LANSING, Mich. – Ahead of a highly anticipated presidential announcement, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis visited Michigan for his first appearance this year in the battleground state transformed by Democratic majorities under high-profile Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The visit put the contrasting leadership styles of the Republican and Democrat on display after they scored landslide 2022 reelection victories that vaulted them to be their parties' brightest emerging stars.
In Florida, DeSantis and the GOP-dominated Legislature have moved the state further right, waging a culture war on what the governor has called “woke” agendas. In Michigan, Whitmer has led the way on codifying abortion rights and advancing sweeping gun reform with Democrats in full control for the first time in decades.
Whitmer has been a top ally to President Joe Biden and a kind of proxy for his leadership in their party — and what’s possible under Democrats. DeSantis is one of the top potential candidates looking to unseat Biden next year.
Thursday's visit was also one of DeSantis's first out-of-state appearances since former President Donald Trump was indicted. With all eyes on Trump, others vying for the GOP nomination have found it difficult to gain much notice.
Trump frequently targets DeSantis — a similarity the governor shares with Whitmer, who Trump labeled “that woman from Michigan” during his presidency. Recently, Trump has ramped up his DeSantis criticism, saying during a rally in Waco on March 25 that the Florida politician was disloyal and “dropping like a rock.”
DeSantis began Thursday's tour by speaking at a GOP event in center of the state. He avoided mentioning Trump but criticized Biden, who he called “weak” and “controlled by the most left party elements of his own party.”
DeSantis told the crowd he brought “a message of optimism based on what we’ve done in the free state of Florida,” while outlining his “bold agenda.” He drew distinct policy comparisons to Michigan in the areas of education and COVID-19 lockdowns.
“I do remember during COVID people fleeing those lockdowns in Michigan,” DeSantis said. “People were treated very, very poorly and parents were upset with the schools and everything else, and they would tell me this.”
State Rep. Bill G. Schuette, a Midland-area Republican, described Michigan as the “anti-Florida” as he introduced DeSantis.
Since Florida's legislative session began in early March, DeSantis has worked to expand the state's so-called Don’t Say Gay law, ban diversity and equity programs at public universities and eliminate concealed carry restrictions. The state has also begun passing a six-week abortion ban backed by DeSantis.
DeSantis is scheduled to speak Thursday night at Hillsdale College, a small, Christian classical liberal arts college in southern Michigan. He called the school a “model” for his transformation of Florida's New College, a small liberal arts school he said is indoctrinating students with leftist ideology and should be revamped into a more conservative institution.
The Midland event drew over 100 demonstrators outside. Michigan Board of Education President Pamela Pugh, a graduate of Florida A&M, attended the protest and said demonstrators were sending DeSantis a message that“the hatemongering ends” in Michigan. One protester's sign also dubbed Michigan “the anti-Florida.”
Potentially the fifth state to hold its Republican primary, Michigan could prove pivotal for the GOP presidential nomination winner. Michigan House Republican Floor Leader Bryan Posthumus flew to Florida in December to deliver a letter signed by 18 other state House Republicans encouraging DeSantis to run for president.
“When he becomes an actual candidate, I will be doing another letter saying we endorse you for President of the United States of America,” Posthumus told The Associated Press.
Michigan voters have overwhelmingly rejected Republicans in the seven years since Trump won the state. Democrats control the statewide offices of governor, attorney general and secretary of state in addition to holding majorities in the Legislature.
With full control of the Statehouse for the first time in 40 years, Michigan Democrats have prioritized further protecting reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights that are being rolled back in Republican-led states across the nation.
On Wednesday, Whitmer signed legislation repealing a 1931 abortion ban after voters in November enshrined rights to the procedure in their constitution.
She called out Florida and other Republican-led states for taking steps to pass “un-American, anti-free and, frankly, sickening” abortion laws.
Often saying that “bigotry is bad for business,” the Michigan governor said the state’s liberal measures will help attract socially-conscious businesses and new talent. Last month, Michigan became the first state in nearly 60 years to repeal a union-restricting law known as “right-to-work."
Some business advocates disagree, saying Florida proves otherwise. It was one of the first states to implement a “right-to-work” law that allows employees to opt out of paying union dues and fees, and began advancing legislation last week that would ban automatic paycheck deductions for members.
In terms of job growth, Michigan increased by 2.1% over the past year, coming in 35th in the nation. Florida was tied for second at 4.6%. Florida saw the largest population increase of any state from 2021 to 2022 — at 1.9% — while Michigan’s population slightly decreased over the same period.
Still, “most of these movements reflect long-term trends that are tied to climate and economics more than politics,” said Brad Hershbein, a senior economist at the nonpartisan W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
“Florida has been growing over decades, no matter which party controlled the governor’s office, mostly because of its climate and zero income tax,” Hershbein said.
Gun legislation, an increasingly polarizing issue following multiple school shootings to start the year, has also differed greatly in Michigan and Florida.
DeSantis and Republicans have begun rolling back restrictions that were implemented after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland. DeSantis signed a bill Monday that will allow carrying concealed guns without a permit. He has said he wants to allow people to openly carry guns.
In Michigan, Democrats are close to passing an 11-bill gun safety package that Whitmer has said she will sign, including red flag laws and safe storage requirements, following a shooting at Michigan State University in February.
This story has been corrected to show that Bryan Posthemus is the Michigan House Republican floor leader, not Republican House speaker.
Associated Press writer Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.