In DeSantis’ Sunshine State, life is not all sunny
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “free state of Florida” isn’t so cheap to live in.
As DeSantis sells his “Florida Blueprint” as a reason for conservatives and Republicans to back him for president, everything is not picture-perfect back home. And his opponents are ready to use it against him.
Florida, where unemployment remains at 2.6 percent and jobs are relatively plentiful, is also dealing with a persistent affordability crisis that keeps driving up cost-of-living expenses, especially when it comes to housing and insurance.
It’s just one example of how DeSantis’ record on those kitchen-table issues, coupled with his stance on national flashpoints like abortion and gun safety, is providing his Democratic foes and even some conservatives fodder for a well-funded opposition campaign launching in tandem with his presidential race.
Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison previewed the Democratic case against the rising Republican star, noting his roots in Congress’ conservative Freedom Caucus and past support for plans that proposed cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Harrison also focused attacks on the governor’s handling of Florida, the country’s third most-populous state and a battleground in presidential politics.
“Now, as Floridians suffer under some of the highest housing and health care costs in the nation, DeSantis has tripled down on a MAGA agenda — including banning abortion, making it easier for criminals to carry guns, signing laws that allowed book bans, parroting Putin’s talking points, and bailing out huge corporations while Florida families foot the bill,” Harrison said.
Atop the effort is the DNC, which began preparing an opposition research file on the governor two years ago. The national committee followed DeSantis on recent trips to early voting states — blaring negative messages about him on a mobile billboard in Iowa and holding a press conference in Nevada to attack his record. The DNC plans to replicate that tact with another mobile billboard outside a DeSantis donor retreat in Miami on Wednesday, according to someone briefed on the plans who was granted anonymity to share the details in advance.
A key distinction, however, is that the intractable problems looming in the Sunshine State have not gone unnoticed by some conservatives and Republicans. Billionaire Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, on the podcast Honestly with Bari Weiss, cited skyrocketing housing costs in South Florida as a reason why he’s hesitant to move operations from California to Florida.
Thiel said he thought DeSantis would make a “terrific president.” But when discussing housing costs in Florida, he said “that kind of economic cost is probably not enough to offset all the wokeness in the world or even the taxes.”
Florida Atlantic University, in conjunction with other researchers, reported in January that Florida was home to nine of the 21 most overpriced housing markets in the country.
Jeremy Redfern, a spokesperson for DeSantis, acknowledged the rising housing costs but said it was a result of the ongoing migration into the state. Florida has become a leading destination for people flocking from other parts of the country, including blue strongholds like New York and California.
“The governor’s successful policies in the state of Florida have attracted new residents from across the country, making property in Florida increasingly valuable,” Redfern said in an email. “This positive externality of successful state government will naturally come with new challenges, like increasing rent costs.”
Redfern contended that part of the blame is due to inflation and “heavy-handed federal government policies,” including an national eviction moratorium. He added that while DeSantis has been in office, the governor has consistently backed pouring more state money into affordable housing programs. And this spring, he signed into law a measure that delivered hundreds of millions of additional state money into some affordable housing programs.
Former state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who just launched a non-profit institute that plans to focus on housing affordability and insurance, was skeptical as to whether the approach will work. He said Florida needs more single-family housing, and he attributed problems in that area to local regulators.
“Just throwing money at it isn’t going to solve the problem,” Brandes said.
Insurance costs also have been a constant conundrum in DeSantis’ Florida. Insurance plays a major role for homeowners in Florida, a state frequently hit by devastating hurricanes and other natural disasters. Mortgage lenders require homeowners in the state to purchase insurance, yet Florida’s insurance problem has grown more acute in recent years, fueled by a combination of lawsuits filed against insurers as well as a series of devastating storms that caused billions of dollars in damage.
Numerous insurance companies have gone insolvent, and the size of the state-created insurer of last resort has swelled in size. Some companies have reduced the number of policyholders, while rate hikes are ubiquitous and more are coming this year.
Jim Kalec, the president of a condominium association in Jupiter, which is on the state’s Atlantic coast, said that the insurance costs to cover 359 units has grown from $285,000 in 2020 to nearly $1.3 million just three years later.
“We don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” said Kalec, who said DeSantis is “fantastic” and “I’m all in for him.”
Fred Karlinsky, an insurance lawyer and lobbyist with deep ties to Florida Republicans, was blunt in his assessment when discussing the state of Florida’s property insurance market. During a webinar hosted by a global credit agency that specializes in insurance this week, he questioned whether rates will go down but blamed those who sued insurers. On a bright note, he also said Florida property had been undervalued and is now “expanding greatly.”
DeSantis and Republican legislators have tried multiple times in the last two years to deal with insurance, including using billions in taxpayer money to stabilize the market. They also have passed in the last six months two substantial bills to clamp down on insurance companies by restricting lawsuits, a move that some, including former President Donald Trump, have billed a “bailout.” But even those in and around Florida’s insurance industry have cautioned the lawsuit limits — which critics say will wind up harming consumers — will take time to achieve any effect.
Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, a Republican, said that some insurers are interested in returning to the state given the changes. But he added “these guys don’t want to come here until November. And you can’t blame them. They are going to wait until after hurricane season. Some of these things are out of our control.”
Still, the problems with housing and insurance have opened up a potential line of attack from a web of Democratic-leaning organizations seeking to define DeSantis for voters across the country who may not be familiar with his record.
Earlier this month, a coalition of Florida organizations led by the national teachers union and the Center for Popular Democracy issued a report titled “How Ron DeSantis sold out Florida homeowners” focused on rising insurance rates and the governor’s acceptance of campaign cash from insurance companies.
The American Federation of Teachers, notably, has been at odds with DeSantis over his support for banning unions from automatically deducting dues from government workers’ paychecks.
“There are teachers and homeowners and workers everywhere in the United States who want to hear what his record is, and we understand that this is running a marathon, not a sprint,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in an interview on Wednesday. “And we are very prepared to run that marathon. The legacy of repression that DeSantis has visited on the vulnerable in Florida is a story that needs to be told.”
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