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  • Writer's pictureCorey Lee Wilson

Ron DeSantis’s Big Night

For the past two years, Progressives and their allies in the legacy news media have tried to use Governor DeSantis’s education agenda to paint him as a reckless extremist.

For example, after DeSantis pushed Florida’s schools to reopen for in-person learning during the pandemic, critics dubbed him “Governor Deathsantis.” Later, when DeSantis fought to block public schools from teaching kindergartners about sexual orientation and gender identity—a policy that, whatever one thinks about it, appears to be favored by many voters—Progressives called him an authoritarian bigot.

Rather than run away from the critics, DeSantis went all in. He took the fight on education issues directly to his political opponents, including the state’s formidable teachers’ unions. In a wholly unprecedented move for a governor, DeSantis endorsed 30 school-board candidates—each of whom willingly pledged to support and campaign on his education agenda. What’s more, 17 of the candidates that DeSantis endorsed faced opponents who had won the backing of the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Make no mistake, this move was as risky as it was courageous. In a year in which DeSantis has to worry about his own reelection (he will face competition from former governor Charlie Crist), the incumbent chose to invest his time, money, and political reputation in backwater local elections that teachers’ unions have dominated for decades.

My own research on school-board elections shows just how bold DeSantis’s move was. Historically, candidates endorsed by teachers’ unions have won the overwhelming majority of board elections. In 2020, union-backed candidates in Florida won more than 70 percent of the time. What’s more, union-endorsed incumbents almost never lose.

Despite these unfavorable odds, DeSantis’s gamble paid off. On Tuesday’s election night, his board candidates steamrolled the ones favored by the education establishment. Twenty-five of the 30 candidates he backed either won outright (19) or advanced (six) to November’s runoff as the top vote-getter in their race. More impressive still, in the 17 contests where the teachers’ unions’ preferred candidate faced a DeSantis-crowned challenger, the union won just four seats.

The DeSantis education playbook offers several important lessons to Republicans.

First, it shows that when GOP governors take a more muscular approach to education advocacy at the local level, they can help even the playing field between unions and parents. Because school-board candidates run without party labels printed on the ballot, citizens can find it difficult to choose the candidate who shares their values. Far from undermining democracy, DeSantis’s move helped inform voters about the candidates and their priorities.

Second, it validates the popularity of at least some elements of the party’s education agenda. National polling data indicates that DeSantis’s education agenda has real appeal beyond just Florida. In July, 2022, voters from several battleground states who took part in a teachers’ union–commissioned poll by Hart Research Associates said they now trust Republicans more than Democrats on education issues.

Finally, it provides valuable insight into the type of standard-bearer the republicans should choose in 2024.

Much has been made about the potential of an impending DeSantis–Trump primary showdown. As Republicans consider which man would be a better choice to lead their party, they would do well to recall that politics, like sports, is not so much about individual talents as about elevating an entire team. Effective party leaders should be able to expand their coalition and win as many elections for their team as possible.

When it comes to party building, Trump’s record is marred by the half-hearted effort in Georgia’s special Senate elections, which likely cost the Republicans a Senate majority. On that election Tuesday, Ron DeSantis struck the opposite chord in Florida, thwarting a once-dominant political force, along with any doubts about his political future.

Content per the Michael Hartney “Ron DeSantis’s Big Night” National Review August 2022 article included in Progressivism Madness: A SAPIENT Being’s Guide to the Idiocracy and Hypocrisy of the ‘Regressivism’ Movement (Winter 2023).

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