DeSantis an Early Darling for Conservative Education Activists

Moms for Liberty founders Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich present an award to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis before he speaks during the inaugural Moms For Liberty Summit on July 15, 2022, in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Iowa Republicans anticipating a Ron DeSantis presidential bid expect the Florida governor to tap into a growing network of conservative education activists organizing under Moms for Liberty, a grassroots group aligned with the 2024 contender and based in his home state.

Moms for Liberty is a political nonprofit with no plans to endorse in the Republican presidential primary. But the national group, which advocates for parental rights and opposes liberal social policies in public schools, has cultivated a symbiotic relationship with DeSantis since launching in Florida two years ago. It now boasts six chapters throughout Iowa, a potential hotbed of support for DeSantis in the state voting first on the GOP’s 2024 nominating calendar.

“Whoever DeSantis hires should absolutely try and co-opt this group,” said Luke Martz, a Republican consultant in the Hawkeye State. 

Enlisting Moms for Liberty activists “makes total sense for DeSantis,” said Republican strategist David Kochel, who has been a senior adviser to multiple GOP contenders competing in Iowa.

DeSantis is deferring a decision on a White House bid until late spring or sometime this summer, after Florida’s legislative session ends. But the governor, the only contender competitive with former President Donald Trump in early primary polling, has captured the imagination of many grassroots conservatives by preserving conservative cultural values in Florida’s public square and dismantling historic liberal control of public institutions.

Grassroots Republicans are especially impressed with the governor’s education agenda. During the coronavirus pandemic, DeSantis opposed extended remote learning and mandatory masking in public schools. Last year, he supported and signed legislation limiting schools’ abilities to give classroom instruction that conservative critics claim encouraged students—over parents’ objections—to explore and embrace transgenderism and homosexuality. Enter Moms for Liberty, whose star and reach have risen in conjunction with the governor’s.

Founders Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich, two former elected school board members, were mothers frustrated with their children’s public schools when they joined forces and started the group with $500 in seed money, initially operating out of a spare bedroom in Descovich’s house. Their grassroots effort to push the Florida Legislature to overhaul state and local education laws almost immediately landed a willing partner in DeSantis. 

In turn, the governor, who spoke at the Moms for Liberty national conference in Tampa last year, won the admiration of a group newly influential in conservative politics that has since expanded nationwide. It has dozens of locally run chapters, including in the key early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as general election battlegrounds like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

“I think the chapters are going to be naturally receptive to him because he stood up for parents during COVID,” Justice told The Dispatch. “I’m talking to these moms and they’re saying, I wish Gov. DeSantis was our governor,” she added, describing conversations with education activists in other states. “They just want someone to listen to them.” (A spokesman for DeSantis’ political team declined to comment.)

The ongoing political synergy linking Moms for Liberty and DeSantis, 44, is plain to see. 

On Jan. 23, the governor unveiled a proposal to “empower educators” that includes a “teachers’ bill of rights,” a pay raise, and checks on the power of teachers’ unions and school boards. Moms for Liberty announced its support for DeSantis’s initiative one week later. “We support the governor’s approach in this ‘Empower Educators’ proposal and we look forward to working with legislative leaders to help it become law,” Justice and Descovich said in a joint statement.

Justice explained Moms for Liberty, which recently opened a federal political action committee, has no plans to back any Republican who enters the presidential primary, nationally or through individual chapters. But she named other Republican presidential contenders positioned to appeal to Moms for Liberty members in the early primary states: Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Trump, and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.   

Trump is the only prominent Republican who has declared for 2024. He finished second in the 2016 Iowa caucuses behind Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. But the former president has two landslide general election victories under his belt in the state and retains a significant measure of goodwill and support there as the 2024 campaign gets underway and the contest for the GOP nomination intensifies in Iowa.

Nikki Haley, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor, is set to join Trump in the race Wednesday with a late morning rally in Charleston. On February 20 and 21, she will make her first visit to Iowa as a presidential candidate, hosting town hall meetings at small businesses in Urbandale, near Des Moines, and Marian, near Cedar Rapids.

Former Vice President Mike Pence is headed to Cedar Rapids Wednesday to headline a grassroots rally at a Pizza Ranch restaurant, a stop popular among Republican presidential candidates. While there, Pence will kick off a $1 million-plus statewide digital advertising campaign funded by his political nonprofit, Advancing American Freedom, centered around (you guessed it) parental rights and education reform. The former vice president has tapped a veteran Republican operative with ties to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to spearhead this effort.

Scott is scheduled to deliver a speech in Des Moines on February 22 as part of speaking tour that appears to be the soft launch of an expected presidential bid. (“Our moms love him,” Justice said.) 

Still, at this early stage, it’s DeSantis who is generating the most buzz and interest among GOP voters and activists in the Hawkeye State. “A huge number of activists on the ground are waiting for him,” Kochel said. “I get calls or texts weekly asking me how to get on board.” “All of these activists are waiting for him,” added Jimmy Centers, a Republican strategist in Des Moines. “They’re not going to pick another horse until they see him.”

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