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From left, Republican governors Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott and Glenn Youngkin are crafting state policies in way that have many observers expecting potential presidential runs.

Getty Images/Josh Moody

Though the 2024 presidential election is still more than 600 days away, a couple of well-known Republicans have already entered the primary race. Others—including Florida governor Ron DeSantis—have indicated they will likely join the fray.

While he hasn’t declared his candidacy yet, political observers say DeSantis is clearly seeking to energize the Republican base by throwing them red meat on pressing social issues—particularly education, at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels. And many experts believe DeSantis’s education agenda in Florida is intended more as a preview of his platform for 2024 than as a serious attempt to address policy concerns in his state.

He’s not the only one; Greg Abbott of Texas and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia are also politicking on hot-button issues, driving the GOP higher education agenda while flirting with White House runs. Both have sought to bend education in their respective states to their political will, and while they have been more circumspect about their presidential prospects than DeSantis, both remain in early conversations about the 2024 election. Political pundits are watching closely as Youngkin and Abbott chase the Florida governor, who is setting the pace early on. And whether or not any of them run—let alone win the nomination—supporters and opponents alike are wondering how their state policies on higher ed will shape the national discourse heading into 2024.

Higher Ed in the Cross Hairs

DeSantis has maintained a ubiquitous media presence in recent months. He released a new book, popped up at private political events with wealthy donors and grabbed headlines for a conservative agenda that has energized supporters and terrified opponents.

Higher education has been central to that agenda. The governor has proposed sweeping reforms that, among other things, aim to defund diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at state institutions; provide trustees more power over hiring; allow for posttenure faculty review at any time; and eliminate majors in certain subjects focused on race and gender.

His administration has also sought data related to transgender health care at public universities, part of a broader battle over LGBTQ+ rights in Florida that includes restrictions on content related to sexual orientation and gender identity in K-12 classrooms. DeSantis has battled over the portrayal of race in the classroom, clashing with the College Board over the curriculum for its Advanced Placement class in African American Studies, ultimately barring the course from Florida schools on the grounds that it lacks educational value and is tantamount to indoctrination.

For his efforts, DeSantis has been denounced by the American Association of University Professors, the American Historical Association and various other academic groups. Free speech groups such as PEN America and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression have also weighed in, arguing that some of the governor’s moves are an attack on academic freedom.

But experts suggest that DeSantis is mostly concerned with education as a proxy for broader culture war issues, aiming to leverage his policies for a White House run.

“I look at what’s happening in Florida and I can’t help but think it’s a solution in search of a problem. But policy making doesn’t have to necessarily be problem-solving in nature,” said Jacob Neiheisel, a political science professor at the University of Buffalo focused on political communication and election issues. Often, he noted, politicians craft policy as a means to another end—whether that’s getting re-elected, or pursuing a higher office such as the presidency.

Several states west of Florida, Texas governor Greg Abbott has struck a similar political posture that has left many observers wondering if he, too, is contemplating a presidential run. Already DeSantis and Abbott seem to be competing on political maneuvers; when the Texas governor began busing undocumented immigrants to Washington, D.C., in April 2022, DeSantis followed suit a few months later, sending unsuspecting migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.

Likewise, when DeSantis took aim at DEI efforts in Florida, Abbott did the same, issuing a memo to state institutions warning that using DEI policies in hiring is an illegal practice. That prompted many state universities to cease using such initiatives, and some even publicly denounced them. Now a bill in the Texas statehouse looks to formally end the use of DEI in hiring practices.

The Abbott administration has also mirrored DeSantis by going after tenure and declaring war on critical race theory, a once-obscure academic concept that explores how race and racism intersect with U.S. law and systemic issues.

Political observers see DeSantis and Abbott politicking in the style of former president Donald Trump, known for his brash and often offensive demeanor that emphasized controversial issues designed to animate his base rather than the policy concerns of more traditional politicians on Capitol Hill. And while DeSantis and Abbott aren’t as brash or offensive as the former president, they are similarly inclined to emphasize some of the same issues.

Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas, suggests that DeSantis and Abbott have taken such an approach to entice Trump supporters, particularly as questions linger about how successful the former president can be in a third campaign.

“Now, if you’re running for president, and you’re a Republican, you have to show your bona fides to the far-right voters who dominate the primaries, particularly in Texas and Florida,” Suri said. “So you have to do things that show them that you care about their frankly extreme positions, positions that are out of the mainstream in the country. And that usually involves showing them that somehow you’re against women being able to make choices with their bodies, and somehow you are against liberal professors and liberal teachers indoctrinating young people.”

Meanwhile in blue-leaning Virginia, Youngkin is trying a somewhat more subtle approach. Though he narrowly scored an election victory in his gubernatorial campaign—thanks in part to voters angered by school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic and keen on more parental control over the K-12 curriculum—Youngkin’s tactics have been less ferocious than those of his potential primary opponents. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t hitting some of the same notes.

In his first executive order as governor, Youngkin banned the teaching of “divisive concepts” in K-12 schools, tasking state officials with rooting out classroom instruction that includes “concepts or ideas related to Critical Race Theory.” Just last week, Youngkin announced that, like Florida, Virginia will review the AP African American Studies course to see if it violates the ban on teaching divisive concepts.

Youngkin has also purged the word “equity” from Virginia’s education system and tapped a former executive at the famously conservative Heritage Foundation as the chief diversity officer in his cabinet.

Though much of Youngkin’s focus has been at the K-12 level, he has also appointed conservative trustees at Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginiaà la DeSantis—and inserted himself into the search process for the chancellor of the Virginia Community College System.

Youngkin has similarly gone after transgender students, announcing policies that would allow them to access only those school facilities and programs that match the sex they were assigned at birth. However, the Virginia General Assembly has pushed back on bills targeting trans students.

Though Youngkin has presented himself as the kinder, gentler alternative to Trump, he’s still sending signals to conservative voters that he’s taking on the broader culture war issues that energize many, explained Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Sabato suggests that all three potential candidates are looking for a lane—and playing bumper cars at times—while using education policy to reassure conservatives worried about losing ground in the culture war. Though higher education has never been a top issue in presidential elections, it allows politicians to make moral appeals and signal their vision for the future.

“You’re not going to run a presidential campaign on policy issues that matter, like how much does higher ed cost and can we do anything about the cost?” Sabato said. “Can we reduce the debt that students have? Since they don’t like Biden’s [student loan forgiveness] plan, what is it they’re going to do? That doesn’t sell, or it doesn’t sell to very many people. But you start talking about cultural issues—‘they’re destroying our culture, they don’t believe in God,’ blah, blah, blah—and pretty soon you’ve got a lot of people showing up at your rallies, screaming bloody murder.”

Press officers for Abbott and Youngkin did not respond to interview requests from Inside Higher Ed. A press secretary for DeSantis declined to make the governor available for an interview.

DeSantis as the Front-Runner

Though DeSantis may be competing with Abbott and Youngkin on policy approaches, recent polls suggest they aren’t the opponent he should be worried about; it’s former president Trump who remains his biggest rival.

A Fox News poll from February found that 43 percent of Republican respondents would vote for Trump in a GOP primary, with DeSantis garnering 28 percent. Abbott found support among 2 percent of respondents, while Youngkin did not appear in the polling results.

A Quinnipiac University poll from last month offered similar results, with Trump again in the lead; 42 percent of Republican voters said they would choose him in a Republican primary, compared to 36 percent for DeSantis. Abbott and Youngkin were not included in the poll.

“Of those three governors, DeSantis has the wind with him,” said John Weingart, director of the Center on the American Governor housed in the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. After Trump, DeSantis is assumed to be “a strong front-runner to get the Republican nomination. The Democrats don’t have anything like that if Biden doesn’t run.”

Experts note that DeSantis has commanded the spotlight with a flurry of headline-grabbing policy decisions targeting higher education and other various culture-war flashpoints—including going after the Disney corporation for its stance on social issues, accusing the company of going “woke.” But there are also unique factors in state politics that give the Florida governor an advantage.

DeSantis enjoys strong support within the state Legislature, which is expected to enact his agenda with backing from fellow Republicans. Florida is also a hub for migrants, particularly those from Latin America and the Caribbean, which allows DeSantis to take a hard line on immigration.

By contrast, Suri points out the Texas governor historically has less sway in his state Legislature, which tends to have more independent lawmakers and a more powerful, independently elected lieutenant governor. And in Virginia, Youngkin is the first Republican governor elected since 2010. He also has the least political experience of the trio—currently serving in his first elected office—in a state that has a Democratic-majority State Senate and two Democratic senators, compared to a combined zero in Texas and Florida.

“I think DeSantis has the combination of expectations from other observers coupled with Florida continually being in the news cycle, whether it’s for going after Disney or whether it’s the current proposals that are popping around their Legislature about curbing what can be done in the classroom, in some regards,” Neiheisel said. “I think he’s probably more reliable in that regard and trying to get the kind of coverage, the kind of attention you would need to launch a run.”

But experts caution against reading too much into DeSantis’s popularity at this point, noting that polls shouldn’t be counted given that numerous candidates have yet to announce for 2024.

“DeSantis is way ahead, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get the nomination,” Sabato said.

Political observers also note that one of the challenges of appealing heavily to the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, as all three governors have done at times, is that it can be difficult to strike a different tone and attract a broader coalition in the general election.

“They’re running so far to the right that it’s hard to come back to the center. It’s very hard if you have come out against DEI to say that you actually care about diversity. And that’s going to be important in the general election if you’re going to win outside of Florida and Texas,” Suri said.

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