Redistricting battle further positions DeSantis for 2024 presidential bid
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is a political enigma. The Harvard and Yale-educated attorney has accomplished what numerous conservative politicians — among them Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and fellow-Floridian Marco Rubio — have tried and failed to do in the wake of Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party: position himself as the ultimate insider with the outsider cred to consolidate the MAGA base.
DeSantis burst onto the national scene during his 2018 bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination with a campaign ad that featured him quoting from “The Apprentice,” reading “The Art of the Deal” to his infant son and encouraging his toddlers to “build the wall” out of toy blocks. Four years later, as he cruises towards reelection, the latest manufactured controversy between DeSantis and the GOP establishment features his brazen veto of the state legislature’s congressional redistricting plan, and subsequent commandeering of the redistricting process.
Republican gerrymanders are nothing new in Florida politics. A decade ago, flouting the voter-approved state constitutional amendments that prohibited politicians from drawing the lines in a way that benefited any political party or incumbent, Rick Scott and the GOP majority forced through a plan that cemented the party’s control over the state’s senate and congressional districts. Their gerrymander set in motion a protracted legal battle that culminated in the state courts declaring the maps unconstitutional.
Those cases saw Florida’s 5th congressional district, a serpentine seat stretching all the way from Jacksonville to Orlando represented at the time by now-convicted felon Corrine Brown, struck down and replaced with a new district combining African American populations in Jacksonville, Tallahassee, and the rural counties in between.
But DeSantis’s approach this time around has taken redistricting hardball to a whole new level.
In rejecting the congressional maps, DeSantis became the only governor in modern American history to veto a redistricting proposal enacted by a legislature controlled by their own party.
The governor’s alternate plan, a 20-8 GOP gerrymander rammed through in a special session, is also of highly dubious legality, at least under current law, since it erases not only African American Democrat Rep. Al Lawson’s 5th District but also the Orlando seat currently held by African American Democrat Val Demings, who is seeking to challenge Rubio in the 2022 Senate contest. Lawsuits have already been filed alleging improper use of race and partisanship in the redistricting process, but the recent ruling by the Florida Supreme Court seems likely to preserve the “DeSantimander” — at least through the 2022 elections.
Just a few months ago, Democrats seemed to be on track for their most successful national redistricting cycle in decades. Then the crown jewel of their gerrymandering agenda, the heavily biased 22-4 New York congressional map, was struck down by the state courts. Additional legal setbacks have followed in places like Kansas, Ohio, and Maryland, to the point where things now seem likely to end in a wash.
But those early Democratic successes saw the GOP base clamoring for greater aggression from the party’s leadership, and DeSantis was the first to answer the call. The governor seems to believe that he can use the redistricting process as a cudgel to break down the few remaining legal barriers that prevent his party from gerrymandering itself into permanent control. One of these, as DeSantis himself has already admitted, is the Florida constitution’s Fair Districts amendments, which outlaw both partisan gerrymandering and the use of redistricting to “deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice.”
“I think our dispute very well may lead to saying that Florida’s redistricting amendments are not consistent with the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause,” DeSantis told reporters at a March 15 press conference. His administration has argued that the amendments, as interpreted by the Florida Supreme Court, run afoul of the Equal Protection Clause standard established in the 1993 case of Shaw v. Reno, and its subsequent precedents. These cases have held that race may not be the “predominant factor” in the drawing of districts, but courts have permitted race to be used in a way that’s narrowly tailored to further the compelling interest of compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
The Supreme Court’s decision in February to allow an Alabama congressional redistricting plan to remain in effect despite a lower court ruling that it diluted the votes of the state’s African American population, in violation of Section 2 of the VRA, signaled renewed skepticism from the justices towards the legislation that has been foundational to the expansion of minority federal and state officeholding over the past five decades. Now, the DeSantis gerrymander may place the constitutionality of both the Fair Districts Amendments and the VRA itself squarely within the crosshairs of the judiciary.
Under current law, the Florida legislature was required to take the race of voters into account during redistricting, both to avoid illegal vote dilution under Section 2, and to prevent diminishment of their opportunity to elect representatives of their choice under the Florida constitution. DeSantis’s position is that districts must instead be drawn based solely on colorblind and race-neutral criteria, a radical approach that would gut the legal protections currently afforded to minority voters. It may find a receptive audience on a Supreme Court that has become increasingly skeptical of racial classifications in all areas of government policy. At the state level, the judicial deck is similarly stacked in his favor, as the Florida Supreme Court has a 7-0 Republican majority, including 3 justices appointed by DeSantis himself.
What better way to position himself for a 2024 presidential bid — not only in the minds of base voters but also among GOP leaders and wealthy donors — than by becoming the posterchild of the case that either strikes down or guts not only the key thorn in the side of the Florida GOP but also one of the last remaining bastions of affirmative action in voting that remains in the United States?
While the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause to no longer permit challenges to partisan gerrymandering to be litigated in federal court was a major setback for the cause of redistricting reform, far worse decisions could soon be on the horizon.
DeSantis may have ridden the Trump Train to national prominence, but since the former-president’s 2020 defeat, no one has done more to build their profile as a firebrand conservative alternative to Trump — first with his opposition to COVID-mitigation measures, then with his more recent capitalization on the anti-woke and Critical Race Theory controversies — than the Sunshine State’s governor. Now, he seems to be trying to establish himself as the hero of the Republican Party’s new redistricting agenda.
DeSantis may appear to be shooting from the hip, but his actions are finely calculated to both rile up the base by generating maximal liberal outrage while simultaneously being couched in enough common-sense reasonableness so as not to alienate the middle. His fellow GOP presidential hopefuls may soon be getting taught the lesson that Florida Democrats have learned the hard way: You underestimate Ron DeSantis at your peril.
Nick Seabrook is a professor of political science and public administration at the University of North Florida. His latest book is “One Person, One Vote: A Surprising History of Gerrymandering in America.” Follow him on Twitter @DrSeabrook