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DeSantis and the culture wars


One of my jobs here at NPR is co-hosting the NPR Politics Podcast. This week, the show took a close look at how Florida voters are responding to Governor Ron DeSantis' embrace of the culture wars. DeSantis is eyeing a run for president. He's made a national name for himself among Republican voters by taking on big companies like Disney and limiting how sexual orientation, gender identity and race are discussed and taught in Florida classrooms. As DeSantis takes trips to key presidential states like Iowa this year, he's also planning to forbid any classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity all the way up through senior year of high school. That would expand upon the controversial law the governor signed last year that banned such instruction from kindergarten through third grade.

NPR's congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales went to Florida to see how all of this is playing with voters there. My co-host of the Politics Podcast Asma Khalid talked to Claudia about this, along with senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. And Asma started the conversation by asking Claudia what voters told her.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: It's really interesting. I spoke to a lot of Latino conservative voters in South Florida, in Miami-Dade County, and they have a lot of excitement, a lot of energy for Governor DeSantis. In particular, they're excited about his approach to a lot of these culture wars. They really related to a lot of that. It was interesting. Some would say that they were former supporters of ex-President Trump, but now they're moving on to the Florida governor because they see Trump is weakened, whether it's by Democrats or by Trump's own hand. And they see the Florida governor as a stronger figure. And he's bringing that same message, they say, of I alone can fix this. And so that ability to stand up, that reminded them of the kind of forceful kind of language they would like to see used by a president against a lot of these regimes in Venezuela, Cuba or other Latin American countries.

Along those same lines, I spoke to a professor at Florida International University, Professor Eduardo Gamarra. And he was telling me how popular this Florida governor has become among these Latino voters in particular. You didn't see that kind of influence when he first ran for governor, but you could see that in the reelection.

EDUARDO GAMARRA: You know, Colombians had shifted way to the right. Not as - the Venezuelans, not as far. The Cubans had shifted right. And that what unified them all was this enormous support for DeSantis.

GRISALES: And so what he's talking about is findings from a poll they conducted more than a year ago, talking to different Latinos about how they felt that the Florida governor was doing in terms of different issues. And he said a lot of them would repeat a lot of the same lines from the governor, clearly showing they're aligned and on the same page with him.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: That's so interesting 'cause it sounds almost like they moved to the right because of DeSantis' persona, because of who he has been as governor. I mean, is that what you're hearing from voters?

GRISALES: You know, I think that they're meeting together at the right place at the right time. I mean, there was depressed voter turnout - we should note that - in Miami-Dade, especially when we talk about Democrats. But these conservative Latino voters, what I heard a lot from them is they felt abandoned by Democrats. They felt like Republicans were doing a better job, especially paying attention to the issues in Latin America and some of these regimes that they're really worried about. One of those voters I talked to was Mario Sanchez (ph). He was telling me what a big fan he is of the Florida governor.

MARIO SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GRISALES: And so what he's saying there is that Democrats spend a lot of time talking about things that do not exist, like racism. He doesn't believe that that is an issue in this country. Rather, this is a Cuban American who was talking about focusing on patriotism, on how to unite the country and how to keep us all - Americans - on the same page, rather than focusing on the differences. And that's what's made him such a big fan of Governor DeSantis.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I think it's really indicative of the line that DeSantis has been trying to walk, and it's going to be a really interesting hurdle for him in the 2024 presidential election, if he does decide to get in, because, you know, we're seeing that there's something like half of the Republican Party base is open to someone other than Trump. He's sort of running in the same lane as Trump, making an appeal with this culture warrior tactics to voters who don't have college degrees, who make less money, when really he needs to also be able to pull over enough of those white-collar Republicans who do have college degrees and make more money.

KHALID: I'm struck hearing you say that there's this fine line DeSantis has to walk on some of these culture war issues because it seems like broadly, the Republican Party seems to think that this is a winnable issue for them. I mean, you look at what happened in Congress today. House Republicans, just a bit ago, passed this legislation dubbed a Parents Bill of Rights that would, among other things, inform parents if their kids changed pronouns in school, what books, for example, are held in school libraries, et cetera. And it seems like they think that this is a potentially really popular issue for them.

MONTANARO: They definitely see this as a wedge issue, as a way for them to get in on being able to split or divide Democrats and try to win over some independents. And I think, as Claudia is talking about, with a lot of the Latinos in South Florida, you know, this really does appeal to some of them because they're more culturally conservative, and that message has been really pushed by Republicans. And they have some polling on their side. I mean, if you look at the 2020 midterm elections, the exit polls there, they asked, are society's values on gender identity and sexual orientation changing for the worse, changing for the better or not getting better or worse? And, you know, half said that they're changing for the worse. Twenty-six percent said they're changing for the better. That included about 20% of Democrats who said that they're changing for the worse - clearly a big split there and divide.

KHALID: Domenico, was this nationwide exit polling or...

MONTANARO: That was nationwide exit polling overall. Now, when you drill down to what they're doing in Florida specifically, in Florida itself, there was a Siena poll last year that showed that, you know, more than two-thirds of Republicans were in favor of the bill that DeSantis had pushed for in limiting the kind of discussions about gender and sexual orientation in schools. About a fifth of Democrats were in favor of that. When you look more broadly, though, nationally, it's more split. You have 51% of Americans supporting banning teachers teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity from K-3.

Now, if that goes further, which it looks like DeSantis certainly thinks that he's got the ability to potentially push on, he's doubling down here. I don't know - there hasn't been any polling yet to show how people would feel about that all the way through 12th grade. But it's certainly one of those culture issues that Republicans have decided to really try and home in on. Now, the difficulty for them is, does it play in a general election in the same way it will in a primary?

DETROW: That was my co-host on the NPR Politics Podcast Asma Khalid talking to congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales and senior editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. You can catch the NPR Politics Podcast every weekday afternoon wherever you listen to podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.