TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis was in Tallahassee Tuesday to open Florida’s 2023 legislative session — but his sights were set on a much larger stage.
DeSantis delivered the annual State of the State address to the GOP-dominated Florida House and Senate, a speech that came against the backdrop of a national book tour, planned trips to early presidential primary states and inescapable buzz surrounding an expected 2024 presidential bid — likely officially launching after the state’s two-month legislative session.
“We rank number one in the nation for education freedom. We rank number one in the nation for parental involvement in education,” DeSantis told lawmakers, using the start of his roughly half hour speech to compare Florida to the rest of the nation. “We rank number one in fourth grade reading and math amongst all large states. And we have the number one higher education system in the country.”
While DeSantis has brushed off questions about his political ambitions, he’s checked many of the boxes that White House hopefuls seek to accomplish as they gear up for a national campaign.
As Florida’s legislative session begins this week, DeSantis will head to Iowa and is planning trips to Nevada and New Hampshire. Those visits come after DeSantis held a series of campaign-style events to hype his new book, “Courage to be Free.”
He’s has also come under increased attacks from Donald Trump as the former president focuses on the Florida governor as the biggest obstacle to getting the 2024 Republican nomination. DeSantis has noticeably lost weight, another common feature of politicians planning high profile future runs. Trump’s insults, at times, have centered on DeSantis’ physical appearance.
DeSantis couldn’t ask for a better runway for a national Republican primary than Florida. The Republican-dominated Legislature over the past two years has handed him almost anything he wanted as he has ascended through the national conservative ecosystem and appears poised to continue the trend.
Both Florida Republican House Speaker Paul Renner and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo opened their speeches Tuesday by praising DeSantis, which has become common among the state’s Republican leaders.
“Our governor is truly America’s governor,” Passidomo said. “He has defended our conservative values, challenged the individuals and institutions who pose threats to others, and introduced innovative solutions to better our state. It is often said that states are laboratories for democracy. Under the leadership of Governor DeSantis, Florida is more than a laboratory, we are the model.”
DeSantis used his speech to highlight his policy portfolio, which is largely defined by culture war-infused fights. That includes urging lawmakers to expand Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education bill,” known by opponents as “Don’t Say Gay,” which bans instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms up until third grade. Legislators want to broaden the ban until eighth grade.
About a half-dozen bills lawmakers are proposing are inspired by DeSantis’ hard-right agenda, including mandating that teachers use pronouns that match those assigned to their students at birth, ban gender studies in the state’s higher education system and prohibit gender-affirming care for trans minors under 18.
“It’s sad that we have to say this, but our children are not guinea pigs for science experimentation and we cannot allow people to make money off mutilating them,” DeSantis said.
Attending the State of the State speech was Chloe Cole, an 18-year-old who has referred to herself as a “former trans kid,” and who has spoken to state legislature’s across the country in support of banning gender-affirming care.
Both state and national Democrats quickly released a slate of press releases and “fact checks” blasting DeSantis, a rapid response effort that’s ramping up as Democrats prepare to do battle with DeSantis heading into the 2024 presidential election cycle.
“Ron DeSantis is set to deliver his State of the State address today — where he will unveil his extreme wish list for the upcoming Florida legislative session as he continue his desperate chase for the MAGA base,” the Democratic National Committee said in a statement.
Unexpectedly, GOP lawmakers on Tuesday also proposed a six week abortion ban just minutes before DeSantis delivered his State of the State address even as the state’s previous 15 week abortion ban is mired in legal challenges and is awaiting a Florida Supreme Court hearing. The proposed six-week ban, which has the support of legislative leaders, includes language tying its effective date to a ruling by the conservative-leaning state high court. If the court upholds the law, the six-week ban could take effect if passed, but it would not if the 15-week ban is found to be unconstitutional.
The new proposal includes exemptions up to 15 weeks for rape and incest if the victim provides documentation that they were victimized. That can include things like police reports, court records, or restraining orders.
DeSantis told reporters after his State of the State speech that he thought the exemptions were “acceptable” but kept his comments brief.
“I have not seen what is filed, but I think that in the discussion that I had heard them [lawmakers] having, they were recognizing [the challenge to the 15 week abortion ban] was pending and that whatever they do this year would be basically only in effect if that case was resolved in a favorable way,” DeSantis said.
Pilloried by Dems
Democrats immediately railed against the proposal and cast DeSantis as extreme for supporting the measure. Democrats nationally used the same technique in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, and it was credited, in part, with helping Democrats enjoy a much more successful 2022 midterm than predicted.
“Each of us should be free to live our lives with dignity and to make the decisions that are best for our lives, families and communities,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who previously worked for Planned Parenthood. “No one wants Ron DeSantis in the exam room with us; personal medical decisions should be between me, my family, my doctor, and my faith. Not politicians.”
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday also told reporters that elected officials like DeSantis “espouse quote, freedom for all, unquote, while directly attacking the freedom to make one’s own health care decisions. Their rhetoric doesn’t come without consequences here.”
But in the wake of midterm elections that saw Republicans dominate in Florida and build legislative super-majorities, Democrats have largely acknowledged there is little they can do to slow down DeSantis’ agenda.
And DeSantis does not appear poised to ease up.
“We will stand strong. We will hold the line. We won’t back down,” he said to conclude his speech, before borrowing a line made famous by former President Ronald Raegan. “And I can promise you this, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
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