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How Conservative Is DeSantis' Florida, Really?

Now that Ron DeSantis is running for president as the guy who made Florida conservative, one might ask: "How conservative is Florida, anyway?" We don't have to answer the question because FiveThirtyEight beat us to it. Executive summary: Kinda, sorta, in some ways.

The Florida legislature passed, and DeSantis signed, bills on pronouns, guns, tort reform and some other hot-button issues. But the real test for DeSantis is not whether Florida is a conservative state, but how does it rank against other conservative states? And how does DeSantis stack up against other governors of conservative states, like Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) or even Gov. Eric Holcomb (R-IN)?

For example, those nasty pronouns. A new Florida law states that school employees may not ask students about their preferred pronouns or share theirs unless they correspond to what is on their birth certificate. That's old hat in Alabama, which did that last year, and Arkansas, Indiana, and Kentucky did it earlier this year, with Iowa and Louisiana about to do it. So does signing that bill make DeSantis a true conservative leader when half a dozen other governors did the same thing, or are about to?

Florida has been a "leader" in being anti-LGBTQ, for example by banning gender-affirming care for minors this year. But a dozen red states have already done that. "Bathroom bills?" Yup, Florida made using a public bathroom that doesn't correspond to the users' sex on their birth certificates a misdemeanor, but so have four other states.

What about banning books? Florida has a new law banning books that deal with race or sexuality. Is that cutting edge? Nah. Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Montana did it last year and Iowa's governor will soon sign a similar bill.

What about guns, then? Florida has long had a "stand your ground" law that allows you to shoot someone you think is threatening you, but the real action is on concealed carry these days. In that area, Florida is playing catch-up with Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Indiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.

Abortion? When the Dobbs decision came down, 19 states had trigger laws in place that banned the procedure outright or within 6 weeks of conception. Florida didn't. Was DeSantis asleep at the wheel here? Last year Florida passed a law banning it after 15 weeks, but in the run up to his presidential run, DeSantis asked the legislature to ban it after 6 weeks, and he signed the bill on April 14, 2023. Kind of late to the party, no?

Some things DeSantis has pushed for have not been done in other conservative states—because the voters don't want them. For example, a new amendment to the Florida Constitution would make local school board elections a partisan office, with candidates putting a (D) or (R) after their names. Should the schools be more politicized? A poll shows that 65% of the voters don't want more politization of the schools and only four other states require partisan school board elections. Not even Texas, Idaho, Wyoming, or Oklahoma require this, and nobody doubts that they are plenty conservative.

And on a few issues, DeSantis is a downright liberal. About 30% of Florida is wetlands and the state is subject to devastating hurricanes, which can be mitigated somewhat by having wetlands where the water can go. In his first term, DeSantis signed bills spending $3.3 billion to protect the Everglades and water resources and in his second he allocated an additional $3.5 billion for environmental protection. God forbid that the Sierra Club gives him a "Governor of the Year" award for his environmental positions.

In short, DeSantis is not the raging conservative he wants people to think he is. He is doing pretty much the same stuff other Republican governors with Republican legislatures are doing, and Florida often is not even first to the party. How will he fare in the Indiana primary when Mike Pence says: "Great stuff Florida is doing, but what took them so long? My state, Indiana, beat them to it on lots of conservative issues." Surely the issue of "leadership" will come up in quite a few other states as well, and DeSantis is not quite the leader he thinks he is. (V)

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