The Contradictions of Ron DeSantis

He has ignited so many cultural confrontations that they’re difficult to keep track of, but he has acted most aggressively on education.

Close up picture to the face of Ron DeSantis, looking worried.
David Dee Delgado / Getty

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida hasn’t officially decided whether he’ll seek the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. But already the contradictions are sharpening between his prospective general-election strengths and his emerging strategy to win the Republican primaries.

Many of DeSantis’s boosters are drawn to him as a potential Republican nominee because they believe that his record as the chief executive of an economically thriving state would position him to win back some of the college-educated suburban voters who have stampeded away from the GOP since 2016.

But DeSantis, through his escalating attacks on what he calls “woke” ideology, has signaled that if he runs, as most expect, he will seek the GOP nomination by emphasizing the same cultural grievances about racial and social change that former President Donald Trump has stressed. Those messages have enabled Trump to energize hard-core conservatives, but at the price of repelling many well-educated suburbanites.

With that approach, DeSantis seems destined to test a question that sharply divides strategists from the two parties: Will more voters accept Trumpism without Trump himself attached to it?

As DeSantis careens through a seemingly endless succession of culture-war firefights with targets including the Walt Disney Company, the College Board, LGBTQ-rights advocates, and Black historians, many Republicans are confident he can manage the challenge of attracting enough social-conservative voters to win a primary without alienating so many socially moderate suburbanites that he can’t win a general election. The evidence, they say, is his landslide reelection victory last November, after pursuing an aggressive strategy of keeping Florida businesses and schools open during the pandemic. The election exit polls found DeSantis winning about three-fifths of Florida’s college-educated white voters in a year when that group provided crucial support to Democrats in many other states. (DeSantis also posted notable gains with Latino and Black male voters.)

“Based upon his support for reelection, you would have to think … his support for keeping the economy going, keeping schools open [during COVID] was sufficiently popular to overcome any reticence suburban voters might have had on the culture side,” Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, told me.

But many Democrats are growing optimistic that DeSantis is overplaying his hand. While many see him as a formidable potential 2024 opponent, they believe he is advancing such a militantly conservative cultural agenda—built on ideas such as censoring how schoolteachers talk about race, gender, and sexual orientation and a potential ban on abortion after six weeks—that he will face the same resistance in white-collar suburbs that doomed socially conservative GOP gubernatorial candidates last fall in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

“The exact things that DeSantis is doing to make himself a MAGA hero for the primary,” says Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic communications consultant, “are the things that turn away the voters they are hoping to win back.”

DeSantis has ignited so many cultural confrontations that it’s difficult to keep track of them, but he has acted most aggressively on education. During the last Florida legislative session, he passed a trio of bills. One restricted how schools, universities, and even private employers can talk about race and gender; another (dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” law) banned schools from discussing sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade; a companion measure made it easier for parents to push for the removal of books from school libraries and classrooms.

Since then, DeSantis has threatened to block  an Advanced Placement class in African American studies unless the College Board removed subjects and scholars that conservatives opposed (including discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement and “intersectionality,” an academic analysis of how forms of racial, class, and gender inequity intersect), and has proposed stringent new controls over public higher education, including eliminating departments that promote diversity on campus and making the removal of tenured faculty easier. This week, after the College Board openly criticized his actions on the AP African American–history course, DeSantis suggested he may try to end Florida’s use of other AP tests and even the SAT. Those threats echoed his successful drive to strip the Walt Disney Company of special administrative privileges for its theme park in Orlando after the corporation criticized his “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Jeremy Young, the senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, says that DeSantis’s measures to control instruction on college campuses are “unprecedented in the history of this country. It is an attempt to insert political agendas and political governance into every single aspect of the university.”

Jonathan Friedman, the director of PEN America’s free-expression program, says the breadth of Florida’s efforts to censor public-school teachers in K–12 classrooms is also unmatched. “The scale and scope of censorship in Florida schools has reached a point,” he told me, “where it is virtually un-trackable.”

DeSantis has been fulsome in his denunciations of “woke ideology” but stingy in his definitions of exactly what he considers that to be. The closest his administration has come to explaining the term was when his general counsel, in a court appearance last December, defined woke as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” Friedman sees that vagueness as part of the governor’s strategy: By refusing to more precisely identify what concepts the state considers objectionable, he says, DeSantis has created a “chilling effect” whereby teachers self-censor in fear that “everything and anything” about race, gender, and sexuality “can become fodder for punishment.”

DeSantis’s efforts to control what Florida students are taught, and what materials they can access, have found a receptive audience in Republican-controlled states. PEN is tracking copycat bills in many of the other 21 states where Republicans hold unified control of the state legislature and the governorship.

The rapid replication of these ideas across red states signals the potential power of DeSantis’s agenda in a Republican presidential primary. In recent national surveys, Tresa Undem, a pollster for progressive organizations who specializes in studying social attitudes, has found that the voters most attracted to limiting what students learn about race and gender are those who are already receptive to core Trump cultural messages.

For many GOP voters, “this is a psychological, not policy, threat,” Undem told me in an email. “The feeling is the other side is calling me racist, calling me and my country evil, and blaming me as a man for every problem … It’s about shame, guilt, and self-worth, and it’s existential—for them and their country. Obviously, that’s going to motivate Republican base voters more than crime policy or inflation.”

But in no state where Democrats control the governorship and the legislature have they felt pressured to offer their own versions of DeSantis’s measures to refashion education. This suggests that these ideas generate much less demand outside the red states. Friedman says PEN sees no evidence that any elected official “who doesn’t answer” to the conservative base feels “any pressure … to pass this legislation.”

How these ideas are received beyond the core conservative states may ultimately depend on the prism through which they are seen if DeSantis or another GOP nominee carries them into a general-election presidential campaign.

Republicans believe that the key to building political support for their education agenda is to frame these moves as an attempt to empower parents against an arrogant educational bureaucracy and other “elitist” forces, like Hollywood and teachers’ unions. It’s common for Republicans to argue that measures such as the “Don’t Say Gay” law don’t impose their values on others, but merely constitute a defensive pushback against the left’s attempts to “indoctrinate” students.

For many GOP strategists, the proof that these ideas appeal beyond the conservative base was Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the 2021 governor’s race in Virginia, a state that had been steadily trending blue, after he stressed “parental rights.”

Kristin Davison, one of Youngkin’s senior strategists, told me that his message was “not even so much about the curriculum as it was that these schools don’t want parents to have a say.” As these issues grow more prominent in national politics, she said, “I think you’ll see it play out in this philosophy that parents and families and teachers should be at the forefront of education rather than government and teacher groups.” Youngkin himself might run for president in 2024 on that theme.

Even Democratic polls have found a substantial audience for many of DeSantis’s specific initiatives. In the most notable finding, a poll last spring for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) by a Democratic polling firm found that majorities of voters said they would be more likely to support a candidate who argued that schools should focus less on racism and more on core academic subjects; backed a “Don’t Say Gay” law for the early grades; would give parents more control over curriculum; and would ban transgender girls from high-school sports (another bill DeSantis has signed). In that poll, not only did about four-fifths of 2020 Trump voters say they would support a candidate expressing each of those beliefs; so did about one-third of those who voted for President Joe Biden.

But other results in that poll—and in a follow-up survey the firm conducted for the AFT last December—suggest that the whole of DeSantis’s agenda may be less appealing than the sum of its parts. In both surveys, a significant majority said they worried less that kids are being taught values their parents don’t like than that culture-war fights are diverting schools from their real mission of educating students. In the December poll, twice as many respondents said that schools are handling sensitive issues appropriately than said that schools are imposing a liberal agenda on students; likewise, a two-to-one majority said that providing schools with more resources was more important than providing parents with more say. In these surveys, and others, banning books ignited an especially forceful backlash. “Banning books is very likely to raise eyebrows and opposition among the narrow segment of voters who truly are swing voters,” Undem said.

Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster who worked on the two AFT surveys, told me that “even if voters agree with him on a couple specific things,” the larger implications of the DeSantis agenda are likely to turn off the suburban swing voters the GOP is hoping to recapture in 2024.

The key for Democrats in responding to DeSantis, Molyneux said, is to not “let him claim to be there speaking for parents; what this is really about is politicians coming in and deciding what is going to be taught.” DeSantis almost always makes his educational announcements surrounded by mothers, but Molyneux says he ultimately may be defined more by images of empty shelves in classrooms where books have been removed. “If this is about blanket imposition of political decisions about what is being taught, people will definitely trust teachers and principals way more than they trust politicians,” Molyneux told me.

Balancing potential messages for the primary and general election will likely grow only more difficult for DeSantis as the year unfolds. Trump has already released a pair of bristling videos staking out militant positions on censoring teachers and restricting LGBTQ rights (to combat what Trump called “gender insanity.”) This suggests that the GOP primary could see a culture-war arms race that tugs all of the contenders to the right and creates more hurdles with swing voters for the eventual winner. Another measure of that dynamic is DeSantis’s recent announcement that he would sign a six-week abortion ban in Florida, a significant reduction of access from the 15-week ban he signed last year.

In all of this, Democrats see DeSantis embracing ideas that will cast him, if he runs, as a threat to the values held by the coalition (particularly college-educated white voters, young people, and African Americans) that turned out in big numbers to resist the Trump-era GOP in each of the past three national elections. Based on the gubernatorial wins for DeSantis in 2022 and Youngkin in 2021, Republicans, in turn, remain confident that a message of empowering parents and prioritizing the economy can claw back a decisive slice of the suburban voters who found Trump unacceptable.

In the Democratic portrayal, DeSantis looks like an intolerant bully with authoritarian and bigoted inclinations; in the Republican version, he’s a buttoned-down, business-friendly manager imposing commonsense constraints on unaccountable forces threatening families. The picture that ultimately commands the frame will likely determine whether DeSantis can broaden the GOP’s appeal beyond its constricted boundaries under Trump.