Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics — Week of 3.24.24

All's well that ends well between Ron DeSantis and Disney? Plus, a federal court ruling means Al Lawson likely isn't returning to Congress anytime soon.

Tomorrow is the day we’re set to find out whether the Florida Supreme Court will allow two referendums on the 2024 ballot that could impact the outcome of this year’s elections.

The one that has earned the most attention — including from us — is a proposal to protect abortion rights in Florida’s Constitution. Races across the country have been tilted in favor of Democrats in recent years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down abortion protections established in Roe v. Wade.

Putting the question directly to Florida voters in November would surely drive up Democratic turnout. Would it be enough to overcome Republicans’ historically dominant advantage in 2022? That’s harder to say, but it could certainly turn some local and state-level races that may otherwise favor the GOP.

A second proposal to legalize adult-use cannabis could also impact turnout. Support for that issue is less clearly partisan, but it’s still a position that more Democrats support.

Following a cycle in which Republicans won statewide by around 20 points, both ballot initiatives will face huge hurdles. Support from a simple majority won’t be enough. Ballot initiatives need 60% support in order to change the state constitution, so supporters will have a long road ahead.

But even just surging Democratic turnout in a year where a historically unpopular Democratic incumbent President is running could be enough, even if these changes fall short.

Then again, maybe the Florida Supreme Court rejects one or both, a move that would certainly delight Republican candidates across the state. Stay tuned tomorrow, because one side or the other is going to be very happy.

Now, it’s on to our weekly game of winners and losers.


Honorable mention: Division of Emergency Management. DEM has been operating a portal to help Americans stranded in Haiti get home. That effort has led to nearly 90 people being flown out of the country amid growing gang violence there.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has continued providing updates on those flights out of the country. He also noted that others have stepped up to help the more than 500 people who signed up with the DEM portal to help get them to safety.

U.S. Rep. Cory Mills is one of those who has come to Americans’ aid, and we gave him a shout-out earlier this month.

Unlike some of DeSantis’ other combative approaches to this issue, helping save Americans in harm’s way is a no-brainer. Kudos to DEM and all those helping to rescue those looking to get home to their families.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest winner: Joe Gruters. ‘ROCKSTAR.’ That’s how former President Donald Trump described Gruters in endorsing him this week for the open Chief Financial Officer position — in 2026.

Trump got ahead of the game as part of an apparent play to get more involved in Florida Republican politics (more on that later). With more than two years to go until the Republican Primary in the CFO’s race, Trump is all in for Gruters in the role.

“I am hearing that America First Patriot Joe Gruters is considering launching his Campaign for Chief Financial Officer of the Great State of Florida,” Trump said.

“Joe was on the ‘Trump Train’ before it even left the station and, if he decides to run, he will have my Complete and Total Endorsement. As a State Senator and Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, Joe has done more than anyone to help turn Florida RED, and elect Republicans across the State. A decorated CPA, Joe is a ‘ROCKSTAR,’ who will work hard to Grow our Economy, Stop Illegal Immigration, Strongly Support Law Enforcement, and Protect our always under siege Second Amendment. RUN JOE, RUN! This is an Endorsement I would love to make.”

Gruters notably was the only state lawmaker to endorse Trump’s 2024 campaign at first, with most of the remaining GOP state delegation originally backing DeSantis’ bid. Gruters has supported Trump for years, and Trump is now looking to reward that loyalty.

Trump also made plays in this cycle’s congressional races, endorsing incumbent Republican U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Bill Posey. Both face nominal opposition in their respective Primaries and should go on to win easily with Trump’s backing.

Trump famously waded into the 2018 Governor’s race by endorsing DeSantis, going against the urging of some state Republicans who favored then-Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Could Gruters ride a similar wave of support to victory in 2026?

The biggest winner: DeSantis-Disney détente. The figurative white flag has been raised, the proverbial treaty has been signed and now we can finally put an end to this nonsense that never should have started in the first place.

A settlement in the state case between Disney and DeSantis’ allies on the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board signals an end of tension between the two sides, and should lead to a productive business relationship between the state and the entertainment giant going forward.

This is obviously good news for Disney, which has had a target on its back for years now after mildly criticizing a single law that DeSantis was desperately hoping would elevate him to a culture war savior and on to the presidency (we know how that turned out).

Of course, Disney is a powerhouse in its own right, but it’s never welcome to be at war with an administration in a state so pivotal to your business. So if this is a true détente, the company will obviously be in a better place going forward.

But it’s a win for the state as well, as Disney is a huge economic driver in Florida. Disney World is a significant reason why Florida’s tourism industry is thriving. It’s a destination not just for American travelers, but for people all over the world.

This combative relationship has earned DeSantis criticism even from conservatives. Bringing the state back in line with one of its iconic economic drivers is surely a good move.

It also appears to bring an answer to a question we asked in February 2023, when lawmakers revealed the plan after they moved to dissolve the old Reedy Creek District. The answer: replace it with the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, giving the Governor now and in the future control over its members.

“If DeSantis were to seek to truly upend Disney World’s governing structure, that would likely take time,” we wrote, adding that a revamp of the Board membership without a more significant reshaping “likely means good news in the end for Disney, but it still ultimately depends on how much DeSantis wants to push things.”

Well, we now see DeSantis is willing to take his foot off the gas. And it’s likely that future governors won’t be so antagonistic to the Mouse going forward.

DeSantis should also take note, however, that many of the rabid culture warriors he was appealing to in starting this battle to begin with will likely see this agreement as capitulation on the Governor’s part. That wing of the party has been trained that any moderation is weakness. Is it fair? Not at all. But neither was much of what the Governor did to make this an issue in the first place.


Dishonorable mention: Regina Hill. A headline with the word “arrest” near your name is a surefire way to land you in this spot, and so it is for Orlando Commissioner Hill.

Hill pleaded not guilty while facing charges that she exploited an elderly constituent and defrauded her out of large sums of cash.

This episode has been getting uglier in recent weeks. Almost two weeks ago, an Orange County Judge ordered Hill to cease contact with the constituent — now 96 years old. Hill allegedly obtained power of attorney of the constituent, then spent $100,000 of her savings.

“Court documents allege Hill used the money to pay for a facelift and dental surgery, purchase expensive perfume and clothing, book a hotel in Miami for a New Year’s Eve vacation, and obtain numerous intravenous vitamin infusions at Vitalounge,” read a report from the Orlando Sentinel, which has covered this story extensively.

Hill responded Wednesday to the injunction, arguing those concerned with Hill’s actions are the real people threatening the constituent’s finances.

One day later, however, Hill was arrested and faced formal charges.

This is to speak nothing of an unrelated suit that also emerged this month from a former Hill aide, accusing Hill of abuse.

A pattern of abuse, one might say.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest loser: Laurel Lee. Those endorsements we mentioned earlier weren’t the only Florida electoral moves Trump made this week. He also waded into the race in Florida’s 15th Congressional District.

But rather than endorse a candidate of his choosing, Trump solely aimed to throw a wrench into Republican U.S. Rep. Laurel Lee’s re-election prospects.

“Any great MAGA Republicans looking to run against Laurel Lee in Florida’s 15th Congressional District? IF SO, PLEASE STEP FORWARD!” Trump wrote in a Truth Social post.

The obvious motivation here is that Lee dared to originally endorse DeSantis in the 2024 GOP Primary. While many state lawmakers backed their home-state Governor, Lee was the only Republican member of Florida’s congressional delegation to endorse him. Many of her GOP colleagues instead supported Trump from the get-go.

As soon as DeSantis’ bid ended, Lee came out and endorsed Trump. Apparently, that was too late.

To be clear, we’re not listing Lee as a loser because she did anything wrong here. Lee served in DeSantis’ administration as Secretary of State and, again, DeSantis was her home-state Governor. Trump, like many Florida residents, parachuted in from New York a few years ago. It really should not be a huge deal that Lee would remain loyal to DeSantis until he dropped out.

But in Trump’s world, anything other than unconditional loyalty is not enough. So now, he’s trying to punish Lee and force a competitive GOP Primary that will only cost the eventual winner money they could use in what might be a competitive General Election contest.

Nevertheless, Trump’s remarks remain persuasive among the GOP base. If a serious challenger emerges, it will at least cause Lee some headaches, and could cost her the seat entirely.

The biggest loser: Al Lawson. Lawson lost out this week when a federal court upheld Florida’s congressional map, drawn in 2022 following the new Census.

The map essentially eliminated Lawson’s district, which ran from Jacksonville to Tallahassee to give Black voters voting power. Lawson ran instead in a newly drawn, more Republican-leaning district, and lost to GOP U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn.

As plaintiffs tried getting that 2022 map thrown out, Lawson no doubt had his eyes on whether a similar district to his old one could be reinstated.

But with the federal ruling this week, that dream is all but dead. A challenge in state court remains, but it’s unlikely that court — full of DeSantis appointees — will rebuke the Governor by throwing out the map entirely.

Instead, Lawson is likely on the outside looking in as DeSantis’ map seems set to remain in place for at least another election cycle, if not a full decade.

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected].


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