Following Trump’s close win of the Florida electoral seats in 2016, DeSantis’ won the 2018 gubernatorial election by just .4% more than his Democratic opponent, meaning the political preferences of Floridians are almost evenly split. With a Republican majority in both the Florida House and Senate as of 2020, DeSantis has been able to pass new legislation without much pushback. In particular, he has been able to use redistricting, both for congressional mapping and the status of special districts, to ensure the future of GOP elections and conservative values.
The original congressional redistricting plan presented in March 2022 had Republican legislators and DeSantis at odds. DeSantis urged leaders to pass an aggressive congressional map that would eliminate two districts where Black residents are a plurality, but Republicans pushed back with a map that maintained the same number of Black districts. The two districts DeSantis was aiming to eliminate, the 5th and the 10th, are currently represented by Black Democrats, and opponents noted that the change would violate the Fair Districts amendment which requires Florida Lawmakers “to give minority communities an opportunity to elect representatives of their choice”. DeSantis disagreed, going as far as to proclaim that the 5th district “was an illegal racial gerrymander drawn to consider race above any other factors”.
By the end of March, Republicans amended their map to add two GOP seats and removed one democratic seat. DeSantis, however, unexpectedly put forth his own congressional map that would create an unrepresentative 20 seats that could feasibly favor the GOP and only 8 that could feasibly favor Democrats. DeSantis called for a special session at the end of April 2022, which finalized his congressional map. Florida House Democrats staged a sit-in in a final attempt to halt the new congressional map that was being passed at the end of the special session, though some Republican House members used polarizing rhetoric and called the movement a “hijack”. While some Democrats are hopeful that the map will face legal backlash, any challenge probably won’t be successful until after the November 2022 elections.
The passage of the congressional map highlights the capitulation of power from Republicans to DeSantis and the use of polarizing rhetoric by government officials that can erode democratic institutions. Understanding that DeSantis is a likely bid for the Republican Presidential nominee, Republican legislators conceded their partisan map for DeSantis’. This move highlights the full extent of the governor’s political power, which also shows the erosion of the democratic norm of institutional forbearance.
The announcement of a special session in March 2020 also coincided with Disney’s official condemnation of DeSantis’ “Parental Rights in Education” bill, also called the “Don’t Say Gay Bill”. Despite financially supporting DeSantis during the 2020 election cycle, the relationship between Disney and the governor began deteriorating over disagreements with COVID-19 mask mandates and vaccine policies, and it came to a sharp end when the company officially opposed the legislation. One of many new GOP-led anti-LGBTQIA+ bills that have been introduced during 2022, the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” bans discussion of LBGTQ issues from kindergarten to 3rd grade, limits LBGTQ discussion in older grades, encourages parents to sue school districts over teachings they don’t like, and more.
At the end of the special session in April 2022, the Florida Legislature, persuaded by the governor, and DeSantis officially ended Disney’s special district status, which gives the cooperation governmental control over the areas in and immediately surrounding its theme park. DeSantis noted that he did not like “having that kind of agenda get special treatment in my state”, when referring to Disney’s oppositional stance on the “Don’t Say Gay Bill”. The dissolution of the special district means Floridians may see a sharp increase in their property taxes as surrounding counties will need to absorb all of Disney’s “debts and obligations”. There is a possibility of special district renewal in 2023, but it will likely hinge on Disney’s stance on any bills DeSantis passes. This move further shows DeSantis maximizing his political power, which is an example of democratic erosion.
Using polarizing rhetoric, DeSantis has made issues like minority rights in elections and LGBTQIA+ rights seemingly moral issues, which has allowed him to polarize voters in Florida. As polarization within Florida increases, it becomes harder to create a unified consensus to govern, decreasing the chance of future cooperation and negotiation between, or within, political parties (as seen by Republican legislators’ resistance to DeSantis’ congressional map). This also erodes the democratic norms of mutual toleration— the idea that political opponents view each other as legitimate— and institutional forbearance. The governor seems to quickly silence opposition to his controversial legislation, such as his elimination of Black Democratic districts and “Don’t Say Gay Bill”, showing that he will not entertain dissenting opinions nor legitimize them. While he was only elected by a small margin, DeSantis’ removal of Disney’s special district status acts as a warning to other corporations and politicians within Florida that may attempt to oppose DeSantis’ legislation, as well as a reminder of his full political power.