Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a joint session of a legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
CNN  — 

Painting himself and his state as the antidote to closed schools, government mandates and Big Tech overreach, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday delivered an election-year State of the State speech that emphasized the deepening divide between Republican and Democratic leadership during the pandemic.

DeSantis opened his remarks by declaring Florida “the freest state in these United States.” He then laid out a legislative agenda ready-made for the culture wars that have lately dominated the political arena, touching on critical race theory in schools, vaccine mandates, voting laws, abortion and police funding.

The Republican leader, often mentioned as a potential presidential contender for his party in 2024, invited comparisons between Florida and states run by Democrats, and he levied sharp criticisms at the federal government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis without mentioning President Joe Biden by name.

Nor did DeSantis utter the words “coronavirus,” “pandemic” or “vaccines,” even as the state faces another wave of cases and rising hospitalizations of unvaccinated individuals.

“Florida has become the escape hatch for those chafing under authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions,” said DeSantis, who spoke for more than a half hour in a packed legislative chamber where masks were largely eschewed.

His State of the State kicks off the 23rd legislative session in Florida, where Republicans control all the levers of power. From drawing new legislative and congressional boundaries to passing a budget and weighing new abortion restrictions, Republicans will decide how far to push Florida to the right.

The session comes at a key moment in the Florida electoral cycle. DeSantis is up for reelection in November, and three leading Democrats have emerged to challenge the Republican incumbent and stall his political aspirations: US Rep. Charlie Crist, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and state Sen. Annette Taddeo.

Fried called DeSantis’ speech “performative political theater,” while Crist accused DeSantis of “polishing his radical resume to prepare to run for president.” Taddeo said DeSantis’ remarks were “aimed at primary voters in other states while completely ignoring the real issues facing Floridians.”

The legislative session in many ways will demonstrate the degree to which DeSantis has consolidated power in Tallahassee.

In past election years, Republicans had typically avoided protracted fights over controversial issues for fear of alienating moderate voters or energizing the Democratic base.

But DeSantis has often eschewed conventional political wisdom in his ascent and has embraced divisive issues, much to the delight of his supporters. He rose to prominence nationally for easing pandemic restrictions in Florida before most states, and he stood by his decisions to reopen as coronavirus cases surged and the death toll climbed in his state.

On Tuesday, DeSantis touted one of those decisions, opening schools by the fall of 2020, as an early example of when he took heat for acting against the advice of public health experts. More recently, Democratic leaders, including Biden, have acknowledged the importance of keeping kids in the classroom and the toll of virtual instruction.

“We were right and they were wrong,” DeSantis said.

To date, Florida has reported more than 62,000 deaths and the state is experiencing a record number of reported cases, partially attributed to the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

If DeSantis gets his way, Republicans will face the country’s hot button political fights head on and keep up with other hard-charging conservative leaders, like Texas Gov. Greg Abott and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem — who, like DeSantis, are expected to consider presidential bids someday.

At the top of his agenda is giving parents the ability to sue schools if they spot Critical Race Theory in their child’s class work. DeSantis’ administration had already banned Critical Race Theory in schools last summer and Florida educators have maintained it wasn’t part of their instruction. Following DeSantis’ lead, Republican lawmakers have filed legislation that would ban training or instruction that says any individual is inherently racist or that privilege or oppression can be determined by a person’s race or sex.

And as Biden traveled to Georgia to push for Congress to act on voting rights, DeSantis said Florida would expand efforts to find voter fraud and restrict mail-in ballots to “those who actually request them before each individual election.”

Amid continued pressure from conservative voters to acknowledge former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud, DeSantis has proposed a new investigative unit to enforce election laws here. The size of the proposed force, 52 full-time positions, is larger than many Florida cities’ homicide units.

DeSantis called Democratic pushes for voting rights “Orwellian doublespeak” while attacking ballot harvesting and taxpayer funding of elections.

DeSantis urged the legislature to further extend Second Amendment rights in Florida, already one of the most friendly states to firearm owners, but he didn’t elaborate – though in December he told gun-rights activists that he would sign constitutional carry legislation if it arrived on his desk. Abbott signed a constitutional carry law, which allows anyone to have a firearm without a permit, last year.

DeSantis also signaled his support for lawmakers to restrict abortion in Florida as the US Supreme Court considers the fate of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

In the hour before the governor spoke, Republican state lawmakers unveiled for the first time a bill that would ban abortion after 15 weeks, setting the stage for a heated fight in the coming weeks over the future of women’s health and abortion access.