to give school boards the option of allowing classroom teachers to carry firearms is not popular.

A March poll by Quinnipiac University showed 57 percent of Floridians opposed to the idea, with just 40 percent supporting it. A Saint Leo University Poll conducted last week showed the margin a little closer, with 39 percent supporting arming teachers and 46 percent opposed.

As a 2020 campaign issue, it doesn’t look promising for the GOP.

Abortion

To the surprise and disappointment of social conservatives who otherwise loved the lawmaking session, the legislature didn’t pass any bills limiting a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

The reason: the Florida Senate’s leadership chose not to bring it up. A bill requiring a teenager to get parental consent for an abortion sponsored by Rep. Erin Grall, a Republican from Vero Beach, passed the House, but Republican Senate President Bill Galvano opted not to bring the bill up.

“I think the hope is that it gets through in the next session,” said Jim Waurishuk, Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee Chairman.

This is one issue where Florida Republicans aren’t in a hurry to join their Southern brethren. While Georgia Governor Brian Kemp last week signed a bill that would ban abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, a Florida version of that law sponsored this spring by Pensacola Republican Rep. Mike Hill got nowhere.

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