Florida was supposed to be the future of the GOP — now the state party is in shambles

Amidst heightened scrutiny, Governor Ron DeSantis seeks to regain focus while the state party chair steps down following a rape allegation.

At this time last year, Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida's Republican Party stood as a potential post-Donald Trump future for the GOP. Despite Republican underperformance in the 2022 midterms across most states, Florida bucked the trend. DeSantis secured a re-election victory with an impressive 20-point margin, a stark contrast to his slim 2018 win by less than half a percentage point. Seen as a beacon of hope for the party post-Trump era, Republican leaders saw DeSantis' aggressive culture war tactics, including book censorship, frequent use of the term "woke," and conflicts with Disney, as a promising political strategy.

"Ron DeSantis emerges as the GOP's future," touted a November 9, 2022, New York Post headline.

"Media recognizes DeSantis as the GOP's future post-midterms," echoed a CNN headline from the same day."

Initially, DeSantis's triumphant victory in Florida seemed poised to eclipse Trump's influence. Reports hailed it as a potential sidelining of Trump's relevance. DeSantis consistently led Trump in GOP primary polls, holding strong advantages. However, as DeSantis announced his presidential bid and Trump faced legal issues with 91 felonies across four jurisdictions, GOP support rapidly returned to the assertive, albeit legally embattled, figure of Trump.

Many attribute this shift to DeSantis' perceived lack of charisma and Trump's ability to turn his legal challenges into a strange asset among the GOP base. Yet, it's crucial to reexamine the Florida GOP's political landscape, specifically their culture war-centric strategies. The once-mighty Florida Republican Party, previously seen as a dominant force, now appears less sturdy in recent times.

The Florida GOP took decisive action on Sunday to oust their party chair, Christian Ziegler. Ziegler faced allegations of rape following a report from a woman who claimed involvement in a previous three-way sexual encounter with Ziegler and his wife. Despite the existence of video footage purportedly showing him engaged in sexual activity with the accuser, Ziegler declined to step down. Consequently, the party slashed his salary to $1 and revoked his legislative authority.

As previously highlighted earlier this month, the swift action to remove Ziegler lacks the traits of morality, decency, or consistency within the GOP. The party has historically supported Trump, despite his record as both an adulterer and a sexual predator. Ziegler's dismissal hints at a political rift rather than ethical motivations, indicating a loss of party support for him and his wife, Moms for Liberty co-founder Bridget Ziegler.

The Zieglers wielded significant influence over Florida's Republican trajectory, apart from the recent controversy. Their involvement spanned advocating for anti-education and pro-censorship initiatives. They were architects behind Florida's 'don't say gay' legislation and actively pursued legal action against Disney for backing LGBTQ rights publicly. Bridget Ziegler, through Moms for Liberty, led initiatives advocating book bans, contributing to a broader movement on the right. Her efforts played a pivotal role in enacting laws that intimidate Florida educators and librarians, subjecting them to legal repercussions if a student is found reading a book disapproved of by conservative parents.

The aggressive campaign against reading was a linchpin in the belief that the Florida GOP would steer the national party beyond the Trump era. However, the aftermath of the 2023 election showcased how book banning strategies backfired, mobilizing a wave of impassioned pro-education parents who voted in Democrats to govern school boards. Further analysis post-election highlighted that 'don't say gay' laws and targeting transgender children also proved to be political missteps. The Zieglers' once-celebrated strategy turned out to be a miscalculation.

Simultaneously, DeSantis finds himself on a downward trajectory in GOP primary polls, despite his fervent attempts to court MAGA voters through attention-grabbing stunts. His recent engagement in a frivolous GOP dispute over a Satanic display at the Iowa statehouse appears as a sign of his growing desperation.

In a nutshell: The Satanic Temple, in their customary fashion, sought permission to place their holiday exhibit in the capitol building. The state allowed it due to First Amendment regulations stipulating equal display rights for all groups if Christians are granted the same privilege. Subsequently, an individual, aligned with MAGA ideals, traveled from Mississippi to Des Moines and vandalized the Satanic altar. He faces vandalism charges, and Republicans are lending their support, seemingly condoning the desecration of religious displays, a stance they might oppose vehemently if it were a Christian decoration facing the same fate.

In an attempt to assert himself, DeSantis has decided to get involved.

It's essential to recall that DeSantis obtained his law degree from Harvard, making him well aware of the legal limitations surrounding the U.S.'s inability to lawfully prohibit or show bias against any religion, regardless of the desires of the MAGA base. However, having firmly embraced an unsuccessful political approach that opposes religious freedom, it appears he sees no alternative but to disregard the First Amendment's explicit provisions on this issue. 

DeSantis's calculated political maneuvers do carry some rationale. Surveys indicate that a majority of Republicans align with Christian nationalism, which inherently involves opposition to religious freedom. However, his approach lacks the resonance that Trump's rhetoric holds, as Trump's speeches these days echo historical tyrants, laden with genocidal undertones. One reason for DeSantis's struggle could be the simplistic nature of his tactics. The fervent MAGA base, driven by aggression, isn't satisfied with DeSantis merely pledging support for someone who defaced a Satanic altar. They demand stronger rhetoric, envisioning the mass incarceration of supposed enemies.

Ultimately, this is why the Florida strategy hasn't turned out to be the political boon Republican leaders hoped for. The methods adopted by DeSantis and Moms for Liberty teetered on the edge of fascism, alienating regular citizens, yet failed to fully gratify the desires of the MAGA base. While these tactics restricted books for minors, they didn't address the broader concerns of the Christian right. They attempted to eliminate LGBTQ representation in schools, but didn't successfully regress to a time when LGBTQ identities were completely taboo. The Florida GOP's pledge of an authoritarian pathway that wouldn't upset the non-authoritarian majority turned out to be an empty promise, evident in the current disarray of the party.

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