The revelation that Disney may have outmaneuvered Gov. Ron DeSantis to strip authority from a board he appointed to govern the company’s Central Florida property is another setback for a governor whose momentum has slowed considerably in recent weeks, fueling questions about his ability to take on former President Donald Trump.
DeSantis’ 19 point reelection victory in November put speculation about his presidential potential into overdrive and made him the darling of the GOP. Polls showed him performing well in head-to-head matchups against Trump, and he began laying the groundwork for a 2024 presidential campaign.
The governor’s polling numbers have taken a dive in recent weeks, though, amid withering criticism from Trump and stumbles by DeSantis. The Disney embarrassment is another setback.
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DeSantis targeted Disney after the company publicly opposed the Parental Rights in Education Act he pushed through last year, which has been derided by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.” The governor called lawmakers into special sessions to pass a bill that was intended to give the state oversight over Disney’s properties in Central Florida.
The legislation renamed the governing entity for Disney’s properties, changing it from the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which was controlled by Disney, to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. It allowed DeSantis to appoint the new district’s board members, giving him a measure of authority over the company in Florida.
“There’s a new sheriff in town,” DeSantis said repeatedly in touting his efforts to bring Disney to heel.
But this week it came to light that Disney had pushed through a development agreement with restrictive covenants before the state legislation went into effect. The new board members appointed by DeSantis say that the agreement limits their authority over Disney.
Sarasota resident Bridget Ziegler, who was appointed by DeSantis to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board, tweeted that Disney had engineered “a last minute sweetheart development agreement.”
“We won’t stand for this and we won’t back down,” Ziegler wrote. “If unlawful actions were taken, this development agreement will be nullified.”
DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin also was defiant this week, tweeting that “A fight was always expected. Unlike others, (DeSantis) took the fight on. And the new board has only just begun to fight.”
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Will DeSantis’ image take a hit over Disney move?
The governor’s appointees are hiring multiple law firms to review the development agreement. Regardless of whether the agreement stands, DeSantis’ image could take a hit.
A big part of his appeal to GOP voters is a claim to governing competence that many believe Trump lacks. DeSantis bills himself as someone who can wield the power of the state effectively and enact big changes. Disney was supposed to be a prime example of that as the biggest public battle of his tenure as governor.
Right now, though, it looks like Disney has nullified DeSantis’ power. The governor’s reputation as somebody who can take the anger of the GOP base and channel it into significant policy changes could take a hit, along with his ability to tout a victory over Disney on the campaign trail.
It’s just the latest stumble for DeSantis, who also has faced criticism for calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute” and for struggling to effectively counter Trump’s attacks.
Trump has been merciless, moving from the occasional jab at “Ron DeSanctimonious” to a near daily barrage of criticism. He has slammed DeSantis over issues ranging from Medicare to Social Security and crime.
The Trump campaign was quick to poke DeSantis on Disney this week.
“President Trump wrote ‘Art of the Deal’ and brokered Middle East peace. Ron DeSantis got out-negotiated by Mickey Mouse,” tweeted Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich.
As poll numbers drop, questions raised over DeSantis’ ability to take on Trump
After ridding high for months, DeSantis has dipped in recent polls.
A Fox News survey released this week showed 54% of GOP primary voters back Trump, up from 43% in February. Support for DeSantis was at 24%, down from 28% in February. Other polls have shown a similar trend.
Trump’s impending indictment could be another blow for DeSantis’ political ambitions. His polling numbers started dropping as Republicans rallied around Trump after the likelihood of his indictment became public. A grand jury voted Thursday to move forward with the indictment.
Some conservatives are questioning DeSantis’ ability to take on Trump.
Matt Lewis, a conservative commentator for the Daily Beast, panned a recent interview DeSantis did with Piers Morgan.
“Slaying a monster like Donald Trump requires a certain presence,” Lewis wrote. “But in his Piers Morgan interview, DeSantis comes across as a politician who wants to hit his talking points and prove logically why he’s superior to Trump. And the thing is, you don’t slay dragons with logic. You need guts, heart, and a razor-sharp sword (or, in this case, tongue).”
University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett said that DeSantis has long seemed “invincible” with the GOP base, but the latest Disney episode and other recent stumbles have punctured that perception.
“It clearly does show DeSantis is not politically invincible and he is not necessarily the one who is going to knock off Trump in a Republican primary,” Jewett said, adding: “He might. I wouldn’t sell him short yet either.”
This period of turbulence for DeSantis was inevitable, Jewett noted.
“Nobody always goes up,” he said.
How DeSantis responds to adversity will be important in determining the future of any presidential campaign.
Some of his recent stumbles may just be a blip. Jewett noted that DeSantis will have a lot of conservative policy victories to point to when the legislative session ends.
“This Disney misadventure does suggest that like most politicians he’s going to have challenges,” Jewett said. “He still may get that nomination but he’s going to have a lot of challenges yet.”