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TAMPA, Fla. — Before a friendly audience of conservative moms, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday excoriated political opponents for wanting to “sexualize” children and warp kids’ understanding of race and history.
The charged campaign rhetoric in remarks to the Moms for Liberty group was usual fare for DeSantis — and a major reason he’s in the top tier of potential GOP presidential candidates who now sits on an unprecedented $130 million war chest.
But the political backdrop was as atypical as unexpected: The day before his speech, one of the national teacher unions that opposes him released a battleground-state survey showing voters approve of DeSantis’ education policy positions, and even some of his rhetoric.
The American Federation of Teachers circulated the poll, conducted by the Democratic firm Hart Research, as a call to arms for its members and allies to emphasize more popular proposals like spending more on schools and reducing class sizes, and de-emphasize fights that center on cultural issues.
A major set of red flags in the poll for Democrats and teacher unions were a series of questions that look like they were ripped from DeSantis’s Friday speech on “critical race theory” and teaching kids about sexuality and gender identity. While the survey didn't mention DeSantis by name, it tested education messages he has popularized nationally — more so than Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who won in a Democratic-leaning state last year on a parental-rights education platform that was far less provocative than DeSantis'.
One poll question found that voters, by a 32 percentage-point margin, said they were more likely to vote for candidates who believe public schools should focus less on teaching race and more on core subjects. By 27 points, they said schools should be banned from teaching sexual orientation and gender identity to kids in kindergarten through third grade. By 28 points, they said transgender athletes should be banned from competing in girls’ sports.
The same poll suggests DeSantis has been smart about where to draw the line. Most voters said they would be less likely to back candidates who want to prosecute teachers for instructing students on critical race theory and gender identity. The same goes for candidates who want books removed from school libraries, although DeSantis on Friday bashed some books as being too sexualized, and some Florida schools are banning books.
“DeSantis has been reasonably shrewd in choosing his culture war initiatives, avoiding toxic ideas like criminally prosecuting teachers,” Guy Molyneux, one of the pollsters who conducted the survey, said in an email to NBC News.
“BUT, going forward I think he will struggle to distinguish his approach from general Republican efforts to enflame political wars in school systems, which voters really don’t want,” Molyneux said. “And [the Supreme Court’s abortion] decision, with Clarence Thomas openly threatening same-sex marriage, has made it much harder for DeSantis to avoid being lumped in with a party that wants to turn back the clock on rights that Americans now take for granted.”
Recent polling on the Florida governor’s race is scant, but the most recent surveys generally show DeSantis leading either of his two top Democratic rivals, Rep. Charlie Crist and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. DeSantis also has positive favorability ratings in most state polls.
Democrats, however, say they have reasons to be optimistic. The teachers union poll also tested Democratic messages on public education and found voters are much more likely to back candidates who favor expanding literacy programs and access to technical education; reducing class sizes; and teaching “anti-racist curricula” in ways that “represent and respect the experiences of students of color.”
One big takeaway from the poll is that Democrats are on firmer political ground when they talk about teaching the history of race relations in the U.S. than they are when they fight efforts to ban teaching about sexuality and gender identity.
Both conclusions — that Democrats have popular messages on education and that they have fought on less favorable terrain in Florida — are at the heart of the union's midterm message pivot. AFT President Randi Weingarten laid out a strategy this week that blasts Republicans for their most extreme proposals — like the book-banning that DeSantis has shied away from — and puts an emphasis on expanding educational opportunities for students.
In Florida, former Democratic state House member and political organizer Sean Shaw marveled at DeSantis’ ability to “pick fights where he knows we have to respond and where it can be a problem for us,” specifically by highlighting alleged problems that don’t really exist in the classroom or exaggerating their prevalence.
“Look, I’m a Black man. All I want to do is talk critical race theory. But I can’t. It’s stupid. When you go to a Black barbershop, they’re not talking about CRT. They’re talking about the price of gas and rent,” Shaw said.
“I can’t ignore what DeSantis is saying about race,” Shaw added. "But what we can’t do is spend the entire legislative session elevating issues like that and not drive home the message that Republicans are in charge and your insurance is up, gas is more expensive, it’s impossible to find affordable housing.”
Even when the poll asked about politicians who say schools “must stop ‘grooming’ students by encouraging them to question their gender identity or sexual preference,” respondents said they were more likely to back them, by 22 points. It was DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, who popularized the explosive conservative charge of “grooming” when Democrats this past winter won the branding war by successfully defining the so-called parental rights bill, which doesn’t specifically prohibit discussion of LGBT issues in the classroom, as "Don't Say Gay."
Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Black Democrat who is openly gay, said the problem with the legislation was its hurtful intent: Republicans argued it wasn’t targeting LGBT kids, but the state senator who sponsored the legislation, Dennis Baxley, essentially admitted that it was.
Still, Jones acknowledged Shaw’s point about the Democratic Party needing to be more judicious in the way it fights and tries to define DeSantis.
“Could we have done a better strategy and done a better job? Yes. We’re too reactionary,” Jones said, noting that Democrats are in the minority in the Florida Legislature, so there’s only so much the party can do.
“Should we have this conversation? Yes. We’re starting to now,” he said. “The question is, what are Republicans going to do next?”
DeSantis this week made clear he intended to make education a key issue by endorsing local school board candidates and speaking to the Moms for Liberty group, which was founded in response to Covid lockdowns and quickly morphed into a massive conservative outreach apparatus.
The teacher union poll showed that battleground voters trusted conservative parents almost as much as they trusted teachers, who were seen as more trustworthy by just a 4 point margin. The margin of error margin for the poll of 1,758 voters was plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.
But when it came to conservative politicians, teachers were trusted by a 34-point margin.
Moms for Liberty has a symbiotic political relationship with DeSantis, who has championed their issues and whom they rewarded with an award that speaks to his combative style: a rudis, an imitation wooden Roman sword given to gladiators to symbolize their freedom from slavery.
DeSantis, one of the most highly sought-after Republican speakers in the nation by conservative groups, paid homage to Moms for Liberty in his 50-minute speech, given without notes, where he also bashed his detractors.
“They want to die on a hill of forcing sexuality and gender ideology in elementary school? You’ve got to be kidding me. There must be something more to this,” DeSantis said. “If you believe and it’s your position that these young kids should be sexualized in that manner, you’re wrong. But you should have to stand by that publicly. You shouldn’t be able to obfuscate. ... You shouldn’t be able to hide behind a slogan.”
Weingarten of the AFT, however, suggested to NBC News that the union expects DeSantis’ caustic personality and political style will grate on voters.
“Ron DeSantis would rather stoke grievances than solve problems. He’s about creating division and distrust, not finding solutions to what kids and communities need,” she said. “The polls show it’s a close race in Florida. And a positive agenda focused on investing in schools — putting values into action — is the only response to the hurt and hate pedaled by the likes of the Florida governor.”