DeSantis’ conservative populism has left some donors chafing

“DeSantis made a fatal error — his whole anti-Disney, anti-corporate stance is so foolish,” said Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for NYC — a trade organization that represents Wall Street executives. “I know a donor to him who sat him down, and told him what a mistake this was early on, and he didn’t care.”

“He’s totally alienated the business community; congratulations on that,” Wylde added, blaming that on “his irrational, anti-corporate stance and his extreme policies on gender and race that put public companies who would donate to him in an impossible situation with their employees and their customers.”

More than anyone else in the GOP primary field, DeSantis has tried to walk a political tightrope around economic policy: Adopting postures that echo the conservative base’s growing distrust of corporations they believe push socially liberal values while still keeping corporate allies in fold. Large contributions from lobbyists and business people have fueled his campaign and the well-heeled coffers of a super PAC supporting him.

“We cannot allow, no longer, the failed ruling class in this nation to dictate our nation’s policies. We have to defeat those individuals and institutions that have caused our economic malaise,” DeSantis said during a recent speech in New Hampshire.

“We cannot have policy that kowtows to the largest corporations and Wall Street at the expense of small businesses and average Americans,” DeSantis added. “There’s a difference between a free market economy, which we want, and corporatism, in which the rules are jiggered to be able to help incumbent companies.”

The Florida governor insists his fights with corporations are rooted in the overreach of big businesses on social and cultural matters. Research shows he is on the side of popular opinion amongst Republican voters, who have cemented their support for Trump as his legal troubles mount. DeSantis’ fight with Disney is a crowd-pleaser on the campaign trail, earning him thunderous applause during a recent speech in Iowa.

But fiscal conservatives who once animated the Republican Party are challenging his stance.

Talk show host Megyn Kelly, formerly of Fox News, pushed DeSantis on these issues during an otherwise-cordial interview recently. Highlighting DeSantis’ protracted fights with Disney and Anheuser-Busch, Kelly — a journalist who often adopts conservative lines of questioning — asked the governor about his use of state power to go on the offensive against companies he finds himself at odds with. DeSantis and the entertainment giant have been at odds since last year, when the company publicly opposed his parental rights bill banning classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in lower grades.

“Aren’t you doing the very thing to these companies that conservatives are mad at left-wing leaders for doing — using government to punish citizens for political wrong-think?” Kelly asked.

In response, DeSantis argued that he was obligated to act after Bud Light — under fire in conservative circles after marketing its product with a transgender influencer — caused its own stock prices to tank, in turn hurting public employees whose pensions are invested in the company.

Clearly dissatisfied with the exchange, Kelly likened his positions to “viewpoint discrimination.”

But others saw it as something different: The next iteration of a party that once embraced corporate America moving toward the populist wing that buoyed Trump’s candidacy.

“What DeSantis is doing is very derivative of the movement or the ideological positioning that Trump started,” said Saagar Enjeti, co-host of the popular political podcast “Breaking Points.” “There’s a big debate between libertarian principles — free market capitalism — versus accomplishing conservative ends through the means of the levers of power.”

DeSantis’ willingness to use his office to go after businesses has been a hallmark of his time in power. His fight with Disney may have generated the most national attention, but he has clashed with other corporations too — including pushing Florida investment managers to briefly place sanctions on Airbnb over the company’s policy regarding rentals in the Middle East.

Recently, he suggested that the state’s pension fund should consider a shareholder lawsuit against the parent company of Bud Light over the promotional campaign featuring trans TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney. DeSantis has also been a major critic of ESG investment strategies, contending that “woke” activists are trying to get corporations to undertake actions opposed by a majority of voters.

There are limits to how far he will go in going after these businesses. Long an opponent of organized labor, DeSantis, has not spoken out on the actors’ union and writers strikes currently targeting major film companies even though they have impacted Disney, and irritated the company’s CEO. Democrats in the state see the corporate attacks as pure political posture.

“So much of what DeSantis has done in the effort of corporate accountability is fake, a lot of strawman rhetoric,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat.

The governor’s fights have not always gone smoothly either.

DeSantis’ policies over Covid-19 and a push to crackdown on social media companies have generated lawsuits with a major cruise line as well as a trade group that represents tech giants. A major business group that has backed the governor — Associated Industries of Florida — this week warned state agencies that a new DeSantis-fueled law designed to crack down on the purchase of land by people from China could have “unintended and negative consequences for investment in Florida.”

And yet, despite the occasional harsh anti-business rhetoric, DeSantis has rushed to the aid of major corporate interests in the Sunshine State. For instance, he backed a plan to use taxes charged to consumers on internet sales to replenish the state’s unemployment compensation trust fund — a move expected to save employers $2.5 billion in tax payments.

In an effort to stabilize Florida’s tumultuous insurance market, he supported using taxpayer money to provide backup financing for insurers. He also signed into law measures designed to limit lawsuits against insurers, a move that drew fire from former President Donald Trump.

While a few potentially key backers have begun distancing themselves from DeSantis in recent weeks — including hedge fund managers Ken Griffin and Nelson Peltz, and cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder — others say it has less to do with the governor’s record on business and more to do with bet-hedging by the donor class. One billionaire political donor who is open to supporting DeSantis waved off his fight with Disney.

“I don’t view him as an anti-business person. I see that he went after Disney, but Disney did some stupid things, too,” said Republican John Catsimatidis, a radio show host who owns the Gristedes supermarket chain. “I think he is pro-apple pie and vanilla ice cream, and if somebody is trying to change our way of life in America, I think he is concerned about that.”

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