Florida Started A Race To Reshape Conservatism. Now It Has Some Catching Up To Do.

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The vanguard of American conservatism is Florida — at least, according to its governor.

The state is on “the front lines in the battle for freedom,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said to the Florida legislature in March, telling lawmakers that “we have the opportunity and indeed the responsibility to swing for the fences so that we can ensure Florida remains number one.”

For the second-term governor, swinging for the fences has been a higher-stakes proposition: DeSantis is widely expected to announce a campaign for president in the coming days. He will enter the race with a legislative record that looks quite different than it did a year ago. Since gaveling into session in March, the Florida legislature has moved quickly on DeSantis’s priorities, passing bills on topics ranging from school vouchers to gun control to tort reform. So, before his four-country international “trade mission,” before his jaunt up to Washington, D.C., to rally support among the Florida congressional delegation and before his visit to Iowa for a weekend of meet-and-greets, DeSantis spent weeks in Tallahassee signing his agenda into law. 

But the extent to which DeSantis’s agenda has truly been “groundbreaking and nation-leading” is less clear. FiveThirtyEight dug into the state’s recent legislative changes and compared a sample of its new laws to those of other GOP-dominated states. This is not an effort to evaluate the impact of Florida’s recent spate of legislation; it is simply an examination of when that legislation passed relative to comparable laws in fellow red states enacting Republican priorities. We found that, in some areas, Florida is indeed leading the pack. For example, DeSantis and his allies have been at the forefront of implementing conservative education-related and anti-LGBTQ policies, even as polls have suggested some of those policies may have limited appeal. But when it comes to other conservative priorities, like gun policy and abortion, Florida Republicans have largely moved with — or even lagged behind — a larger group of red states. 

Leading on conservative education and anti-trans policies

Florida has arguably been ground zero for conservative efforts to reshape education in the United States. In addition to passing — and expanding on — some of the strictest legislation regulating how sexuality and gender identity are taught in classrooms, which has served as the model for legislation in other states, Florida has also moved to make school board elections partisan and expand school vouchers. 

Last year, the Florida legislature passed House Bill 1557 into law, which banned classroom instruction and discussion of sexuality and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. In keeping with his “anti-woke” rhetoric, DeSantis said the law would ensure “parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.” Critics dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” law, arguing it would marginalize LGBTQ+ children and complicate teachers’ ability to help vulnerable students. Despite the public’s ambivalence toward the initial law — a September 2022 poll from Siena College/Spectrum News found Florida likely voters split fairly evenly — the law’s reach has only grown. In April, the state Board of Education expanded the restrictions to 4th through 12th grade. And new legislation passed earlier this month builds on the 2022 law by stipulating that school employees cannot ask students about their preferred pronouns nor share their own pronouns with students if they “do not correspond” with the employee’s sex. 

Other Republican-led states have jumped to implement similar measures. Alabama passed a law with similar provisions in 2022; Arkansas, Indiana and Kentucky have done so in 2023; and states like Iowa and Louisiana may be about to join them.

Florida Republicans have also moved to expand conservative influence in setting local education policy by passing a constitutional amendment that would mandate partisan school board elections. Should voters approve the amendment in 2024 — a late February-early March poll from the University of North Florida Public Opinion Research Lab found 65 percent of voters opposed it — school board candidates will be listed on the ballot with their party affiliation. Should this take effect, Florida could be at the forefront of efforts to heighten partisanship in school board contests. At present, just four states require partisan school board elections, according to Ballotpedia, and five others allow localities to use them. Yet only one of those states — Tennessee — has recently amended its rules, and it made partisan races optional, not mandatory. There’s little doubt Florida Republicans expect this to benefit them, too, as perceptions about who benefits often drive support or opposition to changes in election law. And they’re probably right: Most localities in Florida are GOP-leaning — Democrats are mostly concentrated in urban areas — so it’s likely that Republicans would gain explicit control of more school boards. Yet this would mark a reversal from a quarter century ago, when Florida voters approved a 1998 constitutional amendment that included a provision mandating nonpartisan school board elections. 

Florida was also among a small group of states that passed laws in 2022 aimed at restricting school reading materials for students. House Bill 1467 required school media specialists to make sure reading materials were age appropriate and contained no “pornographic” content, and expanded the state’s role in formal parental objections to material by publishing a list of objected-to content from schools around the state. The law’s potential chilling effect played out earlier this year, when many Florida schools had empty classroom libraries. And with a statewide list, schools could choose to withdraw remotely controversial material, including texts dealing with issues of race and sexuality. Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and Montana passed similar laws this year, while Iowa’s governor has like-minded legislation awaiting her signature. (Florida was also among the first batch of states to recently pass legislation labeled as a “parent’s bill of rights,” and ranks among the many red states that have implemented laws banning the teaching of “critical race theory” or related topics.)

Similarly, Florida joined a wave of red states in broadening access to school voucher systems this year, part of a national campaign to expand “school choice” but also potentially weaken public schools. Unlike earlier voucher programs, these new laws — including Florida’s — create education savings accounts that have few limitations on participation. Parents can spend state funds — which would’ve otherwise gone to the public school system — on traditional private schools, religious schools, online schools and even home-schooling. Unlike Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill or partisan school board election measures, however, the voucher legislation has more public support: A slight majority of Florida voters told the University of North Florida earlier this year that they backed the measure.

Beyond the classroom, DeSantis and Florida Republicans have also been ahead of or in step with other red steps in passing anti-LGBTQ legislation, especially anti-trans measures. Along with roughly a dozen other states, Florida outlawed access to gender-affirming care for minors. That legislation also required any adult seeking such treatment to receive it from a doctor and to sign consent forms. Florida also joined four other red states by implementing a “bathroom bill” in 2023, as the state’s new law makes it a misdemeanor to use a restroom that doesn’t align with the person’s birth sex in public buildings. Additionally, recently passed legislation targets drag shows by barring venues from admitting minors to “adult live performances” and prohibits local governments from issuing public permits for any event that could expose children to such activities, which critics say could also restrict Pride events for the LGBTQ+ community.

Keeping step with other red states on gun policy

Shortly before DeSantis was first elected governor in 2018, a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida left 17 people dead. As is often the case after such tragedies, there were calls across the country to enact tighter gun control measures. Then-Gov. Rick Scott responded by enacting new regulations, including waiting periods for the purchase of long guns and raising the minimum age to purchase most long guns to 21, among other measures. The 2018 legislation also allowed some public and private school employees to carry firearms in schools, but it excluded classroom teachers, in part due to Scott’s reticence to enact such a policy. 

DeSantis, however, had no such qualms, and in his first year as governor, he expanded the program. In May 2019, he signed a law that would allow teachers to carry weapons in the classroom, provided that they undergo training and drug screening (as well as meeting some other conditions). This made Florida the 12th GOP-led state to enact policies allowing teachers to carry guns in the classroom, under certain conditions. At least five more would follow. In the years since, Florida voters have indicated mixed views on the policy, but perhaps importantly for DeSantis, Republicans and independents seem to accept it: In the Siena College/Spectrum News poll, arming teachers in schools had the support of 44 percent of Florida voters, including 48 percent of independents and 71 percent of Republicans.

In addition to arming teachers, we analyzed four other major gun policies to determine how Florida compared to other states with GOP trifectas or split government. In most cases, Florida seems to be keeping pace with the Republican party writ large. Florida was the first state to pass a modern version of what’s known as a “Stand Your Ground” law in 2005, which allows a more expansive interpretation of self-defense statutes, though within five years at least 14 more states would follow. There are now 29 states where Stand Your Ground has been passed into law, as well as eight more where it has been established as law by legal precedent.

In 1987, Florida enacted a law that prevents municipal and local governments from enacting stricter gun laws than those of the state (commonly known as “preemption”), a policy that at least 20 other red or split states also enacted in the 1980s and 90s. This policy was strengthened in 2011, adding fines for local officials who attempted to enact restrictive statutes, a comparatively severe penalty upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in January. This was around the same time when at least three other states (Indiana, Alabama and Kentucky) were passing new preemption laws of their own.

Most recently, DeSantis signed a bill into law allowing permitless concealed carry of handguns, joining 24 other red or split states, most of which passed the legislation within the last 10 years. However, the law stopped short at allowing citizens to openly carry firearms in public, a practice currently allowed in at least 40 other states, including at least 12 states with Democratic trifecta governments. While DeSantis himself has indicated support for open carry, some Republican leaders in Florida are wary of the policy. Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, for example, said in March that she would not support any constitutional carry bill that was not endorsed by the Florida Sheriffs Association, a group that endorsed the permitless carry bill but stopped short at a recommendation for open carry legislation.

Playing catchup on abortion policy

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade in the summer of 2022, many Republican-controlled states were ready. Nineteen states had already passed laws that would ban abortion outright or after six weeks of pregnancy (though some of these were tied up in court at the time). Three more states with split control of state government had preexisting bans in place. 

The six Republican-led states without restrictive abortion bans in place were Indiana, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Florida. Indiana quickly moved to pass a total abortion ban, calling a special session to pass legislation that was signed into law less than two months after the Dobbs ruling. Montana and Kansas were both prevented from issuing bans due to constitutional restrictions; each attempted to pass constitutional amendments by referendum last year (both failed). The Nebraska state legislature has been trying to pass a six-week abortion ban, which failed by just one vote, though they are still trying to pass a 12-week ban before the legislative session ends later this month. New Hampshire is just barely under Republican control, and the moderate Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has indicated he does not intend to further restrict abortion access in the state.

That leaves Florida.

In early 2022, when states around the country were preparing for the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned, Florida did move to restrict abortion rights in the state – but not to such an extreme as other GOP-led states. Florida passed a law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a move that was framed by Republicans as a compromise, rather than the total bans or six-week bans being proposed by other states. And polling suggests that they might have been right: Nationally, Americans are split when it comes to banning abortion after fifteen weeks, with some polls showing slight support for such a ban and others showing slight opposition. In Florida, the Siena College/Spectrum News poll from September 2022 found that only 16 percent of likely voters thought the 15-week ban should be made more restrictive. (Forty-one percent thought it should remain as is and 37 percent thought it should be made less restrictive.)

Florida was the 13th state to ban abortion after six weeks

States that passed six-week abortion bans, by year and status of that ban

State Year Status of law
North Dakota 2013 First attempt was blocked by courts; this year’s attempt passed in April
Iowa 2018 Enjoined by district judges in 2018 and 2022
Georgia 2019 Ban in place
Ohio 2019 Enjoined by district court in 2022
Kentucky 2019 Superseded by a trigger law
Louisiana 2019 Superseded by a trigger law
Mississippi 2019 Superseded by a trigger law
Tennessee 2020 Superseded by a trigger law
South Carolina 2021 Enjoined by state Supreme Court in 2023; a new version is under debate as of publication
Texas 2021 Superseded by a total ban passed post-Dobbs
Idaho 2022 Superseded by a trigger law
Oklahoma 2022 Superseded by a total ban passed post-Dobbs
Florida 2023 Signed into law on April 14

Includes so-called “heartbeat bans,” which go into effect around the sixth week of pregnancy.

Sources: Guttmacher Institute, Legiscan

While every other nearby Southern state was trying to further restrict abortion access, Florida seemed to be testing out a new policy that could have changed the nature of the abortion debate in the state, and maybe across the country; one Florida lawmaker even referred to the law as a “trial balloon.” According to the polls, the 15-week ban appears to be no more polarizing than most other major issues, whereas a six-week abortion ban is unpopular with the American public: We have been unable to find any national polls showing majority support for a six-week abortion ban in the last two years. Only one poll in that time frame showed the policy above water nationally; most polls, like this recent Fabrizio, Lee & Associates/Impact Research/Wall Street Journal poll, show a six-week abortion ban underwater by double digits.

But just a year later, Florida lawmakers decided to bring state policy in line with other red states. They passed a six-week abortion ban, which DeSantis signed in April, despite just 22 percent of Floridians indicating support for the policy in the University of North Florida poll, including only 34 percent of Republicans. 

This move finally brings Florida in line with other Republican-led states on abortion, despite having previously been one of the few states in the region that was able to provide abortions to nearby patients. If South Carolina and Florida’s six-week bans both survive their court challenges, abortion will not be legal after six weeks of pregnancy in any state in the Southeast.

Bucking conservative orthodoxy on environmental protection

One area where Florida is — and has been — blazing its own path is on environmental protection and capital spending. This is less a product of politics and more of circumstance: About 30 percent of Florida is wetlands, according to the most recent government estimates available, and the state is historically the most hurricane prone in the country. In the latest Florida Climate Resilience Survey, conducted in March, almost half of Floridians said they had been impacted by flooding in the last 12 months and two-thirds said they had been impacted by strong winds caused by hurricanes or tornadoes.

As a result, the state has invested billions of dollars in protecting, restoring and improving its natural resources. In DeSantis’s first term, the state spent more than $3.3 billion on restoring the Everglades and protecting water resources; at the beginning of his second, he signed an executive order that proposed an additional $3.5 billion for environmental protection over the next four years.  

While the figures themselves are strikingly high, it’s not inconsistent with Florida’s spending over the past few decades. Since 1991, an average of 13 percent of Florida’s overall capital expenditures have been from environmental capital funds — the third-highest figure in that time period, according to data from the National Association of State Budget Officers.

Florida’s legislature tackled other issues this session that we have not discussed, like banning the investment of public money into funds that promote environmental, social and governance goals; reforming insurance markets; and defunding DEI initiatives at public universities. But a sampling of policies shows Florida isn’t the consistent vanguard of modern conservatism it presents as, only in some areas. 

DeSantis intends to use his track record in Florida to appeal to Republican primary voters. Yet Florida’s shift to the right won’t necessarily be an unalloyed positive for DeSantis’s presidential hopes. Take abortion: Were he to win the GOP nomination, DeSantis could face trouble in the general election for promoting a six-week abortion ban that more Americans oppose than support — despite multiple Republican-led states passing and enacting such bans before Florida. Interestingly, former President Donald Trump criticized DeSantis over the law, which may suggest that Trump feels some Republican primary voters looking to beat President Biden in 2024 could be scared off by DeSantis’s hard push to the right on an issue that probably reduced GOP gains in the 2022 midterms. Prominent Republican donors have expressed similar concerns. 

Nevertheless, DeSantis’s conservative leadership in Florida made him the leading alternative to Trump from the start in this election cycle. And even as DeSantis’s poll numbers have fallen in recent weeks, his desire to “make America Florida” could be the pitch to win over many Republicans who currently support Trump — a must if he is to win his party’s nomination.

#politics

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