How Ron DeSantis can secure his lead among GOP presidential contenders
If Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis decides to enter the 2024 Republican presidential race, he almost certainly will do so after his state’s legislative session ends in early May. Until then, he should use that session to burnish his already formidable national identity by focusing on three areas of interest to GOP primary voters: immigration, education and abortion.
Immigration remains a hot-button issue, especially for conservatives. DeSantis has already highlighted his opposition to illegal immigration with his politically brilliant stunt over the summer of flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., a vacation mecca for elite liberals. Nonetheless, he would benefit from having something tangible to bring to the national stage to show he is even stronger and more successful than former president Donald Trump on the issue.
He could do that by requiring Florida businesses to use E-Verify to check the employment eligibility of job applicants. Eight states already mandate the use of E-Verify, and DeSantis expanded Florida’s use of the system in 2021, when he signed a law requiring public employers and private employers who contract with them to use the system. But that law exempts purely private-sector employers, which hire the bulk of Florida’s workers. That means migrants who arrive in the Sunshine State illegally can still find plenty of jobs.
DeSantis would make national news and differentiate himself from Trump if he moved to close that loophole. Florida would be the largest state to require E-Verify if he were to succeed. Trump, on the other hand, has never made the idea a significant component of his immigration policy, relying instead on his signature idea of building a wall on the Mexican border. Mandatory E-Verify, then, positions DeSantis to Trump’s right while promoting an approach to controlling illegal migration — American jobs for legal workers — that would be more palatable to moderates.
On education, DeSantis has done a good job promoting conservative school board candidates and generally battling against “woke” ideology in school curriculums. But again, he needs a signature education policy that can unite moderates and conservatives. Universal school choice could be that idea.
Many conservatives have abandoned their old emphasis on vouchers and instead embraced “education savings accounts.” That is somewhat of a misnomer as the idea does not involve savings at all. Instead, it allows the parent of any school-age child to use the state’s allocation for K-12 education however they want. That could mean pulling their child out of a public school and using the money for home schooling or tuition for private school. It could also be used for enrichment classes or other education-related expenses.
Four GOP-controlled states have enacted such a program since the pandemic, but none are as large or diverse as Florida. DeSantis could make himself the favorite of parents everywhere who want more options than the take-it-or-leave-it model that public schools afford.
Finally, there is abortion. This is a difficult issue to address for many Republicans, but DeSantis could take a novel stance by embracing modest reform to public sex-education classes. Florida currently does not mandate sex-ed instruction, but it does provide certain requirements and guidelines for local districts that choose to teach it. DeSantis could begin to change the debate over abortion by moving to require all sex-education instruction include a thorough discussion of fetal development and its effect on the health of the mother.
This idea places facts at the center of a child’s understanding of the consequences of sex. They’ll learn, for example, that the heart and brain start to develop in the fifth week of pregnancy and that all the body’s organs are fully formed by the end of the 12th week. They’ll learn about morning sickness and what the mother can expect in each stage. None of this would be ideological; it would simply present clear, biological facts for those giving birth.
Adopting this approach would place DeSantis in the realm of someone who is pro-life but also temperate. Pro-lifers face a fundamental obstacle in their quest to outlaw abortion: Majorities of Americans do not see the unborn child as a human being deserving of legal protection until well into a woman’s pregnancy. Placing an emphasis on factual education rather than immediate legal prohibitions is the only way for the antiabortion movement to progress. DeSantis’ embrace of that principle would let him transcend the current, limited debate and make him a genuine national pro-life leader without alienating moderates.
DeSantis will surely push for other, less-striking accomplishments during the next few months. Focusing on these three would give him something most aspiring candidates can only dream of: the appearance of a president in the making.