On presidential campaign ropes, Florida Governor recounts conservative victories in legislative address

With his presidential campaign on the ropes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Gov. Ron DeSantis made a quick trip home Tuesday to prod the Republican-led Legislature to continue its embrace of conservative policies on education, crime and social issues.

He also criticized the Biden administration on issues of the economy and immigration.

“Stay the course,” DeSantis told lawmakers in a 35-minute State of the State address, just days ahead of the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15. “The state of our state is strong. Let’s keep doing what works. Let’s continue to make Florida the envy of the nation.”

Outside the Capitol, terrible storms raged across Florida’s Panhandle – including a tornado that damaged neighborhoods in Panama City Beach – and shut down the campus at Florida State University and most government buildings in Tallahassee.

The foreboding weather might have been a metaphor for the Governor’s gloomy presidential campaign prospects, as he continues to trail former President Donald Trump by significant margins in political polls.

DeSantis didn’t mention his high-profile aspiration for the White House but noted the stormy weather, just before he designated 49 of the state’s 67 counties as under a state of emergency: “We just do what we do in Florida. We respond when these things happen,” he said. “Those folks who have been impacted, just know the State of Florida stands with you, and we’ll handle whatever fallout is from these dangerous tornadoes.”

Ahead of Iowa, DeSantis used the opportunity as a victory lap for conservative themes he pushed through the Legislature last year.

In his address:

— He touted unprecedented government spending to allow more primary and secondary students in Florida to attend charter or private schools, along with limiting some classroom discussions on sex, race and gender. The state formalized rules for removing some controversial books from public school libraries and classrooms. DeSantis called it “education over indoctrination.”

— A strong supporter of Israel, DeSantis encouraged Jewish college students in other states on campuses where they might have experienced antisemitism to consider transferring to colleges or universities in Florida. He said he would waive minimum credit hour requirements for transfers, waive deadlines and encourage schools here to offer in-state tuition for poor students. “If they do decide to come to Florida, we will welcome them with open arms,” he said.

— The Governor described laws prohibiting transgender women from competing on public school teams. “As the father of two daughters, I think it’s important that they have the opportunity to compete with fairness and integrity,” he said.

— DeSantis, who signed a law in 2023 banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, didn’t mention the word abortion but briefly said he had “protected the sanctity of life.” He also noted that he had authorized the death penalty for pedophiles, a new state law that will almost certainly be challenged in courts.

— He said his administration has spent $3 billion over the past four years to improve teacher pay and said he is proposing $1.25 billion this year for more pay raises. “Our teacher pay initiatives help us recruit and retain great teachers,” DeSantis said. He did not mention vast shortages of teachers in districts across Florida that worsened during the pandemic.

— DeSantis criticized programs that lawmakers outlawed in Florida’s colleges and universities that emphasized diversity, equity and inclusion. Such programs encouraged minority hiring and promotion, along with sensitivity training on issues of race and gender. He called it “a highly ideological agenda” and joked that the DEI acronym in practice stands for “discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination.”

Democrats in the Capitol criticized the time DeSantis has spent since his re-election campaigning in other states for the Republican presidential nomination. The House minority leader, Rep. Fentrice Driskell of Tampa, called DeSantis “our absentee Governor.”

“He spent most of the last year focused on his own political ambitions outside of Florida,” she said, adding that GOP lawmakers and DeSantis “traded our freedoms, taxpayer dollars and reputation as a state to advance one man’s political career.”

Driskell said lawmakers should focus on affordability issues, reducing housing and rental costs and property insurance premiums.

Republicans hold overwhelming power in Tallahassee. Florida’s House includes 84 Republicans and 35 Democrats, plus one open seat for a representative from Osceola County that is the subject of a Special Election next week. That incumbent, Republican Fred Hawkins, resigned in June to become president of South Florida State College. The Florida Senate is split 28-12 in favor of Republicans.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, said DeSantis’ address was “one of the most hyper-partisan speeches” she had ever seen.

After Iowa’s caucuses next week, New Hampshire holds the first presidential Primary on Jan. 23.

DeSantis left for Iowa after a press conference about the storm at the state’s emergency operations center. Designating the 49 counties under a state of emergency makes it easier to provide government aid as needed, the Governor’s office said.

Just ahead of the governor’s speech, House Speaker Paul Renner’s remarks were interrupted by a tornado warning alert that sounded in the House chamber. Renner told lawmakers he would warn everyone if they needed to evacuate the Capitol. Watch the roof, he joked.

The roof was not razed.


Sophia Bailly of Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, authored this report.

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