DeSantis’ war on ‘woke’ may not play well in important swing states

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The 2023 legislative session was designed to give Gov. Ron DeSantis victories in advance of a likely run for president, but experts said the issues he’s promoting could haunt him in key swing states if he becomes the Republican candidate for the White House.

The six-week abortion ban bill moving quickly through the Legislature, proposed bans on drag shows and transgender treatments, and restrictions on what can be taught at public schools and colleges have made national headlines as he presumably prepares to announce a presidential bid.

But in the states he’d need to win in 2024, the anti-woke rhetoric that DeSantis has made his trademark has not really worked as well as Republicans had thought it would.

In the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which determined the 2016 election when they went for President Trump and the 2020 election when they were won by President Biden, Democrats won all three governor races in 2022. In Pennsylvania and Michigan, Democrats won control of the Legislature for the first time in years.

“The results of 2022 [show] an electorate that is not interested in the kind of culture war that DeSantis seems eager to fight,” said Christopher Beem, of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro won last year by a double-digit margin over controversial Republican candidate Doug Mastriano, who was endorsed by DeSantis and spent time with him on the campaign trail.

Pennsylvania Republicans “are looking at DeSantis, I think, with more of a sense of hopefulness than a sober vetting of his political stances and what he’s done in Florida,” Beem said. “They’re just thinking, ‘We don’t want the drama and the vitriol that are inevitably going to be associated with Trump.’ … And my suspicion is that most Republicans in Pennsylvania haven’t gone much farther than that.”

But what could work in a GOP primary, he said, might not work in the general election in a state trending Democratic.

“If you took the temperature right now, my bet is that a majority, not a strong, overwhelming majority, but a majority of Pennsylvanians would not want a DeSantis as president,” Beem said. “Or they would be open to the argument that these policies are not things that we want, either in Pennsylvania or in the nation.”

After kicking off his book tour last month in Florida, DeSantis quickly added stops across the country in Iowa and Nevada. A visit to Georgia on Thursday will be followed by visits to Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio, New Hampshire and Utah, according to Politico.

Michigan in particular could be considered a reverse mirror image of Florida.

Democrats have a governor in Gretchen Whitmer who took strong stances in favor of COVID-19 restrictions and won reelection by a wide margin. Her party now controls both houses of the Legislature.

Meanwhile, the opposition Republican Party “couldn’t be in more disarray,” said Jenna Bednar, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

DeSantis’ focus on fighting “woke” could actually play well in the state, Bednar said, but only in the most general of terms. The realities of how it’s been carried out in Florida are a different story.

“It’s when you get into specifics of that, people are like, ‘Well, I’m not sure all those books need to be banned. Or that the Statue of David needs to be called pornographic,’” she said. “... Some of these policy positions that he has so forcefully advocated for, I just don’t see playing with more centrist Republicans. And the six-week abortion ban is at the top of that list.”

Abortion rights were on the ballot directly in six states in 2022, including Michigan, and prevailed each time. The defeat of an anti-abortion referendum in conservative Kansas was one of the biggest markers that the issue was a huge one last year.

“Some of the other culture wars stuff they might be willing to look past,” she said. “But it’s not just Michigan. I’m surprised he didn’t take something away from the Kansas lesson that centrist Republicans are not going to follow him there.”

Wisconsin has a huge test of where the electorate stands Tuesday when voters will choose between conservative Daniel Kelly and liberal Janet Protasiewicz to determine the balance of power on the state Supreme Court.

“If Protasiewicz wins, I would say that’s probably not great news for the more conservative, culture war kind of agenda,” said David Canon, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. “Because Kelly, the conservative in the race, is certainly all in on everything to do with DeSantis’ agenda.”

In addition, conservative school board candidates did not have the same success in Wisconsin as they did in Florida, where DeSantis waded into local races to endorse candidates.

“In the last couple election cycles, where the ‘critical race theory’ stuff started to percolate into local school board races, for the most part, those candidates lost in the white suburbs around Milwaukee, places where you would think those issues would have traction,” Canon said.

Canon’s colleague, UW political science professor Howard Schweber, said swing voters in Wisconsin “are a bit turned off by the more hard edge, more extreme conservative politics that DeSantis is peddling.”

Conservative Republicans who have done well in Wisconsin, from former House Speaker Paul Ryan to former Gov. Scott Walker, “had a tone [of] common sense pragmatism,” he said.

“They presented themselves as the voice of just old-school, common-sense realism,” he said. “From what I have watched of DeSantis, he does not come across as a down-to-earth pragmatic guy. He comes across as much more a zealot or someone on a mission.

“He is much more about, ‘They’re coming for your children and I must save them,’ which I suspect will not play as well.”

But DeSantis’ chances shouldn’t be ruled out, one expert added.

UW political science professor Ryan Owens said DeSantis would be a strong candidate to face Biden in Wisconsin.

“There’s going to be a strong opportunity for him to try to carve out some policy issues that may look a little bit more common sense to people than what they’re seeing right now,” Owens said.

DeSantis is coming off a relatively bad month, with missteps on Ukraine, repeated hammering by Trump, and embarrassment over Disney apparently outmaneuvering him on Reedy Creek. He lost 15 percentage points to Trump from February to March in a new Fox News Poll and now trails the former president by 30 points.

“I’ve seen all the headlines of how DeSantis is, is doing not as well as expected, [but] I actually think he’s doing okay,” Bednar said. “... And really, there are only two names that people are talking about in any serious way. And that says a lot for DeSantis.”