Florida Governor Ron DeSantis addresses the Heritage Foundation 50th Anniversary Leadership Summit at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on April 21, 2023 in National Harbor, Maryland.
Anna Moneymaker | Getty Images
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to start his presidential campaign Wednesday night, demonstrating his mix of pro-business conservatism and culture war populism at the national level.
DeSantis, 44, will announce his bid for the Republican presidential nomination on Twitter during a live call with Elon Musk scheduled for 6 p.m. ET. The announcement will cement DeSantis as the closest Republican competitor to former President Donald Trump, who has consistently had a lead over the primary in the polls.
DeSantis was working to establish himself as an advocate for economic growth even before he pushed for a quick lifting of the Covid lockdown measures in the name of reviving Florida’s ailing businesses. Since then, he has been responsible for the state’s low unemployment rate, population growth, and above-average economy.
At the same time, he threw himself into political disputes with some of his state’s top employers – above all Disney — and signed laws against private business practices, some of which have since been blocked in court.
DeSantis apparently sees no contradiction between his pro-business stance and his intransigent governance. “Corporatism is not the same as free enterprise,” he said in a speech last September, “and I think too many Republicans have understood limited government to mean, at bottom, what’s best for American business is the kind and way we want to shape the economy.”
But some experts expressed skepticism about the governor’s balancing act.
“In a way, the Disney case illustrates the tensions with DeSantis as a candidate,” said David Primo, professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester. “There’s something Hydra-like about what he’s trying to do.”
A spokesman for the DeSantis campaign team did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
DeSantis himself has little business experience. A Yale and Harvard trained attorney, he joined the US Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps and served in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq. After retiring from active duty in 2010, he practiced law and was elected to Congress in 2012. There he quickly established himself as a member of the far-right Tea Party movement.
DeSantis was the primary sponsor of 52 bills in Congress, none of which became law, Spectrum News reported. One of these was the “Drain the Swamp Act,” which aimed to implement Trump’s campaign slogan by tightening the ban on public officials lobbying after they left government.
A founding member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, DeSantis also introduced legislation that would eliminate the payroll tax for retirement-age Americans, and he sponsored another bill that would replace most federal taxes with a national sales tax. Critics say such proposals, which returned to Congress this year, would weigh on low- and middle-income Americans.
DeSantis resigned from Congress to run for governor in 2018 and, aided by Trump support, narrowly defeated his Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum. DeSantis’ aspirations for higher office were evident among his supporters that same year, Politico reported.
“He seemed like a mainstream Republican – pro-business, very conservative on social and economic issues,” said J. Edwin Benton, professor of political science at the University of South Florida.
“And suddenly he had ambitions to be president. And to do that, he knew he had to carve out a niche.”
DeSantis came into the nationwide spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic in September 2020 when he lifted all of Florida’s social distancing restrictions on restaurants, bars and other businesses.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis provides an update on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic during a press conference at the Turnpike Turkey Lake Service Plaza in Orlando on Friday, July 10, 2020.
Joe Burbank | Orlando Sentinel | Getty Images
He also gained more power for himself. By the following May, DeSantis had lifted all local Covid restrictions. Six months later, the governor banned private employers from imposing vaccination requirements.
DeSantis argued that its actions were aimed at protecting Florida corporate liberties.
“Nobody should lose their job because of strict COVID regulations, and we have a responsibility to protect the livelihoods of the people of Florida,” he said in a November 2021 news release.
DeSantis’ stance went against the views of health experts at the time and drew heavy criticism, especially after Florida weathered record-breaking waves of Covid cases and deaths in 2021. The death rate per 100,000 people was lower than in states with a lot, according to data from the New York Times stricter lockdown rules like New York and New Jersey.
DeSantis achieved victory, making his response to Covid a key element of what he now calls the “Florida Blueprint” for economic success.
Even in the midst of the pandemic, DeSantis and its allies had kept their eyes on other divisive social issues weighing on Florida businesses.
In 2020, he quietly signed into law a controversial law that required some private companies to use the E-Verify system to verify the immigration status of their employees. He tightened those rules earlier this month, signing legislation making E-Verify mandatory for any employer with 25 or more employees.
In 2021, DeSantis signed legislation allowing Florida to fine large social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, which banned political candidates. The legislation came months after these and other companies threw Trump off their platforms following the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riots. A federal appeals court has since ruled that the social media law is unconstitutional.
During the last legislature, DeSantis signed a bill that would prevent union dues from being automatically deducted from public employee paychecks. The Florida Education Association accused DeSantis of punishing them for opposing his policies, and critics were quick to point out that the bill doesn’t apply to unions representing first responders. Police and fire unions had supported DeSantis’ re-election bid.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a critic of green investing, failed to protect his constituents from the devastation of Hurricane Ian, which global warming may have exacerbated.
Joe Burbank | Orlando Sentinel | Getty Images
DeSantis has also waged war on socially conscious ESG investing strategies, condemning the trend in his latest book as “an attempt to impose ruling-class ideology on society through public companies and wealth management.”
ESG, a broad concept that generally refers to investment strategies that prioritize environmental, social and governance factors, has become a prime target for conservatives looking to eradicate progressive influence on corporate culture.
DeSantis signed a bill into law in early May that would ban state and local officials from making ESG-based investment decisions. It was just his last action against ESG.
The ESG measures played a role in the governor’s argument against corporate influence and favoritism – issues he would revisit in his ongoing fight against Disney.
The Disney Saga
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, promoting apparel, sits at a table before a book tour at the North Charleston Coliseum April 19, 2023 in North Charleston, South Carolina.
Sean Rayford | Getty Images
The fight revolves around a law banning discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom in grades K-3. Critics, who also noted that the bill’s vague wording might apply to older students, nicknamed it “don’t say gay.”
Among those critics was Bob Iger, Disney’s current CEO, who was not running the company when he tweeted in February 2022 that the bill “will put vulnerable young LGBTQ people at risk.” Disney CEO at the time, Bob Chapek, opposed the bill less than two weeks later, announcing donations to LGBTQ rights organizations. After signing the bill into law, Disney pledged to help get the law repealed.
DeSantis and his allies shortly thereafter targeted Disney’s special tax district, an arrangement that has allowed the company to effectively self-manage its Orlando-area parks since the 1960s. In April 2022, DeSantis signed legislation dissolving the governing body formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
The move sparked fears that neighboring counties would foot the county’s spending and debt. In February, the Florida legislature called a special session and introduced a bill that kept the district intact but changed its name — and let DeSantis select its five-member board of directors.
The following month, the governor’s board members accused Disney of secretly sneaking through last-minute development deals to undermine their hold over the county. Disney says it followed the right process in drafting and pursuing these deals to protect its investments in Florida amid political uncertainty.
The board voted to rescind these development contracts. Iger, who returned as Disney CEO in November, noted in a recent earnings announcement that other Florida companies also operate in special districts.
Disney sued Florida, accusing DeSantis of orchestrating a “targeted government retaliation campaign” that is now endangering the company’s business. The law was “designed to target Disney and Disney exclusively,” the company said in its state civil complaint. The Management Board has filed a counterclaim with a state court.
The fight doesn’t stop, coming back into the limelight with every new business update from Disney, like the company’s recent announcement of abandoning plans to build an employee campus in Florida.
The ESG and Disney fights “reflect opportunities for DeSantis to address this populist base while making the overall direction of Florida politics very pro-business,” Primo, the political science professor, told CNBC.
He relies “on the ability to be able to do both,” said Primo.