Ron DeSantis’ Crusade to Take Over Schools Scores a Big Win
SARASOTA, Florida — Bridget Ziegler hadn’t yet heard from Gov. Ron DeSantis after she won reelection to the Sarasota County school board race on Tuesday night, but she kept her phone close, just in case she did. Standing outside her victory party at a strip mall bar, her eyes flicked toward the screen in her hand as she expressed gratitude for the governor’s endorsement. “He’s been so vocal and bold on education issues and the need to reset and change course,” she explained. “It’s allowed for a major correction.”
If DeSantis meant to reach every school board candidate he’d endorsed, a long night of phone calls stretched before him: Of the 29 candidates he backed, only five lost their races on Tuesday night. It was highly unusual for a governor to lend his clout to local, ostensibly nonpartisan races. But it mattered to the governor that Ziegler and his fellow endorsees won their elections. Their electoral ambitions weren’t the only ones on the line.
DeSantis has made his mark on the national stage with his “parental rights” agenda that rejected Covid lockdowns, banned classroom discussions of systemic racism, and curbed lessons on sexuality in schools with the passage of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The school board candidates he backed for Tuesday’s elections are all proud evangelists of his cultural crusade against any and all means of “wokeness” — a crusade detractors warn unfairly targets LBGTQ students and students of color.
“Parental rights” are to Ron DeSantis what election conspiracies are to Donald Trump: A signature issue reshaping his party. Tuesday’s races were the proving ground for Desantis’ shadow 2024 pitch, with results that showed some promise, if not conclusively so: 16 candidates won outright, while eight advanced to a runoff. As the national media focuses on the win-loss record of Trump-backed candidates, DeSantis has his own. And where Trump’s hand-picked winners are a harbinger of his continued potency among Republicans, DeSantis’ signify something else altogether: His ability to both grow and draft off of a movement.
To enter the Sarasota shriners’ hall on Sunday afternoon was to time travel to a not-so-distant future — one in which Ronald Dion DeSantis is running for president, should Trump allow it. Navy-colored DeSantis caps outnumbered Trump’s signature red ones, and the governor upped the score by tossing more with autographed bills from the stage. Some in the crowd promoted a decidedly DeSantis-focused strain of MAGAism: “Make America Florida,” their T-shirts read.
The “MAF” faithful listened, spellbound in a thick heat, as their governor railed against “woke” for nearly an hour. He warned that woke teachers “will change their [children’s] gender behind the parents’ backs” unless stopped by his agenda. He condemned woke school board candidates for “running on injecting sexuality into elementary school.” He said the line “educate, not indoctrinate” twice, both times to rapturous applause.
It was all a bit much for a few bottom-of-the-ticket races. But then again, it wasn’t really about the school board. (Ziegler pronounced as much, if unintentionally, during her two-minute stump speech: “August 23 is a pivotal day for our country — excuse me, Florida,” she said before the governor took the stage.) It was a victory lap for the hat trick of bills DeSantis has signed into law: Lifting the masking mandates, the “Stop WOKE Act” that bans race-based conversations in the classroom, and the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Each of them have been intended as model legislation, the chief exports of DeSantisism for other red states to adopt.
The rally in Sarasota was part of DeSantis’ four-stop sprint across the state to give his school board candidates a last-minute boost. It drew out the coalition they’d need to win: The mother of two who homeschools her children because, as she told me, “a lot of what’s going on is very scary — the school shootings, they’re getting the LBGTQ shoved down their throats.” The grandmother who confessed that she is “so concerned about our children being affected by pedophilia in the schools.” The high school teacher who praised how Sarasota interpreted the “Don’t Say Gay” bill’s parental consent requirements: “If my 10-year-old son wants to be called ‘Stephanie,’ I’d want to know,” she said.
If his candidates can win here, there’s no reason to believe that “parental rights” wouldn’t catch on with GOP primary voters in 2024. Sarasota County is a bedrock of Florida conservatism, the sort of place where the GOP base meets the Republican-leaning suburbs. State Sen. Joe Grueter, chair of the Florida GOP, lives in Sarasota, as does Christian Ziegler, a party vice chair and Bridget’s husband. Trump won the county by 10 points in 2020, and DeSantis sailed to victory in 2018 by a similar margin. (There’s a touch of Trump, here, too: former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn bought a home in the county in 2021.)
But as Florida Republicans embraced DeSantis’ charge, the Sarasota school board did not follow suit. Last year, the district balked at DeSantis’ order to drop mask mandates, an episode that drew scorn from anti-mask advocates, fostered hostility at school board meetings, and led state legislators to dock $12 million from the district’s $1 billion budget as punishment for defying the governor’s orders. A retiring school board member became a right-wing punching bag when his assurance that “there are school board members that are woke” — a defiant opposition to DeSantis’ agenda — was taken out of context. The incidents emboldened parental rights supporters to organize to replace two retiring members of the board with their allies.
The dynamics emboldened Democrats, too, pushing them to take on school board races in an effort to reverse DeSantis’ forward march on students’ rights. Dawnyelle Singleton decided to challenge Ziegler after “all the negative attention” she saw surrounding the masking fights at school board meetings. “There were those who were very hostile toward school board members,” Singleton recalls of the parental rights advocates at meetings she attended, sometimes opting not to because of the presence of Proud Boys or others. “My opponent is the ringmaster of the circus that these meetings have become,” she says. She had the backing of groups like Ruth’s List, a Florida-based organization that helps women run for office.
The interest on both sides drew in heaps of money more common for races much higher up the ballot. Singleton raised more than $142,000 in her first-time bid for office. Ziegler raised more than $140,000 — more than double what she raised for her reelection bid four years earlier. “I have never worked on a campaign as insane as this in my life,” Singleton’s campaign manager told me.
Indeed, DeSantis’ attention and the fundraising are just some of the shocking elements of the typically lowkey campaign. Another Democrat-endorsed candidate in Sarasota was plagued by mobile billboards that blast her as a “woke” and “a baby killer,” a reference to her previous work for Planned Parenthood. Nearly every major intersection has a sign the size of a refrigerator bearing the names of DeSantis’ school board endorsees, so prominent and ubiquitous that any driver along the county’s roads would be hard pressed to know other major primaries, such as one for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, happened on the same day.
The theatrics worked in Sarasota, where parental rights activists were successful in replacing the retiring board members with their cronies — most notably Ziegler, who is perhaps the purest expression of DeSantis’ “parental rights” doctrine. She worked with state legislators and members of the governor’s team to craft the education agenda the governor touted from the rally stage. She stood alongside DeSantis when he signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law. She has appeared on Fox News to defend and praise DeSantis’ priorities. “I don’t want my children and their peers to learn to hate America through the anti-American curriculum that we continue to see,” she said on the network in praise of the “Stop WOKE Act.”
DeSantis critics have cautioned against reading too much into his school board victories — especially in terms of the pulse beyond the GOP electorate. Some of his picks lost in bellwether counties that, unlike Sarasota, are a better indicator of the appetite for his culture wars. The governor was emboldened as the results came in, however, making clear that he sees his education crusade as a top-line issue not just for his school board candidates, but for the Republican Party. “Freedom is on the line this November,” he proclaimed on Twitter, “and our bold agenda for parental rights in education, safe communities, a vibrant economy, and a protected environment is vital to keeping the state of Florida free.”
He was a little less diplomatic at a GOP victory party in Hialeah. “Florida is the state where woke goes to die,” DeSantis crowed.