GOP Governors Are Putting The Culture War Ahead Of The Economy

In Texas and Florida, ambitious Republicans are moving forward on divisive issues — no matter the expense to their constituents.

Ambitious Republican governors in two of the nation’s largest states have taken steps to put culture war issues ahead of their constituents’ economic health in recent weeks, moves likely to earn them plaudits from the GOP base but with a history of political downsides.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott dispatched state troopers to the U.S.-Mexico border to inspect commercial truck traffic for illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants, causing massive backups and snarling supply chains. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis attempted to punish Disney for supporting LGBTQ rights, but likely guaranteed tax increases for millions of Floridians.

Both moves have drawn fire even from other conservatives, and both carry echoes of past GOP culture war steps that landed governors in political hot water. But a pro-GOP political environment means both men are unlikely to suffer any short-term electoral consequences as they run for reelection in 2022, and are also potentially endearing themselves to Fox News-obsessed 2024 Republican presidential primary voters.

“You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re gonna marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state,” DeSantis said on Friday as he signed legislation to revoke Walt Disney World’s ability to essentially govern itself. “We view that as a provocation, and we’re going to fight back against that.”

DeSantis and Florida Republicans explicitly launched their assault on Disney, the state’s largest employer and most powerful corporation, after it spoke out against the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which gives parents the right to sue public schools for sex education deemed not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

Disney spoke out against the law under pressure from employees, and announced it would cease all political giving in Florida. DeSantis’ lieutenant governor said Disney could get its self-governing status back if the company drops its opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” law. (The law does not go into effect until June 2023.)

A person wearing a mouse costume holds a Gov. Ron DeSantis poster and stands with supporters of Florida's Republican-backed "Don't Say Gay" bill that bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for many young students on April 16.
A person wearing a mouse costume holds a Gov. Ron DeSantis poster and stands with supporters of Florida's Republican-backed "Don't Say Gay" bill that bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for many young students on April 16.
Octavio Jones via Reuters

But if the law does take effect, the economic impact on Orange and Osceola counties, where Disney World is located, could be substantial. Orange County tax collector Scott Randolph, a Democrat, predicted the county — which includes the city of Orlando and many of its suburbs — would need to raise property taxes 20% to 25%, according to WFTV.

That’s because Disney currently taxes itself roughly $160 million to pay for a wide variety of services, including its own police and fire departments. If the special district goes away, so does that revenue.

Reedy Creek Improvement District, the formal name of Disney’s special government, also has more than $1 billion worth of bond liabilities — which would also be transferred to local governments.

Orange and Osceola are both Democratic-leaning counties, though both are large enough to supply huge numbers of Republican votes. They are also among Florida’s fastest-growing counties, including large migrations of Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland.

While DeSantis narrowly won election in 2018, the substantial incumbency advantage for governors and a GOP-leaning political environment means he’s a favorite for reelection against a crowded Democratic primary field.

Abbott, similarly, has a substantial war chest and is favored against former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic nominee in Texas. But Abbott’s decision to order truck inspections — made in response to the anticipated end of the Title 42 immigration order next month — drew criticism even from Republicans.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, a conservative Republican, railed against Abbott’s orders as unnecessary and said they would contribute to already-inflated grocery prices across the country.

“This is not solving the border problem, it is increasing the cost of food and adding to supply chain shortages,” Miller said. “Such a misguided program is going to quickly lead to $2.00 lemons, $5.00 avocados and worse.”

Abbott ultimately ended the policy after eight days, after he reached agreements with the governors of Mexican states on the other side of the border. But the inspections ultimately cost the U.S. economy nearly $9 billion and the Texas economy $4.2 billion, according to the Perryman Group, a Waco-based economic analysis firm.

At the same time, Texas state troopers found zero contraband of any type in any of the 4,100 trucks they inspected, according to the Texas Tribune. Abbott has argued the agreements he reached with Mexican states were worth the cost.

“Texas has done more in two days to secure the border than Biden has done in the past 15 months,” he said.

In 2016, then-North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence both found themselves in political trouble after signing legislation that targeted gay and transgender people, but sparked backlash from those states’ business communities. Democrats argued both men cared more about enforcing their cultural preferences than the economic health of their states. (McCrory would narrowly lose his reelection that year to Democrat Roy Cooper, while Pence ultimately became vice president.)

Democrats opposing DeSantis and Abbott are making similar arguments.

“Attacking Disney, threatening to harm our state’s economic powerhouse that creates so many jobs and brings in so many tourism dollars is a boneheaded move however you look at it,” Rep. Charlie Crist, one of the Democrats running against DeSantis, wrote on Twitter. “Ron’s a threat to our state’s economy and he’s gotta go in November.”

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