The state has become an unlikely laboratory for right-wing policy, pushed by a governor with presidential ambitions.
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MIAMI — Florida feels like a state running a fever, its very identity changing at a frenetic pace.
Once the biggest traditional presidential battleground, it has suddenly turned into a laboratory of possibility for the political right.
Discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity prohibited in early elementary school. Math textbooks rejected en masse for what the state called “indoctrination.” Schools and employers limited in what they can teach about racism and other aspects of history. Tenured professors in public universities subjected to new reviews. Abortions banned after 15 weeks. The creation of a law enforcement office to investigate election crimes. A congressional map redrawn to give Republicans an even bigger advantage.
And, perhaps most stunning of all, Disney, long an untouchable corporate giant, stripped of the ability to govern itself for the first time in more than half a century, in retaliation for the company’s opposition to the crackdown on L.G.B.T.Q. conversations with young schoolchildren.
“It does have this feeling of, ‘Oh, what the hell just happened?’” said Kristen Arnett, a novelist and Orlando native who now lives in Miami. “It’s overwhelming.”
Florida has transformed over the past two years as Gov. Ron DeSantis has increased and flexed his power to remarkable effect, embracing policies that once seemed unthinkable. That has made the Republican governor a favorite of the party’s Fox News-viewing base and turned him into a possible presidential contender.
Mr. DeSantis has demurred on the question of whether he will seek the White House in 2024 even if former President Donald J. Trump runs again. Mr. Trump has retired — for now — to his Palm Beach estate of Mar-a-Lago and looms as his party’s king or kingmaker. Yet it is Mr. DeSantis who has kept Florida in the national spotlight — relentlessly.
Bob Buckhorn, the former Democratic mayor of Tampa, blamed a combination of factors for Florida’s sudden turn: Mr. DeSantis’s ambition, national culture wars and Mr. Trump, for having “given voice to all of the ugliness and the demons that inhabit Americans.”
“It’s just an unholy alliance of circumstances that have come together that allow this type of politics to occur,” Mr. Buckhorn said.
Not long ago, such a shift would have seemed out of the question in a state notorious for its tight election margins and nail-biting recounts. Mr. DeSantis won the governorship by about 32,000 votes in 2018, hardly a mandate. His aloof personality did not exactly sparkle.
But beginning in 2020, a politically attuned Mr. DeSantis seized on discontent with coronavirus pandemic policies, betting that economic prosperity and individual liberties would matter more to voters in the long run than protecting public health. More than 73,000 Floridians have died of Covid-19, yet public opinion polls have shown that Mr. DeSantis and many of his policies remain quite popular.
Parents, especially, who cheered the governor’s opposition to Covid-19 restrictions in schools, have remained active on issues of curriculum and culture.
“I think the governor is more popular than Disney — I think the governor is more popular than the former president,” said Anthony Pedicini, a Republican strategist in Tampa. “If you’re running for office as a Republican in Florida and you aren’t toeing the DeSantis mantra, you will not win.”
The question now for Mr. DeSantis — and virtually everyone else in Florida — is whether the rightward lurch will stop, either by court intervention, corporate backlash or, come November, electoral rebuke. But given Florida’s trends in recent years, the more likely outcome could be a sustained campaign toward a new, more rigid conservative orthodoxy, one that voters could very well ratify this fall.
The state’s swift and unexpected rightward tilt has happened as Florida has swelled with new residents. Between July 2020 and July 2021, about 260,000 more people arrived than left, a net migration higher than any other state. The trend began before the pandemic but appeared to accelerate as remote workers sought warm weather, low taxes and few public health restrictions.
Culturally, Floridians have been less conservative than their leaders. They have voted by large margins to legalize medical marijuana, prohibit gerrymandering and restore felons’ voting rights. (Last year, Republican lawmakers passed limits on the use of such citizen-led ballot initiatives.) So the recent rash of legislation has been met with trepidation in the state’s big cities, which are almost all run by Democrats.
“I’m not exactly sure what DeSantis is trying to prove,” Brian Hill, an energy consultant, said on a sun-swept morning this week in downtown Orlando’s Lake Eola Park, near the Walt Disney Amphitheater, which is painted in rainbow colors in celebration of the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
In 2016, a gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 others at Pulse, a gay nightclub in town. The amphitheater, Mr. Hill said, is “a symbol of how far we’ve come.” He contrasted it with the law restricting sexual orientation and gender identity discussions through third grade, a measure that supporters said promoted parental rights but critics called “Don’t Say Gay.”
“The bill is taking schools back to the ’80s, to be honest,” said Mr. Hill, 52, who has lived in Orlando for two years. “It’s not realistic with today’s society.”
Going after Disney seemed doubly strange to some Orlando residents, considering how Mr. DeSantis fought to keep businesses open during the pandemic, a boon to tourism and theme parks. “The magic is back!” his Twitter account proclaimed in August 2020 after a Disney vice president took part in one of his events.
Even some residents who generally like the governor worry that his battle with Disney has gone too far. One DeSantis supporter interviewed outside a sports club in the Orlando suburbs declined to give his name but said revoking Disney’s special tax status was “cancel culture-esque.” (Disney told investors this week that its tax district cannot be dissolved unless the state assumes its existing bond debt, the Orlando NBC News affiliate WESH reported.)
May von Scherrer, 35, came to Florida from Puerto Rico in 2017 and said she had found it “thrilling” to support the Black Lives Matter movement in marches during the summer of 2020. That time now feels very distant.
“I’ve never felt more like those sci-fi dystopian futures,” she said. “That’s what’s happening now. We’re living in them.”
But few political observers expect distaste with Mr. DeSantis and his policies to translate into robust opposition come Election Day. Florida Democrats lack the organization, funding and leadership required to mount a vast and expensive campaign. They have also lost their edge in voter registrations; Republicans now hold a narrow advantage.
“People who love DeSantis are super jazzed,” said Nate Monroe, metro columnist for The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and a frequent DeSantis critic. “People who don’t — and there are a considerable number of people who don’t in the state — are just kind of like, ‘Eh, it’s hopeless, why even bother at this point.’”
Mr. DeSantis holds near daily public events in which he bashes President Biden while supporters lavish him with unmitigated praise. He exerts such dominance over Florida Republicans that a candidate for agriculture commissioner dropped out after the governor endorsed his opponent on Twitter. And he has raised more than $100 million, an extraordinary sum, from donors all over the country.
Last Friday, Mr. DeSantis signed into law the restrictions on how racism and other aspects of history can be taught in schools and workplaces, known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” in an elaborate ceremony in which supporters described him as brave and bold.
Among those present were parents who opposed school closures, quarantines and mask mandates during the pandemic — and then remained engaged on other education matters. Mr. DeSantis has repeatedly featured those voices to cast his policies as common sense.
Christine Chaparro said she would be pulling her children out of the Broward County public schools after her son brought home language arts workbooks that cited the co-author of an antiracism book and mentioned Black Lives Matter and Stacey Abrams’s voter suppression claims in the 2018 Georgia governor’s race.
“I disagree that what is in my kids’ benchmark assessment workbooks is accurate history or a lens that belongs in an elementary school classroom,” she said.
A day earlier, Democrats had briefly shut down a special legislative session to protest the passage of the new congressional map. Mr. DeSantis had demanded the redrawing of two districts held by Black Democrats, and Republicans had acquiesced. Democrats staged a sit-in on the House floor.
“You can only hold people down for so long before they will do anything that it takes to make their voices heard,” State Representative Fentrice Driskell, Democrat of Tampa, said. “The governor has interfered in this process, and it’s wrong.”
Meantime, parts of Florida remain unaffordable, especially for its many low-wage workers. Property insurance rates rose 25 percent on average in 2021, compared with 4 percent nationally, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Another special session has been called for May to address the crisis.
Despite all the charged rhetoric and national headlines, Ms. Arnett, the novelist, said her daily life was not much different from before.
“If you put on the TV or you look at the news at what’s going on, it seems like Florida is a conservative hellhole,” she said. “When you’re living in Florida and interacting with people and moving through your day-to-day life, it doesn’t feel that way at all.”
The challenge, she added, is understanding what the changes in the state mean and what to do about them.
“Every day, every other day, something is happening, so you don’t have time to address and solve a problem,” she said. “It’s like warp speed on all of this stuff.”
Eric Adelson contributed reporting from Orlando.
Audio produced by Adrienne Hurst.