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Rivals Ding DeSantis on Disney Dispute
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Rivals Ding DeSantis on Disney Dispute

Plus: Who will Wisconsin Republicans get to challenge Sen. Tammy Baldwin?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a speech during the Jerusalem Post conference April 27, 2023. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Happy Monday! We hope you’re having a better day than the congressional intern who got dumped last week in a Senate elevator. Danny Jativa, a staffer for Sen. Tim Scott, witnessed the tragic scene: “People kept piling into the elevator as it stopped on every floor. The poor fella started breathing more heavy. We finally got to the basement where I exited so I could buy my much deserved Snapple.”

Up to Speed

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spent last week on a “trade mission” representing his state with visits to Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, in what was widely seen as an attempt to boost his international profile ahead of a likely presidential bid. The trip generated photo-ops with leaders like South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, but also a new raft of unfortunate headlines for DeSantis. One businessman who met with the governor during a U.K. business summit told Politico “he was horrendous” and “his message wasn’t presidential.”
  • A super PAC aligned with former Vice President Mike Pence’s looming presidential campaign is set to launch in mid May, which Politico’s Adam Wren characterized as the “prelude to an official campaign that is betting heavily on performing well in Iowa.” Check out the Dispatch Podcast’s recent interview with Pence here.
  • West Virginia’s Republican Gov. Jim Justice officially announced on Thursday his campaign for Senate in 2024, for a seat currently held by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. The same day of Justice’s announcement, Manchin released a statement saying “I will win any race I enter,” fueling speculation that he might launch a third-party presidential campaign rather than run for reelection in West Virginia.
  • South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said on Sunday he will make a “major announcement” on May 22 in Charleston, teasing a long-anticipated bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
  • In a 5-2 ruling filed on Friday, the new GOP majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned its earlier ruling that the state’s previously Republican-drawn congressional and state legislative maps were illegal gerrymanders, paving the way for the GOP-controlled general assembly to redraw the Tar Heel State’s congressional maps ahead of 2024. 

Will DeSantis’ Disney Fight Hurt Him?

Ron DeSantis has made his crusade against Disney’s “woke ideology” a signature issue, but some of his likely 2024 opponents see a chance to make it a political liability for the Florida governor.

Former President Donald Trump jeered that DeSantis “is being absolutely destroyed by Disney” and derided his anti-Mickey moves as “a political STUNT.” Last week, former U.N. ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley followed suit, suggesting that Walt Disney World should move from Florida to South Carolina—a state that is “not woke, but we’re not sanctimonious about it either.”

But DeSantis hasn’t shied away from the Disney conflict, which he mines for applause in speeches and doubles down on at every chance while speaking to reporters. As he gears up for an expected White House run, DeSantis is betting Republican voters will reward him for his willingness to go after huge targets in a culture war between traditional values and progressive standards of corporate America.

Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting DeSantis’s likely White House bid, hit back against “Mickey Haley” with a video juxtaposing Haley’s comments with clips of Disney executives discussing their “not-at-all secret gay agenda” or “basically adding queerness” to Disney content.

“It’s a bad strategy to defend Woke Disney when they decided to defend the sexualization of children,” Erin Perrine, communications director for Never Back Down, told The Dispatch. “It’s mind boggling any Republican would side with a massive corporation who has an unprecedented level of self-governance over protecting children and families, but I guess 2023 is a strange time.”

But Haley isn’t the only Republican with reservations about DeSantis’s treatment of Disney, as the Haley-supporting Stand for America PAC pointed out in a Monday release rounding up critical quotes from the likes of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (“I don’t think the idea of building a prison next to a place that you bring your family is the best idea”) and Trump-endorsing Florida Rep. Byron Donalds (“I do not think that members of Congress, or any state body, should be wielding large amounts of political power against an entity”). 

The Disney-DeSantis dustup, which began last year after the House of Mouse took a public stance against a Florida law banning “classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity” for young children, has centered around control of the land near Orlando on which Walt Disney World is built. The state had long permitted Disney to essentially function as its own county government for the mega-resort, which employs about 75,000 Floridians and is an epicenter of Florida tourism. This year, DeSantis signed a law stripping Disney of its ability to appoint its own supervisors to the district that contains the resort.

That law was meant to close the door on the conflict, an exclamation mark on last year’s dispute as DeSantis moved on to new policy victories on issues like gun rights, tort reform, and abortion. But the fight was prolonged when DeSantis’ new appointees to the board discovered the outgoing Disney allies had pulled a trick, signing off most of their own oversight powers to the Disney corporation itself. DeSantis vowed to block the move and mused about further retaliatory actions like building a state prison near the resort. Last week, Disney sued, alleging a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” against the company’s protected political speech. (For more on the legal side of things, check out last Friday’s Morning Dispatch.)

Picking this fight was always a political risk for DeSantis, and not only because of Disney’s economic might in the state—Disney has been America’s biggest corporate cultural powerhouse for nearly a century. But it’s that very cultural ubiquity that DeSantis allies think makes it a ripe target: GOP voters wouldn’t care as much about Disney’s embrace of gender ideology if their kids didn’t already love its content.   

Will DeSantis benefit? One GOP consultant told The Dispatch that the beef shows “it’s time for the DeSantis campaign to log off of Twitter.” But allies of the governor aren’t so sure the electorate will side with Disney. One Reuters/Ipsos poll from last week asked respondents whether they thought DeSantis was “punishing Disney for exercising their right to free speech” or “rightfully rolling back special treatment for Disney.” Among Republican respondents, 64 percent picked the latter option.

Wisconsin’s Wide Open GOP Senate Primary

Wisconsin Republicans are gearing up to spend millions of dollars to oust two-term Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2024—and the Senate GOP primary race is still wide open. 

Some prospective candidates have already started testing the waters. “The time will be right to make that decision,” GOP Rep. Tom Tiffany told The Dispatch earlier this month. “It’s not right now, but just haven’t ruled anything out.” 

Tiffany is one of many potential candidates whose name is being floated in Wisconsin GOP circles to take on Baldwin, a battle-tested incumbent who won her most recent race in 2018 by eleven points. That list includes GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher, who chairs the House’s new China Select Committee; wealthy real estate developer Eric Hovde; businessman and first-time candidate Scott Mayer; former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke; and former Senate and gubernatorial candidate Kevin Nicholson.

A source familiar with Nicholson’s thinking told The Dispatch that at this point in the race, he’s “keeping a close eye on” running and is “watching things play out.”

The Senate race will be just one attraction in the Badger State this cycle. Wisconsin is likely to be another nail-biter after two straight presidential elections there decided by just over 20,000 votes. On top of that, Milwaukee will host the Republican National Convention next summer.

With all eyes and money on Wisconsin, beating Baldwin will be tough for the GOP. The former state assemblywoman and congresswoman won her first election in 1992, and has a keen understanding of Wisconsin’s political climate, with a knack for pieces of high-upside bipartisanship. She visited the southern border in February and joined a host of GOP senators last year in pushing legislation to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list in states like Wisconsin, where state-approved wolf hunts are otherwise common to protect farmers’ livestock.

And in a boon to Wisconsin’s dairy lobby, Baldwin joined Republicans in drafting the DAIRY PRIDE Act, legislation that would make it tougher for plant-based beverages to use the term “milk” in labeling. “Soy is not dairy. Oats are not dairy. And no, almonds are not dairy. Only dairy is dairy,” Baldwin wrote in a March tweet.

Now a year and a half out from Election Day, Wisconsin Republicans are eager to recruit a strong Senate nominee who can fundraise, navigate independent voters’ concerns about Trump and abortion, and run a competitive race in highly populated liberal enclaves like Dane County. 

That’s shaping up to be a tall order in light of this month’s state supreme court race, when liberal judge Janet Protasiewicz—who campaigned heavily on access to abortion—beat conservative judge Daniel Kelly by ten points, tipping the court’s 4-3 majority in liberals’ favor. 

Republicans say they’re aware of the fundraising and grassroots organizing challenges they face in the well-oiled machine that is the Wisconsin Democratic Party under the leadership of Chairman Ben Wikler. 

“I don’t want to say Dan Kelly was a one-off, but he was a candidate who had lost the seat before. When the smoke clears, we will have been vastly overspent in that race,” state GOP Chair Brian Schimming said in an interview. “As I talk to people who call me who are interested in running for Senate or for the court, or anything else, I kind of say let’s remember recent history here, then not do some of those things again.”

Once the primary field starts to shape up, deep-pocketed GOP groups like the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), the Mitch-McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, and the anti-tax, anti-establishment Club for Growth could spend heavily in Wisconsin on behalf of their preferred—and perhaps conflicting—Senate candidates. 

Political operatives in Wisconsin are also keeping a close eye on Illinois-based conservative megadonors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein. In 2018, Richard Uihlein spent $11 million on behalf of Nicholson’s Republican gubernatorial bid alone. (If the couple decides to go all in again in Wisconsin, expect the Club for Growth to follow suit: FEC reports show that Richard Uihlein has already given $5.5 million to the organization’s super PAC arm, Club for Growth Action, through the first quarter of 2023.)

But that’s probably a long way off. “I don’t think we’re done with the issue of who might run,” said Schimming, who believes Hovde is the closest prospective candidate to announcing an official bid. Hovde did not respond to a request for comment.

As for someone like Tiffany? “I don’t think he wakes up thinking about it in the morning, but I do think he thinks about it,” Schimming said of Tiffany, who recently purchased Senate related campaign domains and campaigned heavily for Dan Kelly in this month’s judicial race, raising eyebrows in Wisconsin GOP circles. “If he calls me tonight, as he did the other night, and says, ‘It looks like I’m in the race’—I’ll be surprised and not surprised.”

Eyes on the Trail

  • Iowa Rain(maker): Ron DeSantis is traveling to Iowa later this month, and his scheduled May 13 stop to headline Rep. Randy Feenstra’s “Feenstra Family Picnic,” is a hot commodity. The annual fundraiser is “on pace” to rake in $200,000 from individual ticket sales and sponsorships—a record haul for this event, a Feenstra spokesman tells The Dispatch. Past Feenstra picnics, featuring former ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence, each attracted more than 400 people. Ticket sales for the upcoming gathering with Florida’s governor are on track to outpace those events, the Feenstra spokesman said. (DeSantis is set to headline a GOP event in Cedar Rapids later the same day.) Situated in conservative Northwest Iowa, Feenstra’s 4th District is chock full of grassroots Republicans who hold influence in the state’s quadrennial presidential caucuses, the first nominating contest on the GOP’s 2024 primary calendar. 
  • Do I wish he was younger? Yeah, I do”: In case you missed it, David and Audrey reported a story for the site digging into Democrats’ concerns about 80-year-old Joe Biden’s advanced age as he gears up for a tough reelection race in 2024. Democrats “are confident the president can do his job and campaign for a second term without the ‘benefit’ of a pandemic to keep him off the trail for extended periods, as was the case in 2020. But Democrats say they worry because at Biden’s age, anything can happen, even to people who don’t occupy the most mentally taxing job on the planet,” David and Audrey report. “Privately, even some Democrats in Biden’s orbit share the concern. One party operative who served as a senior official in President Barack Obama’s administration said some fear exists that Biden could experience a health episode in the few months preceding the general election that could require him to be replaced on the ticket.”

Notable and Quotable

“I do worry that, if this happens too many times, businesses that are thinking about coming to Florida are saying, ‘Maybe we don’t want to go there because if we get into a firestorm with them politically they’re going to come after our businesses.’”

—Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to Fox News on Ron DeSantis’ struggle with Disney, Thursday, April 27

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.