Supermajorities in both chambers have sapped nearly all the suspense from this year’s legislative session, so Gov. Ron DeSantis will likely use his State of the State address – delivered on the first day – to build up excitement for something else: A possible 2024 run for the White House.
With the governor having won reelection by the largest margin in decades and conservatives across the country looking to Florida for a blueprint, DeSantis believes he is rolling with a mandate to continue on the war path that brought him success and status. Floridians and others should expect that to shine through his speech.
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Because it won’t just be Floridians listening. National attention will be paid to this address, as many will view it as a preview of his campaign messaging. As he recently told the Times of London, “referring to America’s octogenarian president, Joe Biden, ‘You know, don’t we need some more energy in the executive? Don’t we need a little bit more vigor and a little bit more punch?’ ”
There’s little doubt he’ll hit on every policy goal he believes will be achieved by the ‘sine die’ adjournment of this year’s session, set for May 5. In Florida’s government, at least, there is nothing standing in his way.
Likely focus on victories, culture war issues
Whether it’s "constitutional carry" or continuing the culture wars on college campuses and in public schools, the governor has made his stances broadly clear. That isn’t likely to change in his State of the State address.
Anthony Pedicini, a Tampa-based Republican political consultant, told City & State he expects DeSantis to focus on “red meat issues” like curtailing what he view as frivolous lawsuits and strengthening parental rights in education. To Pedicini, DeSantis’ meteoric rise since being elected governor means the ability to say what gets attention this session. “Since 2018, he’s gone from David to Goliath in terms of political capital, so it’s pretty much his ball,” Pedicini said.
DeSantis will also look back as well as look forward, touching on several of his policy victories over the last few years, according to Charles Zelden, a professor of history and political science at Nova Southeastern University in Broward County. He thinks DeSantis will touch on his successful fight with Disney over remaking the Reedy Creek Improvement District, while continuing to focus on other culture war wins. “He's going to continue what he’s been doing already and make a case for why and how Florida can become a model for the rest of the country,” Zelden said.
Lobbyist Barney Bishop, former president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Florida, believes that legislation such as the universal school voucher bill will get billing in the speech because the issue has long been a focus of Republicans and a priority for DeSantis in his first term as governor. “He wants to make sure that parents are the ultimate decider of what kind of education their children are going to get,” said Bishop, president of the board of Tallahassee Classical School and a longtime Democrat who turned Republican last year.
Other bills that would expand the ban on teaching sexual orientation and gender identity instruction in public schools to pre-K to 8th grade also likely will be mentioned. State Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Broward County Democrat, said the battle lines DeSantis and his party have laid out are already clear. “This has become more than just about politics, Gov. DeSantis and the Republicans are making this personal, and they don’t care who gets hurt while doing it. These issues are not what matter to Floridians, but once again, we are about to spend the next 60 days having a cultural war fight,” he said.
Property insurance, rent prices likely not in the script
Property insurance rates are expected to increase 40%-50% later this year despite lawmakers passing and DeSantis signing legislation during a 2022 end-of-year special session that was supposed to help solve the crisis. Moreover, rents continue to climb in the Sunshine State while other states have seen a decline. Some legislators have responded by supporting a bill this session that bans municipalities from passing rent control regulations.
Zelden expects DeSantis to steer clear from talking about those issues: “If he does mention it, I'm not sure he's gonna say anything of substance, in part, because there really are no easy answers to these problems,” he said. Jones said he expects DeSantis to focus on what will play for a national audience, not necessarily the issues that matter for many Floridians.
“The burning issues of Florida (are things like) homeowners insurance, like health care, like public education, like infrastructure for our communities, like our water quality. These are the issues that we should be focusing on in a State of the State speech and in a legislative session,” Jones said.
As far as gun rights, another issue dear to conservatives, Bishop doesn’t expect DeSantis to advocate for full open carry during the speech, but instead for the permitless carry bill that was filed. In doing so, he said DeSantis avoided what the far-right was asking for and instead is supporting common sense policy. “The fact that he didn't go all the way to the right is an indication that this governor is being politically astute, knowing that the ability to … carry wherever you want, under any circumstances, is a bridge too far,” Bishop said.
The speech and the political implications for 2024
Assuming as many are that DeSantis will make a decision on a White House run after the session ends, if he decides to go for it, he’d be up against former President Donald Trump – someone with even more national name ID, a rapidly loyal base and previous electoral dominance in the state. So far, Trump is still leading in recent polls against DeSantis.
Zelden believes everything DeSantis does over the next few months will be viewed by the media and those that follow politics through the lens of whether it will help or hurt his presidential chances. His State of the State speech is no exception. Because of this, he expects the speech to be self-congratulatory, but also showcasing the successful model he has cultivated for conservatives in Florida and pitching it to the rest of the nation’s Republicans as what sets him apart from the pack.
“He wants to show that he's got the political chops. He is never going to outright say, but what he effectively wants to communicate, (is) that this is something that Trump doesn't have,” Zelden said.
For his part, Jones said he believes DeSantis has made it clear that the path he has set Florida on is the path he wants the rest of the country on. He doesn’t think it would be a winning strategy. “If you have to demean Black people, dehumanize immigrants, and be cruel to the LGBTQ community, all to become president, then you’re already at a disadvantage,” he said.
On the other hand, Bishop is convinced the governor will run for president. And he believes DeSantis’ “courage to be free” message, upon which he titled his most recent book, will resonate across the country. “He wants to speak to people who believe that the government has overstepped in some places, and hasn't stepped up in the places where it really matters to them in their daily lives, like education,” Bishop said.