Even before his election night romp, Ron DeSantis was feeling confident. The Florida governor’s boldness was evident in a campaign ad suggesting that he was chosen by God to “take the arrows” in defense of freedom. Following his nearly twenty-point victory over Charlie Crist, some dubbed him the winner of the midterms — a Republican who vastly outperformed his peers in other states. Chatter about a DeSantis presidential run quickly reached a fever pitch, as polling showed him surpassing Donald Trump in the eyes of GOP primary voters.
Christopher Rufo, the self-styled architect of the war on wokeness who continues to assist DeSantis, declared that the governor’s “culture war as public policy” approach is responsible for his latest victory. DeSantis won so decisively, in other words, because he heeded Rufo’s advice to “lay siege to the institutions,” prosecuting wokeness in corporations, universities, and above all K-12 schools. Indeed, DeSantis has focused numerous rhetorical and legislative efforts around the false notion that devious educators are indoctrinating students with “radical ideologies.” And in step with Rufo and his Koch-funded cohort’s free-market fundamentalist agenda, DeSantis has pursued every opportunity to privatize (and Christianize) public schools.
The New York Times, which for two years has parroted Rufo’s insistence that anti-woke rhetoric is the Right’s most potent mobilization tool, quoted the Manhattan Institute fellow saying that DeSantis’s midterm win proves Republicans should be “leaning in” to culture war issues.
The New York Times and the Washington Post, among other outlets, sold a compelling pandemic-era narrative: that mobs of outraged parents, empowered by Trump and now DeSantis, would deliver a seismic red wave in the midterms. But this red wave did not materialize. In fact, election data from across the United States evince a widespread rejection of the fury and panic that right-wing groups have so industriously sown.
Notwithstanding noisy social media fandom of personalities like Rufo, Libs of TikTok, and DeSantis aide and former press secretary Christina Pushaw, when faced with opportunities to vote up and down ballot for people who claim students are being encouraged to attend “sexualized drag shows” and, ludicrously, use cat litter supposedly in keeping with trans-species identities, majorities of Americans thought better of it. And while mainstream outlets have discussed the GOP’s mediocre midterm showing in terms of pro-choice sentiments and the waning power of Trump, there has not been enough acknowledgement of just how misleading the hateful mob hypothesis turned out to be.
When House Freedom Caucus members flexed their muscles by humiliating Kevin McCarthy last week, it was clear that the culture wars won’t be winding down any time soon. The lesson here is not that we should ignore the so-called anti-woke strategy, or dismiss the resounding success of the Florida governor who helped pioneer it. But if, as it appears, major outlets misdiagnosed the causes of DeSantis’s popularity, that means Democrats have a real opening to win by speaking up for public education and for democracy.
The Earthquake That Never Came
Referring in October to supposedly broad-based parental outrage about COVID shutdowns and schools’ handling of race and gender issues, Washington Post columnist and conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt argued:
The result of all of this has been an upending of voters’ views of the parties’ handling of education. The historic advantage held by Democrats has been erased, and now Republicans enjoy greater trust. Watch for an earthquake in local school board elections. The great education reset is underway.
In state after state, self-described parents’ rights candidates promised to overtake school boards, delivering education gag orders and, ultimately, big wins for the movement to dismantle public schools. But in state after state, the paranoid discourse of “grooming” and indoctrination failed to sway critical masses. And not for lack of funding: deep-pocketed, frequently Koch-affiliated right-wing groups like the 1776 Project PAC and the faux-grassroots Moms for Liberty poured eye-popping sums into local school board races in exchange for embarrassingly underwhelming results. In Michigan, where privatizers like Betsy DeVos have long sought to vilify and defund public schools, close to 80 percent of extremist candidates targeting suburban counties lost their elections. Parents’ rights candidates courting rural Michiganders fared similarly.
Even in parts of DeSantis’s now deep red Florida, school board election results showed the unpopularity of banning books and bullying gay and transgender kids. In Polk County, DeSantis won nearly 65 percent of the vote — about five points more than statewide. But as freelance education writer Billy Townsend reported on his Substack, four Republican school board candidates (including one DeSantis endorsee) collectively took less than 47 percent of the vote against their Democratic and nonpartisan opponents in the August primary.
And in November, a heavily Republican (GOP+20) electorate voted down the pro-censorship, dark money–backed Republican school board candidate — with 56 percent supporting her opponent, public schools advocate Lisa Miller. This was in spite of a barrage of deceitful attack ads, texts, and mailers, and DeSantis’s efforts to turn school board elections into hyperpartisan affairs. Just one of the three parents’ rights candidates seeking to flip incumbent Polk County School Board seats won (narrowly), as significant numbers of Republicans crossed party lines to vote for schools that value all kids.
To be sure, right-wing culture warriors did secure some meaningful school board wins, but Hewitt’s earthquake forecast proved wildly inaccurate. And this phenomenon was not confined to school board elections. Voters turned down local and statewide politicians who spouted transphobic conspiracy theories — like Moms for Liberty–backed Texas House candidate Michelle Evans, who claimed that schools are lowering tables for students who identify as dogs, or New Hampshire candidate for US Senate, Don Bolduc, who repeatedly suggested that schools are making kitty litter available to kids who identify as cats. Republican gubernatorial candidates who leaned into gender panic and Critical Race Theory obsession lost in Maine, Michigan, Kansas, Arizona, and Wisconsin — where county-level data showed how Republican Tim Michels’s extremist talking points repelled suburban voters.
Meanwhile, conservative West Virginians voted down a constitutional amendment that would have given the Republican-controlled state legislature more power to enact antidemocratic school choice policies. And in Massachusetts, New Mexico, Colorado, and California, voters supported ballot measures that increase public school funding.
All of this makes sense and was, dare we say, totally predictable. Which seems more probable: that secret majorities of Americans are terrified that students are eating from dog bowls and learning race-conscious math, or that not-so-secret majorities want high-quality, well-funded, fully-staffed schools for their kids and grandkids? Confirming the latter, a December poll from the National Education Association showed that in races where culture war topics became prominent, this emphasis tended to hurt the culture warrior candidates. And despite millions in related ad spending, “parental control” issues and voucher access were not ranked as important by most survey participants, including most parents. The poll also showed that Americans of both parties continue to view public schools favorably and that 71 percent of parents have positive opinions of public school teachers. Even self-identified conservative Republicans were five points more likely to see themselves as being in alignment with teachers than in opposition to them. Where education factored highly for voters, they reported being concerned about school shootings, inadequate K-12 funding, the threat of book and topic bans, and the need for “complete, honest” depictions of US history.
The bottom line: Democrats should expand on the model offered by people like Wisconsin governor Tony Evers, who called out Tim Michels’s plan to defund schools in the name of parents’ rights, or Michigan state senator Mallory McMorrow whose viral clapback to “grooming” accusations last spring noted that this discourse distracts from chronic disinvestment in public goods. They want you to fixate on pronouns, a pro-education campaign might point out, so you won’t notice that school buildings are crumbling.
Don’t Fall for the Decoy
If you’re focused on national news, it’s logical to conclude that DeSantis — who frequently makes headlines for his culture war stunts and illiberal education laws — is proof that while Trump’s brand may be losing appeal, the hateful rhetoric he promoted is not. In reality, DeSantis’s strength is attributable to numerous factors that have nothing to do with his rush to “empower” parents by curtailing the rights of students and school staff.
Following Hurricane Ian, DeSantis won praise for his willingness to coordinate with the Biden White House to swiftly rebuild Florida infrastructure, assist homeowners, and reward first responders with attractive compensation. It’s difficult to overstate how important these things are to people who have survived (or are likely to face) catastrophe. And the governor’s proudly lax approach to COVID, though opposite in many ways to his Ian response, was similarly portrayed by his team as stemming from avid concern for Floridians’ well-being.
Another key reason why under DeSantis the formerly swing state of Florida now appears solidly Republican is that during his first term, the GOP engaged in a massive Florida voter registration effort. Registered Florida Republicans were outnumbered by Democrats up until last year, but thanks in part to this admirable push, their count now exceeds Democrats by more than three hundred thousand. Meanwhile the Democratic Party has all but abandoned the Sunshine State, drastically reducing its investment in resources and staffing while outsourcing basic party functions to dubious out-of-state consultancies. Is it any wonder they’re getting clobbered?
Yet another likely reason why DeSantis is feeling confident enough to claim divine ordination is that his campaign is flush with record-breaking amounts of cash. Among GOP power centers, there’s a lot of investment in making DeSantis 2024 happen. Influential donors view the Yale University and Harvard Law School alumnus as being capable of capturing the MAGA energy without descending into the garish ickiness that offended delicate-stomached party elites. For all of these reasons, a DeSantis White House run seems practically inevitable.
We should, of course, be worried about this, just like we should worry about any extreme right-wing figure with a sizable following and a growing number of electoral victories. But if we assume that DeSantis is being propelled forward by swarms of meanies crawling out of the K-12 woodwork, we are missing — or ignoring — essential evidence. And in so doing, we’re relieving Democrats of the responsibility to build their ranks by addressing parents’ and other constituencies’ genuine material needs.