Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, reportedly on the precipice of announcing his 2024 presidential campaign, has achieved what he may not have thought possible: He’s driving Disney’s business out of the state.
The company announced Thursday that it was scrapping plans for a $1 billion development in Orlando near Lake Nona Town Center that would have involved the creation of a new office complex, importing a division from California, and generating 2,000 new jobs. The move comes after DeSantis signed legislation that voided agreements allowing Disney to continue to develop its properties in Florida with relative independence, a law the company is now battling in court.
It’s part of a long-running culture war feud that started last year when Disney publicly opposed DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prevents teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ issues or people. Disney has claimed that DeSantis and his Republican allies have orchestrated a campaign of political retaliation, while the governor maintains that he’s merely ending the company’s long reign of operating in Florida with special privileges.
Disney parks chief Josh D’Amaro said in a statement Thursday that “changing business conditions” motivated the decision to cancel the development, under which Disney intended to relocate its famed Imagineering department over the protests of its employees to take advantage of Florida tax incentives. Though D’Amaro didn’t specify whether the fight with DeSantis was part of those changing conditions, Disney CEO Bob Iger was explicit in a call with investors last week: “Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people and pay more taxes, or not?”
For DeSantis, the fight may have gotten too hot. While it may have initially favored him politically to go after a company that was perceived as pursuing a progressive cultural agenda, the conflict has become “more personal and petty,” and he’s “definitely lost some ground,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former GOP Congress member from Florida.
It’s especially an embarrassment for him on a national stage, just before he’s reportedly planning to announce his 2024 presidential campaign, said David Jolly, a former GOP Congress member from Florida. His political opponents jumped to capitalize on it: Former President Donald Trump, who has maintained a historically large lead in the polls, said in a statement Thursday that DeSantis had been “caught in the mouse trap” and “now is doing even less for Florida’s economy.”
“I think it’s a humiliating defeat for DeSantis nationally,” Jolly said. “It shows a mix of incompetence, vanity, stubbornness, and failure. Those are all the wrong themes for someone about to announce a run for the White House from a relative position of strength.”
What DeSantis’s fight with Disney reveals about the modern GOP
Some on the right have used DeSantis’s fight with Disney to attack the governor’s conservative credentials. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is also reportedly weighing a 2024 run, said on Fox Business Network Thursday that the project’s cancellation was “only going to harm people in the Orlando and Florida area, and it’s one more reason why, as a limited government conservative, I’ve said for months now that I think both sides ought to stand down.” Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has also previously said, “I don’t think Ron DeSantis is a conservative, based on his actions towards Disney.”
The criticism of DeSantis from the right demonstrates how the modern Republican Party has split on its principle of limited government intervention. That idea, Jolly said, has become less important than outright winning in the Trump era. It’s become a more populist party than it was a decade ago, and there’s more tolerance from the Republican base for intervening in businesses that espouse values that conflict with their own, Curbelo said.
DeSantis’s own political trajectory models those shifts. When he was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, he would have never thought to use the power of government to punish speech — but that’s exactly what he’s doing now in targeting Disney for opposing his “Don’t Say Gay” law, Jolly said.
“We’re seeing in DeSantis a real abandonment of traditional less-government principles, but also traditional constitutional, conservative constitutional principles,” Jolly said.
And that extends beyond even his fight with Disney. He’s using the state to strip away a parent’s discretionary decisions over their child’s health care through his ban on gender-affirming care for trans kids. And he sent migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, despite the fact that some say it goes beyond his executive powers as governor.
Many on the right celebrated both choices, but the palate for those kinds of stunts may have a limit, even among the Republican base. And he’s approaching that limit when it comes to Disney, Curbelo said.
“Once something comes across as personal in nature or bullying in nature, people start getting turned off,” he said. “There are a lot of voters who still support the governor’s crusade against Disney. But that number is lower than it used to be.”