The strike against Disney that brought Gov. Ron DeSantis a windfall of campaign cash and weeks of glowing coverage from conservative media has also generated something the Florida Republican rarely experiences these days: criticism from the political right.
A handful of high-profile Republicans have expressed their unease with the punitive actions DeSantis took against the Walt Disney Company after its CEO spoke out against a new Florida measure restricting certain classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity. A fellow Republican governor, an ally of former President Donald Trump and the single largest donor to DeSantis’ reelection campaign are among those now questioning DeSantis for retaliating against a private enterprise.
“I don’t believe that government should be punitive against private businesses because we disagree with them,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a potential rival for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “That’s not the right approach either. And so, to me, that’s the old Republican principle of having a restrained government.”
The reaction follows a display of raw political power by DeSantis last month. The governor ordered state lawmakers to take up legislation that would eliminate the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the special governing body that has overseen Disney’s theme parks and Orlando-area properties for half a century. The new measure — passed in 48 hours by the GOP-controlled legislature and quickly signed into law — would mean significant changes to Disney’s tax obligations, and it has clouded the future of the state’s largest private employer and the economic engine of Central Florida.
Republicans have largely cheered on DeSantis, a sign of how quickly conservative sentiment has shifted against one of the most iconic brands in the world. After DeSantis first called out Disney in March, his political committee and campaign collected a combined $7.5 million in contributions in the three weeks that followed – many of them small donations from outside Florida – making March one of his most successful months of the cycle. He received a hero’s reception in Las Vegas during a campaign event for Republican Senate candidate Adam Laxalt, when he recounted his fight with Disney before an eager crowd. Fox aired an hourlong DeSantis special last week from just outside Disney’s doorstep in Orlando, with host Laura Ingraham celebrating the governor’s “in-your-face right-leaning policy.”
Cracks in the coalition
Amid his meteoric rise to a leading 2024 presidential contender, DeSantis has managed to unite traditional, pro-business Republicans and the party’s Trumpian wing better than any Republican over the past year. Yet, on the Disney issue, he has generated notable discontent from all corners of the GOP’s big tent.
Jenna Ellis, a former Trump campaign lawyer, called the new Florida law “vengeful” and pointed to statements from DeSantis and other Florida Republicans that she said made clear they had illegally retaliated against Disney’s “constitutionally protected speech.”
Disney CEO Bob Chapek publicly criticized Florida lawmakers for approving the measure targeting LGBTQ topics in schools and said the company would halt political donations in the state. Walt Disney Company and its holdings typically contribute millions of dollars each cycle to Florida candidates, mostly Republicans, including a $50,000 donation to DeSantis’ reelection effort.
After DeSantis signed the bill, Disney said in a statement that its goal was to get the law repealed or see it defeated in courts. That’s when DeSantis and Republicans got to work stripping Disney of its special district.
“You kick the hornet’s nest, things come up,” state Rep. Randy Fine, the Republican sponsor of the Disney legislation, said ahead of a committee vote on his bill.
The move “troubled” Kenneth Griffin, the billionaire hedge fund owner of Citadel said Monday. Griffin is a prolific donor to Republican candidates, including DeSantis, whose campaign received $5.8 million from Griffin when he first ran for governor in 2018. Griffin made a $5 million contribution a year ago to Friends of Ron DeSantis, the governor’s eponymously named political committee. No other person has donated more to DeSantis this cycle.
Griffin’s remarks came at the Milken Institute Global Conference, a gathering of business titans and influential thought leaders, where he praised DeSantis and called him “unquestionably one of the front-runners in the Republican (presidential) primary today.”
But turning to the Disney saga, Griffin said, “I don’t appreciate Gov. DeSantis going after Disney’s tax status. It can be portrayed or feel or look like retaliation. And I believe that the people who serve our nation need to rise above these moments in time in their conduct and behavior.”
Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, declined to comment on the concerns raised by Republicans.
“The governor’s previous remarks on the Reedy Creek issue still stand,” she said.
DeSantis has said he targeted Disney because its unique status was unfair to other Florida companies that don’t operate under a special district, including neighboring theme park operators. But he has also nodded to other motivations.
“Maybe this will be the wake-up call that they need to get back on track,” DeSantis said during last week’s Fox special.
‘They’re going after Mickey Mouse’
Democrats who have struggled to lay a finger on DeSantis have also seized on the Republican’s war against Disney in their attempts to weaken the rising GOP star as he heads toward reelection and a potential 2024 campaign. DeSantis is the heavy favorite to win a second term in November and has amassed a $100 million campaign that has only grown while pursuing a contentious conservative agenda.
“It’s mean. It’s ugly. It’s the way – look what’s happening down in Florida,” Biden said. “They’re going after Mickey Mouse.”
But Democrats have more often trained their ire on another Florida Republican: Sen. Rick Scott, the head of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm. Democrats have tied Republican candidates across the country to Scott’s “Rescue America” agenda, which calls for a minimum tax for all Americans and a sunset provision for all federal laws that would require Congress to regularly reauthorize programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
And notably, when DeSantis traveled to Nevada last month, state Democrats ran ads ahead of his arrival about Florida’s new 15-week abortion ban that the governor recently signed. His feud with Disney did not receive a mention.
Still unsettled in Florida is what happens next. Reedy Creek, which is controlled by Disney, quietly pushed back last month in a notice to investors, noting that the 1967 law creating the district included a pledge by Florida to “not in any way impair the rights or remedies of the (bond) holders” and that “the dissolution of a special district government shall transfer title to all of its property to the local general purpose government, which shall also assume all indebtedness of the preexisting special district.”
Democrats have warned that the dissolution of Reedy Creek could drop a $1 billion debt bomb on Central Florida taxpayers. DeSantis and his office deny that’s a possibility and have said a plan for next steps is forthcoming. His office would not say if DeSantis was aware of Florida’s Reedy Creek debt pledge before he pushed for legislation to end the special district.
“The specifics on the Reedy Creek plan have yet to be released. They will be soon,” Pushaw said. “The local residents of Orange and Osceola counties will not have to bear the burden of Disney’s debt, as the governor has stated.”
Florida Democrats have suggested DeSantis’ actions over the past two months demonstrate a Trumpian tendency to punish perceived political enemies without consideration of the consequences, and they expect that won’t sit well with voters.
“You have his own words to show this is who he is,” said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic strategist in Miami. “You disagree with him, he’ll come after you. You speak out, you’ll be silenced. You exercise your right to free speech, there will be repercussions. We have to communicate that to voters.”