The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP lawmakers follow Florida’s lead with DeSantis copycat bills

The Rocky Mountains outside of Cheyenne, Wyo. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post)
12 min

Wyoming’s rugged terrain is almost a nation away, geographically and culturally, from the suburbs and swamps of Florida.

But as Wyoming lawmakers meet for the legislative session, the influence of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is looming large over the state Capitol in Cheyenne.

GOP lawmakers in the Equality State have introduced a proposal to ban references to sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, replicating chunks of a controversial law that DeSantis implemented in Florida. A separate Republican-sponsored bill would hold librarians and teachers criminally liable should a student be exposed to obscene reading materials, also taking a cue from DeSantis’s agenda some 2,000 miles away.

Other DeSantis-inspired bills have been introduced by Republican state lawmakers in Georgia, Nebraska, Indiana and beyond.

“Just as California has taken a lead on a lot of liberal policymaking, Florida now seems to be the center of gravity for a lot of conservative policymaking right now,” said James Nash, a former spokesman at the National Governors Association and now a senior vice president at the bipartisan ROKK Solutions public affairs strategy firm.

From the Mountain West to the Deep South, Florida-style bills are springing up in state legislatures, signaling the growing influence of DeSantis as an ideological leader for a Republican Party that had been shaped in the image of former president Donald Trump.

The state-policy debates underscore how Florida now rivals Texas as a laboratory for conservative policies, giving Republican legislators elsewhere a model for how to turn their principles on social issues into law.

Gay rights activists believe DeSantis helped inspire dozens of new state proposals that seek to regulate transgender health care, drag-show performances or public accommodations for transgender Americans. So far in 2023, the American Civil Liberties Union has identified 278 proposals in state legislatures that it considers “anti LGBTQ bills,” already equaling the total number of such bills filed in 2022.

Meanwhile, PEN America, a freedom of expression advocacy group, has so far identified 81 proposals that it believes are attempts to stifle creativity and academic freedom in education. About 20 of those proposals appear to be nearly a “carbon copy” of a law enacted last year in Florida that bans LGBTQ topics from elementary school classrooms, said Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America.

And according to Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based advocacy group with close ties to DeSantis, lawmakers in a half-dozen states are debating “parental rights” legislation that closely mirrors a bill that Florida’s governor signed into law last year restricting what teachers can say about gender and sexual orientation.

Although conservative advocacy groups and think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Alliance Defending Freedom and Moms for Liberty still play a significant role in drafting state legislation and finding sponsors for the proposals, both conservative and liberal advocates say DeSantis’s governance of Florida is providing a road map.

In recent weeks, DeSantis has frequently touted his legislative and economic record, crediting it for the state’s robust population growth and a multibillion-dollar budget surplus.

“People vote with their feet. Florida’s record-breaking net domestic migration exhibits the success of Governor Ron DeSantis’ priorities,” Jeremy T. Redfern, his deputy press secretary, wrote in an email. “We are proud to be a model for the nation, and an island of sanity in a sea of madness.”

Young said the country was witnessing “a sustained and escalating assault against public education, and in some cases private education, at every level.”

“Governor DeSantis appears to view attacks on public education as a salient campaign issue in his growing political career, and he has prioritized these attacks, and extreme versions of these attacks, in ways that many other political leaders have not,” he said.

Michigan state Rep. Phil Green (R), who is urging DeSantis to run for president, said state lawmakers around the nation view DeSantis as a model for how to win over voters while at the same time producing legislative results. DeSantis was reelected last year with nearly 60 percent of the vote, a landslide victory in a state that until recently had a reputation for being one of the nation’s most politically competitive.

“A lot of people can tell you what they would like to do, and what they think should be done, but Ron DeSantis actually has a record and can show, ‘This is what I have done,’” Green said.

The governor’s growing influence in state legislatures could serve as a litmus test for how widely DeSantis might appeal to a larger audience as he mulls a possible presidential run. Despite the sheer number of Florida-style bills, some analysts are skeptical that DeSantis’s measures that stoke culture wars will draw support from lawmakers in more moderate states.

Democrats and liberal activists are using the new forums to craft strategies for how they might oppose DeSantis should he run for higher office, believing Florida’s reputation as a whole is now inextricably linked to DeSantis and his agenda.

“We just immediately put out all of these social media posts that said, ‘Don’t Florida my Wyoming,’” said Sara Burlingame, the executive director of Wyoming Equality, a group that promotes LGBTQ rights. “We are making it very clear where this is coming from, and we were saying, ‘This is a Florida bill trying to sneak into Wyoming.’”

DeSantis has been helping to set the agenda on more than just education policy.

GOP legislators in several states have been considering proposals to create state election police forces, mirroring the Florida law that DeSantis pushed for last year — and that has led to few arrests, as well as criticisms of abuse and discrimination.

In Georgia, several GOP lawmakers have proposed a bill that would make it easier for state leaders to remove county prosecutors from office — a power DeSantis used last year when he ousted an elected Democratic state attorney in one of the state’s most populous counties, Hillsborough.

Meanwhile in Missouri, lawmakers are considering a measure that goes further than a Florida law passed last year in addressing who can discuss sexual orientation or gender identity with students. The Missouri proposal would prohibit any school employee — including guidance counselors or nurses — from talking about those subjects with any student under the age of 18 unless the employee is a licensed mental health counselor.

Last month, Texas Monthly published an article titled “Is Ron DeSantis the Most Powerful Republican in Texas?” The article noted that Texas lawmakers were pushing a plethora of bills that appear to be based off DeSantis’s policies on vaccine mandates, transgender health care and his state elections police force.

Political analysts who closely follow state legislation caution that DeSantis isn’t the only inspiration for bills in states such as North Carolina, Indiana and Missouri that LGBTQ advocates refer to as “don’t say gay” laws. They note that many Republican-leaning states are led by governors, such as Kim Reynolds (R) in Iowa or Kristi L. Noem (R) in South Dakota, who have long signaled their willingness to take on cultural battles.

Other Republican governors, including Arkansas’ Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who gave the GOP response to President Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday, appear to be trying to own a political brand that only loosely tracks with DeSantis’s policies in Florida. Last month, Sanders signed an executive order banning the word “Latinx” from state documents, highlighting how DeSantis is not the only governor on a mission to combat so-called woke policies.

Matt Mackowiak, a Texas Republican strategist, said it is an “oversimplification” to suggest that DeSantis has muscled Texas’s Greg Abbott and other GOP governors out of the spotlight to become the new “national leader” of the GOP whom “everyone just follows.”

“There is a lazy narrative building that DeSantis is a bold, courageous risk-taker, and all of these other Republican governors are lounging back and just waiting to see what DeSantis is doing,” said Mackowiak, who is also chairman of the Travis County Republican Party in Austin.

He noted that DeSantis has some built-in political advantage that has allowed him to outflank other statewide GOP leaders in terms of enacting conservative public policy.

For one thing, Mackowiak noted that DeSantis has benefited from having a relatively weak legislature — including with term limits for lawmakers — that make it easier for the governor to enact and take credit for headline-grabbing legislation.

And on some issues, DeSantis has actually followed the example of other GOP leaders, including his decision to attempt to replicate Abbott’s strategy of transporting border-state migrants to Democratic-leaning states and cities.

North Carolina state Sen. Amy Galey (R) said neither Florida nor DeSantis played a role in her decision to introduce a “parental bill of rights” measure that bans lessons or textbooks that include topics on “gender identity, sexual activity or sexuality” in kindergarten through fourth grade. On Tuesday, the North Carolina Senate voted to approve her bill, sending the proposal to the House.

Galey insists that GOP legislators are mostly taking their cues from parents who, “during the pandemic, actually saw the curriculum that was being taught” and are now demanding changes.

“I can personally say I have not dug deep into the Florida bill,” Galey said.

Nonetheless, Mackowiak said DeSantis has made a mark by pushing the bounds of his policies and actions in ways that other, slightly more risk-averse GOP governors, including Abbott, have not. He doubts that Abbott, for example, would have sent state agents into another state to identify migrants, then fly them to an isolated island, as DeSantis did in September when he flew migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

But as GOP legislators from an array of states seek to emulate DeSantis’s policies, there remains considerable uncertainty over whether his message and style of policymaking play well politically outside of Florida and the Deep South.

Democratic lawmakers in some states say they relish making the debate over GOP legislation a referendum on the Florida governor, saying he has become synonymous with an abrasive brand of politics that turns off moderate voters.

“He is the perfect embodiment of the sickness of Trumpism,” said Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Democrat from Philadelphia who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor last year. “You are seeing it in the way that he governs. … It’s all about: ‘This is who you should hate. This is what we need to ban today, and this is what marginalized group of people … you need to blame for all the problems in the world.’”

Kenyatta noted that, last year, Pennsylvania’s GOP nominee for governor, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, stated he wanted to make the Keystone State the “Florida of the North,” a reference to his embrace of DeSantis’s policies on pandemic restrictions, school curriculums and election laws. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) defeated Mastriano by about 15 percentage points, while Democrats also won control of the state House for the first time in more than a decade.

Shelby Chestnut, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, a civil rights organization, said LGBTQ advocates in some states are finding more success in pushing back against DeSantis-inspired legislation when they connect it to a broad spectrum of the governor’s most recent actions. Chestnut characterized DeSantis’s recent decision to ban an Advanced Placement African American studies class as an example of political overreach that would not play well politically in many Northern states.

“We are watching one person take hold of as much power as he possibly can by targeting Black communities, targeting LGBTQ communities, and the rest of the country takes note of that,” Chestnut said.

Green, the GOP lawmaker from Michigan, counters that Democrats will be making a mistake if they underestimate DeSantis’s potential appeal in Northern swing states, noting that snowbirds and vacationers continue to flock to the Sunshine State.

“There is just a very strong connection between Michigan and Florida, and it’s not just people driving back and forth on Interstate 75,” Green said. “As the politics plays itself out, you will see the Ron DeSantis style of politics and leadership will play very well with the people of Michigan.”

But even in Wyoming, a state that gave Trump his biggest winning margin in the 2020 presidential election, progressive advocates also believe they can still prevail in defeating copycat legislation by directly linking it to DeSantis and Florida.

Last week, a House committee voted 6-3 to reject the proposal that would have made librarians and teachers criminally liable if children are exposed to certain textbooks. The state Senate has approved both a parental rights in education bill, which includes a provision barring LGBTQ content in early elementary grades, and a separate proposal that classifies it as “child abuse” for a minor to receive gender-affirming care.

Burlingame, of Wyoming Equality, remains hopeful that both measures will be rejected by the House, arguing that Wyoming has a proud libertarian streak.

“It used to be, in Wyoming, when out-of-state people did harm to locals and rode into town, we knew what to do,” Burlingame added, referring to the cowboys and sheriffs who ran troublemakers back into the prairie. “I just hope we still do.”