Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) runs the risk of alienating Black voters ahead of a potential 2024 presidential bid after a series of controversial moves by his administration, some observers say.
Though he hasn’t announced a decision for the 2024 presidential election just yet, DeSantis is seen as a strong GOP contender for the White House, next to former President Trump. But a spate of actions some have criticized as “anti-Black” could pose a threat for the governor’s chances at winning over Black voters, who became a deciding factor in securing President Biden’s election in 2020 and the Democrats’ Senate majority in the 2022 midterms.
“People from all across the country should be concerned that Gov. DeSantis, who potentially will soon run for president in the next few years, that he is pushing this type of agenda,” said Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D). “This is the tone and the tenor that won’t just be for Florida but that will be spread nationally.”
Since his initial election four years ago, DeSantis has taken a hard-line approach against critical race theory, an academic framework that seeks to address systemic racism in the U.S.
DeSantis has described the idea of systemic racism in the U.S. as “a bunch of horse manure.” He has passed legislation limiting how race can be taught in schools and workplaces and, just this month, rejected an Advanced Placement African American studies course from running in schools.
Jones argued that such actions send a message that devalues Black Americans both in the state of Florida and across the nation. The move to reject the AP course, in particular, sparked heavy criticism, with the NAACP saying it showed “clear disdain for the lives and experiences that form part of our national history.”
DeSantis and his allies counter that such moves are intended to safeguard students from politicization in the classroom. The governor himself defended the move regarding the AP class earlier this week, noting the description of the course included a lesson on “queer theory.”
“We want education, not indoctrination,” the governor said. “If you fall on the side of indoctrination, we’re going to decline. If it’s education, then we will do.”
Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for DeSantis, added in a statement to The Hill on Tuesday that any assertion that the administration is anti-Black “is absurd, demonstrably false, and insulting and demeaning to all of us serving in and supporting this administration. There will always be extreme critics, but it is the media’s choice whether to give them a platform and legitimize their extremism.”
But Shermichael Singleton, a conservative political analyst, said he’s disappointed with DeSantis’s recent education decisions, which he calls dangerous and hypocritical.
“What we’re seeing now is that when we don’t like something we are going to do what conservatives like to accuse liberals of, and that is, ‘If I don’t like something, then I’m going to just get rid of it completely,’” Singleton said. “And that, to me, is a level of hypocrisy that I think some people are missing.”
Singleton added that DeSantis and the Republican Party as a whole need to consider the implications such restrictions will have on Black voters across the country.
“How do you communicate to people of color now that they should consider him as a presidential candidate, let alone the Republican Party?” Singleton said. “There’s certainly some benefits that DeSantis could argue and articulate as a state executive, ‘These are the things that were accomplished and achieved under my purview,’ but all of those things are diminished and dismissed when people feel that you are attacking their culture or when people feel like you don’t want to create a space at a minimum for their culture to be discussed.”
DeSantis has also faced accusations of enacting voter suppression laws, which disproportionately affect Black voters, and allegations of voter intimidation after his administration announced they would be arresting 19 convicted felons for trying to vote — 13 of whom were Black.
Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said these issues have been on the minds of Black Floridians for some time, but with 2024 approaching more Americans are learning about DeSantis and what he called the governor’s “anti-Black” policies.
“I think the more that Black voters across the country learn about him, the more that you’ll see that there’s going to be a strong unfavorability that he’s going to have,” Albright said.
“He takes pride in being able to say he’s standing up against the ‘woke mob,’ against these liberals, these progressive, these Black people and all of that. He’s actually going to try to turn that negative into a strength of his base.”
But if DeSantis decides to announce a presidential campaign, Albright added, these policies could drive a backlash that will turn out more Black voters to vote against DeSantis.
And DeSantis would be facing off in the Republican primary against Trump, who managed to make inroads with Black voters in both his presidential runs.
In 2016, Trump secured 6 percent of the Black vote — which was more than then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. In 2020, that increased to 8 percent of Black voters.
According to CNN exit polls, DeSantis won 14 percent of Black voters’ support in the 2018 Florida gubernatorial election and 13 percent in the 2022 election.
“There’s some lingering benefits that Trump was able to have from his New York days, his days of hanging out with hip-hop artists and all that,” said Albright. “DeSantis doesn’t have that.”
Still, there is some hope for the larger Republican Party.
A December poll by HIT Strategies found that 11 percent of Black voters said they supported Republican candidates for the House of Representatives in the midterms. Seventeen percent of Black voters under 50 years old said they supported Republican candidates, while 16 percent of Black male voters said they supported Republican candidates for the House.
But despite an increase in Black GOP candidates running for office, and an increase in Black voter support for Republicans, the party has consistently struggled to earn the same amount of support as Democrats — in part because of the way members discuss race, said Singleton.
“The Republican Party hasn’t had to worry about really aggressively going for the Black vote in a very, very long time,” said Singleton. “There are certainly positions that many Black people would probably fit right at home with the Republican Party, but Black people are not going to vote for a party that they believe has an antithetical position to matters of race. That will always be the Achilles’ heel for the Republican Party, and until that changes, then the Republican Party will always perform the way they currently perform with Black voters.”