Ron DeSantis has hinged his struggling presidential campaign on how he successfully passed a battery of ultraconservative laws in Florida. But what he doesn’t like to mention is the millions of taxpayer dollars he has wasted as courts repeatedly knock those laws down.
The Republican-controlled state legislature has helped DeSantis easily take on some of the right’s favorite culture wars. He gutted abortion rights, LGBTQ protections, and academic freedom. He also has been locked in a bizarre legal back-and-forth with Disney for the past year. He has repeatedly held up these accomplishments as signs of success.
That allotment includes $6 million for the governor’s office, compared to just $1.6 million last year. The State University System Board of Governors received an extra $2 million to defend DeSantis’s “Stop Woke” Act, and the attorney general’s office got an additional $5 million to defend the state’s backward Covid-19 vaccination policies.
The extra money for legal costs means that DeSantis is able to hire outside (and much more expensive) lawyers to defend his policies. So far, his administration has spent the most defending laws restricting voting rights, transgender health care, and academic freedom. But despite his best efforts, and his hefty coffers, most of those laws were still overturned.
DeSantis’s administration has already allocated more than $875,000 for lawsuits this year alone. The Florida governor’s office hired the law firm Holtzman Vogel Baran Torchinsky & Josefiak to defend two laws blocking access to gender-affirming care. The government signed a contract with the firm in April for $400,000 to defend a law banning gender-affirming care for trans minors and restricting it for adults. Under that law, medical facilities could lose their license if they offered health care to trans or nonbinary children.
Federal Judge Robert Hinkle temporarily blocked the law in early June, citing multiple doctors who testified against the law that “denial of this treatment will cause needless suffering for a substantial number of patients and will increase anxiety, depression, and the risk of suicide.” The law is still making its way through the courts—and DeSantis may be forced to spend even more money defending it.
DeSantis also signed a contract with Holtzman Vogel for $300,000 to defend the Florida law prohibiting Medicaid from covering gender-affirming care. Hinkle struck down that law as well, ruling that it violated federal policies on Medicaid, equal protection, and the Affordable Care Act’s ban on discriminating based on sex. The state of Florida has appealed the ruling.
In July, the nonprofit Vote.org sued to block Florida’s “wet signature” law, which requires that voter registration forms be signed with wet ink. This means that people have to either register in person or sign and then mail in their registration, as opposed to registering electronically. Vote.org is arguing that the law violates the Voting Rights Act.
A trial date has not yet been set, but DeSantis’s administration has signed another contract with Holtzman Vogel in May agreeing to pay the firm $125,000 to defend the law in court.
DeSantis developed this habit of burning through taxpayer dollars since he assumed the governor’s office in 2019. In 2018, the League of Women Voters sued to overturn a statewide ban on early voting locations on college campuses. Then-Governor Rick Scott’s administration signed a $150,000 contract in June with the firm Hopping Green & Sams to defend the ban.
When DeSantis took office, he extended the contract by two years and agreed to pay Hopping Green an additional $30,000. The lawsuit was settled in 2020 when the secretary of state agreed to allow early voting sites on campuses. But it appears the DeSantis administration has yet to pay the firm the extra fee.
These laws, and the many others like them that Republicans are passing across the country, are not actually meant to be good. They aren’t really even meant to stand up in court. The goal is to stoke culture wars and scapegoat people who don’t adhere to strictly conservative lifestyles.
The laws are also meant to make DeSantis seem like a warrior for far-right values. They’re the reason he is able to promise to “make America Florida.”
But the fact is, the laws aren’t paying off, in every sense of the word. Not only are they costing his state millions, but they also belie the true extent of DeSantis’s influence.
DeSantis was able to force these laws through because the Republican Party controlled both chambers in the state legislature. Most of his policies are unpopular among voters, and they aren’t doing much better on the national level.
The Florida governor has plummeted in opinion polls in recent months. Once hailed as the natural successor to Donald Trump, DeSantis now trails Trump by a huge margin. In some polls, he ranks even lower than second place.
His powerful former backers are deserting him over his inability to appeal to the general public. One billionaire Republican donor, hedge fund CEO Ken Griffin, was DeSantis’s biggest donor during the 2022 election, giving $5 million to his gubernatorial reelection campaign.
But Griffin has yet to say whether he will back DeSantis for president. “I don’t know his strategy,” Griffin told CNBC a few weeks ago. “It’s not clear to me what voter base he is intending to appeal to.”
In particular, DeSantis’s bizarre battle with Disney “is pointless,” Griffin said. “It doesn’t reflect well on the ethos of Florida.”
The state Republican Party revoked a DeSantis-backed pledge to endorse whoever the Republican presidential nominee is. Front-runner Donald Trump’s supporters have been calling for such a reversal.
And at Pasco-Hernando State College, the board of trustees—stacked with DeSantis allies—passed over a DeSantis official for the college president.
Republican state Representative Daniel Perez told his colleagues last week to be careful going forward, warning that the “problem with wielding the power of government like a hammer is that the people start looking like nails.”
Perez has denied that he was speaking about DeSantis, but another Tallahassee lobbyist said it was a signal to the governor that the legislature would no longer act as a “conveyor belt” for whatever laws he wants.
So in the end, all of DeSantis’s signature laws have come back to bite him. The policies that were supposed to make him look strong have ended up eroding his power and his appeal.