Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — widely seen as a top challenger to former United States President Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential ambitions — has laid out a right-wing vision for the country in a closely watched speech.
DeSantis delivered his State of the State address on Tuesday to legislators in the Florida capital of Tallahassee. In it, he presented himself as an alternative to Trump, who has faced questions of electability since his supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
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While the Yale- and Harvard-educated DeSantis has not yet officially announced his presidential ambitions, his speech hinted at a national platform premised on the right-wing issues he has championed in Florida.
Those include an aggressive stance against COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and culture war issues, including legislation aimed at gender, race and sexuality education.
“We defied the experts. We bucked the elites. We ignored the chatter. We did it our way, the Florida way,” DeSantis told state legislators in Tallahassee. “And the result is that we are the number one destination for our fellow Americans who are looking for a better life.”
DeSantis also ran through what he called his response to excessive liberal “wokeness”.
Tuesday’s speech kicked off a 60-day legislative session buoyed by a Republican supermajority that is widely expected to be a showcase of DeSantis’s policy priorities.
Under DeSantis, state legislators are seeking to extend a controversial ban on classroom discussions of sexuality and gender identity — currently in effect through third grade — to eighth-grade children, typically 12 or 13 years old. Critics have dubbed the ban the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
DeSantis has also signed a bill that prevents educators from teaching certain aspects of race education in public schools.
Under his leadership, the state legislature is also seeking to expand gun rights, curb diversity efforts at state-run universities, end the “medical authoritarianism” of COVID-19 vaccine mandates and further extend abortion restrictions.
Critics have accused DeSantis of focusing on polarising issues to gloss over the rising cost of living, distressed property insurance market and climate change threats faced by many state residents.
“Now is not the time to rest on our laurels,” DeSantis told legislators. “We have the opportunity and indeed the responsibility to swing for the fences so that we can ensure Florida remains number one.”
“Don’t worry about the chattering class, ignore all the background noise, keep the compass set to true north,” he added. “We will hold the line, we won’t back down. And I can promise you this: You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
DeSantis has previously pointed to his agenda in Florida as a model for the rest of the nation. In his recently released book, The Courage to Be Free, the subtitle encapsulates that view: “Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival”.
Presumptive presidential bid
DeSantis is considered unlikely to formally announce a presidential campaign before the legislature wraps up its work in May. To date, only Trump and his former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, have announced their bids for the Republican nomination.
Still, DeSantis seems to be laying the groundwork for a presidential run. He participated in a high-profile donor retreat last week in Florida and then left for California, where he delivered a broadside against what he argued were the excesses of liberalism.
Later this week, he will travel for the first time this year to Iowa, which will host the nation’s first Republican presidential caucus in 2024.
At recent speaking engagements, DeSantis has flaunted his November reelection victory, in which he beat his Democratic opponent by a whopping 1.5 million votes, the largest margin a Republican governor has ever won in the state.
In his speech on Tuesday, he called the win a “vindication” and a mandate, telling legislators: “Boldness be our friend in this endeavour, we have a lot we need to accomplish.”
Opponents have cautioned against Republican legislators wielding a rubber stamp for a politician they see as on the path to higher office.
The Democratic leader of Florida’s House of Representatives, Fentrice Driskell, said she had never seen a governor possess so much influence in state lawmaking.
“All of this being driven by his ambition. I think there are those in leadership who want to be close to this governor because they view him as rising in power,” she said.
“But the people who pay the cost and the brunt of all of this is everyday Floridians. Every one of the governor’s culture wars has an economic cost built into it. Every single one of them,” she said.