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DeSantis' so-called Don’t Say Gay bill part of an ugly pattern

The Florida governor’s political strategy is unambiguous: Ron DeSantis will tear the state apart, confident that he’ll be left with the bigger chunk.


It was only a matter of time before Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay bill became law, and as NBC News reported, that time was yesterday.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed what critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law Monday, ending months of debate over state legislation that has sparked a national war of words. The measure — titled the Parental Rights in Education bill — will prohibit “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s public schools.

The Republican governor tried to characterize the measure as a benign education reform. It is not. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern explained as the measure worked its way through the GOP-led state legislature, the proposal “uses intentionally vague language to outlaw a huge amount of speech about LGBTQ people, families, and issues — not just sex — in every grade. And it relies upon a vigilante enforcement mechanism to chill an even broader amount of speech by subjecting violators to humiliating investigations and ruinous lawsuits.”

Stern added, “The fact that H.B. 1557’s supporters lie about these basic facts suggests that they know their bill is indefensible and must conceal its true meaning to drag it over the finish line.”

The policy will go into effect on July 1. A series of fights over its legality and implementation appear inevitable.

But as disheartening as this avoidable culture war fight is, it won’t be the only such dispute dividing the Sunshine State.

A new policy to make it easier to ban books from school libraries and classrooms? Check.

A new policy to prohibit critical race theory from schools? Check.

A new state surgeon general, handpicked by DeSantis, who’s peddling dangerously fringe ideas and rejecting CDC guidance on Covid vaccinations for children? Check.

New restrictions to make it harder for Floridians to vote? Check.

New restrictions on the right to peaceably protest? Check.

A new abortion ban? Check.

A new policy designed to undermine rooftop solar? Check.

At first blush, one might expect Republicans in a ruby-red southern state — such as Alabama or Mississippi — to pursue such a reactionary agenda. These are the kinds of measures routinely approved in places where GOP candidates simply don’t worry too much about their re-election prospects, because Democrats don't field competitive candidates.

But Florida has long been a relative outlier in the region. Barack Obama, for example, didn’t exactly fare well in the South during his national campaigns, but he won Florida — twice.

Sure, plenty of Republicans have won key statewide races in recent years, but consider just how competitive those contests were. When Rick Scott was first elected governor in 2010, for example, he won by a single percentage point. He won a second term by a nearly identical margin. In both instances, Scott didn’t quite reach the 50 percent threshold.

When he ran for the Senate in 2018, the Republican prevailed, but his margin of victory was 0.1 percent. The same year, DeSantis won Florida’s gubernatorial race — by 0.4 percent.

It’s not as if Democratic voters in the state don’t exist. They just keep coming up a little short.

With this in mind, there’s a school of thought that would recommend politicians such as DeSantis, instead of waging an ugly culture war crusade, try to appeal to Florida’s mainstream. Instead of appealing exclusively to the right, the governor — a former far-right congressman — could boost his popularity by pursuing a broadly popular agenda.

But DeSantis is clearly operating with a different set of assumptions. As the Republican sees it, he’s better off trying to tear Florida apart, confident that he’ll be left with the bigger chunk.

The governor is seeking a second term right now, and most polls show him well positioned to win, suggesting his strategy might hurt a lot of people, but it will help his political ambitions.