How Florida became Ground Zero for the Ultra-MAGA movement

The Republican dominance in Florida seems to have become a self-reinforcing phenomenon.

Posters of former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are seen during the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference
Posters of former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are seen during the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, February 24, 2022, in Orlando, FL (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Last month, President Biden coined the term “Ultra-MAGA” to describe the current extremist contingent within the Republican Party that has become the driving force for the GOP’s increasingly radical agenda.

Biden first employed the term in a May 5 speech to describe a proposal from Republican Senator Rick Scott which calls for all Americans, including those with the lowest incomes, to pay some income tax.

Despite Biden mistakenly labelling him a Wisconsin Senator, Scott actually represents Florida, a fact that is not ancillary to the Ultra-MAGA designation, as the Sunshine State has become the de facto headquarters and launch pad for the far right Republican agenda.

Should Republicans regain the White House in 2024, it is likely that the winning candidate will call Florida his home. And while people like Scott and fellow Senator Marco Rubio have emerged as faithful servants of the GOP agenda and potential presidential hopefuls, the fate of the GOP in Florida and nationally largely rests on the shoulders of the two men – Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis – who have transformed Florida into the heart of the arch-conservative moment within the Republican Party.

It may seem odd that Florida would be the initiator of much of the Republican policy agenda and home to the top GOP contenders. The state is, after all, fairly purple in its political leanings, in contrast to other solidly red states in the Deep South.

Ironically, though, it’s the relatively close split of Florida’s electorate that has inspired Republicans to focus on the state so much and to do all they can to make the state less competitive than it should be. Ever since the Supreme Court decided a virtually tied Florida vote in favour of George W Bush in 2000, the state has been perhaps the most bitterly fought electoral battleground in the country; the 2020 presidential campaigns, for example, spent more money advertising in Florida than in any other state.

Donald Trump announced his reelection bid during a rally in Orlando. Campaigning in the state allowed Trump to appeal to some of his most important voting blocs: older white voters, who make up much of his base; Hispanic voters, among whom Trump has over-performed through shrewd appeals to issues like border control and sanctions against Cuba; and Evangelicals, both white and Hispanic, who remain his most fervent supporters.

Beyond the campaign, Trump’s numerous trips to Florida transformed the state into the symbolic centre of the MAGA movement. Trump dubbed his Mar-a-Lago resort the “Winter White House”, frequently spending time there during his presidency and conducting official presidential business there, including hosting numerous heads of state. The Trumps eventually made the resort their official residence, possibly illegally, and relocated there after leaving the White House. Though Trump moved to Mar-a-Lago for very pedestrian reasons – tax breaks, of course – his presence has turned the resort into a conservative pilgrimage site. Dozens of Republican politicians, not to mention various GOP “heroes” like acquitted shooter Kyle Rittenhouse, have made very public visits to Trump at his resort in order to obtain his political blessing.

One of the Republican stars to visit Mar-a-Lago to kiss Trump’s ring – or possibly steal it – was Ron DeSantis, who won the governorship in 2018 based on the strength of the then-president’s endorsement. But DeSantis’ shift to the right did not end with obtaining Trump’s approval; the Florida governor has actually placed himself to the right of Trump.

Florida was one of the first states to explicitly ban “critical race theory” from public education. But DeSantis has gone on to push such censorship further than other states through the unsubtly-titled “Stop WOKE Act” which restricts not only schools but also private corporations from conducting teaching or trainings that could cause people to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin”. He also pushed through Florida’s infamous “don’t say gay” bill, taking a harder anti-LGBTQ stance than Trump or many of the other rising stars in the GOP. DeSantis additionally carved out a role for himself as one of the nation’s leading opponents of vaccines and masks, even as Trump touted – and attempted to take credit for – the anti-COVID shot.

While pushing his brand of culture wars, DeSantis has also used the power of his office to bully or punish private organisations that oppose his agenda. Building upon a high profile spat with the Walt Disney Corporation, DeSantis has cancelled funding for a sports complex affiliated with the Tampa Bay Rays in a blatant case of retaliation for the baseball team’s call for gun control, and the governor used the anti-vaccine legislation he pushed through earlier to pressure the Special Olympics into dropping its vaccine requirement. In short, while Trump made Florida the nexus for Republican luminaries, DeSantis transformed the state into the incubator of increasingly repressive Republican policies.

Finally, DeSantis has been consolidating power for himself and Florida’s Republicans, shaping a political system that gives outsized influence to the GOP and hampers Democrats’ chances in the state. After Florida voters chose to restore voting rights to felons – a sign that the state’s population was becoming more liberal – Republicans worried that the re-enfranchisement would benefit Democrats. They therefore passed a new set of regulations that defied the spirit of the law by denying the vote to hundreds of thousands of people who still owed fines or fees related to their convictions. DeSantis and the Republican legislature also attempted to enact one of the country’s strictest set of voter suppression laws, but this move was largely shot down in federal court. Finally, the governor has defied even his own Republican controlled legislature to push through a gerrymandered new voting map that dilutes the vote of the state’s Black community; a 4-1 Florida Supreme Court majority – including all three of DeSantis’s appointments to the court – recently upheld the new map.

The Republican dominance in Florida seems to have become a self-reinforcing phenomenon. As Republicans gain more victories and pass more restrictions that limit political competition, the Democratic Party seems less willing to invest in competing for the state. For example, Representative Val Demings, a rising star within the Democratic Party, is receiving virtually no national support in her bid to challenge Senator Rubio. Surely, the Democrats will contest Florida in 2024, but by then it may be too late to make up lost ground.

If Florida ever comes close to losing its status as a Republican stronghold, the political shakeup won’t likely come from Democrats but rather from the two men who currently dominate the state and the party. If Trump runs again, he’ll need a new running mate – given that he very publicly fell out with his previous vice president – and there is speculation that he could pick DeSantis for the role. But the relationship between the two men has turned cool at best and passive-aggressive at worst; Trump sees DeSantis as insufficiently grateful, while DeSantis has implied that Trump is not conservative enough for their shared followers.

The Florida governor is currently up for reelection this year but seems to have presidential ambitions of his own, and may not be willing to wait behind Trump to take a shot at the White House. For the second year in a row, DeSantis narrowly edged out Trump in a straw poll conducted at the Western Conservative Summit asking which candidates attendees would prefer to be the Republican 2024 presidential nominee. At 71 percent and 67 percent, respectively, DeSantis and Trump far outpaced every other potential GOP nominee, setting up a potential showdown between them for the nomination. If the tension between them boils over into a full-blown competition for the role of Republican standard-bearer, such a contest could split the MAGA coalition nationally and especially within Florida.

But such an outcome remains speculation at the moment. For now, Florida will remain a model for new repressive Republican legislation, policies and politics.

DeSantis has become a GOP trendsetter; other Republican governors have either imitated his style of governing, or they’ve paid the price with voters for not matching DeSantis’ aggressively conservative energy. Trump, meanwhile, continues to hold outsized influence on Republican candidates around the country, even if his power as kingmaker has diminished over time.

More disturbingly, the Florida of Trump and DeSantis has become a breeding ground for radical conservative actors and groups, from the school-board-subverting Moms for Liberty to the leaders of the Proud Boys militia and more January 6 insurrectionists than any other state. And even if DeSantis and Trump fall short of their future political ambitions, the impact they’ve had on Florida, and through Florida on the GOP across the country, will linger for some time.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.