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JULY 5, 2023
Kuttner on TAP
Will DeSantis’s Culture War Backfire?
Increasing cancellations of convention plans and business investments are starting to damage Florida’s economy.
Thanks to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s war on LGBTQ people, public schools, and educational curricula, Florida stands to lose massive amounts of convention business. Much of that lost business, ironically, is concentrated in places like Miami and Orlando, which don’t share DeSantis’s views. The latest to pull out is the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, which had planned a fall convention for Miami, and has now moved it to Chicago, incurring a stiff penalty from the hotels.

Planners tend to be liberals, but lots of groups far removed from politics want to disassociate themselves from DeSantis’s crusade. The Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN) has moved its planned 2027 Global Surgical Conference & Expo from Orlando to Philadelphia. Around 7,000 nurses and exhibitors will no longer be helping the local economy. The organizers of Con of Thrones, a convention for fans of the HBO fantasy epic, canceled their Orlando convention, planned for the Hyatt Regency Orlando in August. The National Society of Black Engineers will also not be coming to Orlando in 2024, for a convention that would have brought 15,000 to the Sunshine State.

Ironically, Orlando is the home of Disney, whose defense of LGBTQ rights prompted DeSantis to escalate his war. But conventions seem to be boycotting the state of Florida rather than moving to Disney properties. Disney itself has canceled a billion-dollar investment planned for an Orlando office park, which would have relocated or created some 2,000 jobs with an average salary of $120,000.

Fort Lauderdale has lately received at least eight convention cancellations. The American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) canceled its 2026 meeting, which represented 4,500 hotel room nights, or an estimated $3.25 million in lost revenue and a total economic loss of approximately $8.1 million.

Will this kind of business and consumer pressure make any difference? The closest analogy is North Carolina’s now-repealed bathroom law. A tally by the Associated Press in 2017, a year after the “Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act” was enacted, calculated that the direct cost to the state’s economy was $3.76 billion and growing.

The cancellations included a Ringo Starr concert, a boycott by the NCAA, and several business decisions to abort plans for expansions in North Carolina, including PayPal, Adidas, Deutsche Bank, VoxPro, Time Warner, and CoStar. Bank of America, one of North Carolina’s top employers, also quietly worked to kill the law.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, a major proponent of the law, talked a good game, arguing that these losses were a fraction of the state’s economy. But McCrory lost his 2016 re-election bid to Democrat Roy Cooper.

The bathroom provisions were repealed by the North Carolina legislature in 2017, and the remainder of the law, prohibiting localities from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances, was repealed in 2020, thanks to a sunset provision included in the 2017 law. Several cities, led by Charlotte, quickly passed anti-bias laws.

Will Florida follow North Carolina’s lead? There is one huge difference. In North Carolina, support for the bathroom bill was mainly ideological. When it started costing the state’s economy serious money and alienating businesses that are ordinarily aligned with Republicans, the legislature turned pragmatic. McCrory’s re-election loss added to that shift.

But in Florida, the culture war against LGBTQ people is purely a stunt by DeSantis, as the centerpiece of his national presidential campaign. It is hard to see how he might backtrack or compromise without looking even more like a lame opportunist. He doesn’t much care about the economic fallout in his state—at least not so far.

The punchline is that the launch of DeSantis’s bid for the presidency has underperformed expectations, to put it mildly. His cynical crusade, which has led him to attack Donald Trump, of all people, as a too-woke lover of alternative lifestyles, has achieved him precisely nothing. We’re witnessing a campaign flop for the ages and a self-inflicted wound to the governor’s home state, all at once.

Another difference that helped kill the North Carolina law was the presence of an effective Democratic Party and a leader in Roy Cooper, whose victory in 2016 signaled defeat for the bathroom bill. Florida’s Democratic Party is far weaker.

For the moment, DeSantis, who has been a popular governor, has kept the support of his legislature. But as more cancellations are announced and the economic damage deepens, he could find himself locked into a strategy that could further undo his faltering national campaign by undermining his credibility and base at home. Whatever the result, the damage to Florida’s economy will linger long after the 2024 campaign is over—and cause other Republicans to resist making culture wars the centerpiece of their campaigns.
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