Florida Lawmakers Clear a Potential Presidential Roadblock for DeSantis

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Gov. Ron DeSantis has gotten just about everything he wanted out of Florida’s legislative session, which draws to a close next week. A six-week ban on abortion. The ability for Floridians to carry concealed weapons without a permit or training. An expansion of school vouchers. All laws that Mr. DeSantis could lean on heavily in a potential Republican primary for president.

Now the governor’s legislative allies in Tallahassee have delivered another boon, one that is procedural but just as important: An elections bill that eliminates a potential roadblock to Mr. DeSantis declaring his candidacy for president, which he is expected to do next month. The law will ensure that Mr. DeSantis does not have to resign the governorship early if he runs for president.

On Friday, the State House of Representatives approved the law with a 76-34 vote. Having already been approved by the State Senate, it now heads to Mr. DeSantis’ desk.

The previous provision in state law, known as the “resign-to-run” statute, could have posed a problem for Mr. DeSantis’s presidential ambitions.

Although legal opinions varied, it might have compelled Mr. DeSantis, if he became a presidential candidate, to resign as governor in 2025 with two years still left in his term. The new bill cleared up any ambiguity by stating that the law does not apply to elected officials running specifically for president and vice-president, meaning Mr. DeSantis can make a bid for the White House without the prospect of giving up the governor’s office should he lose the 2024 Republican primary or general election.

Republicans said they wanted to leave no ambiguity in the law and argued that presidential and vice-presidential candidates are different than others seeking elective office because they are chosen by political parties in national conventions — instead of having to simply qualify for the ballot. Democrats countered that Mr. DeSantis was getting special treatment from his legislative buddies.

In the months before the legislative session kicked off in March, it seemed that the bill’s passage would mark a time for quiet celebration in the DeSantis camp — a tactical milestone for a campaign that seemed to have front-runner status in its grasp. But since then, the governor has frequently seemed to stumble or been stymied at crucial moments, often to the delight of former President Donald J. Trump, a declared candidate who now leads him in the polls.

As Mr. DeSantis seeks to recover his footing, he will hope to present the new laws he has steered through Republican-controlled Tallahassee as evidence of what he might accomplish in the White House, while pointing to his landslide re-election last year as proof that his conservative policies have a broad base of support.

“In November, December and January, Republicans all around the country were looking to DeSantis as the future of the party,” said Alex Conant, a Republican political strategist who worked as communications director for Senator Marco Rubio of Florida during his 2016 presidential campaign. “He was really hot coming off the midterms. But now it’s not so clear that Republican voters are ready to move beyond Trump.”

Part of Mr. DeSantis’s struggle has been the challenge of running for higher office only unofficially. Such a shadow campaign limits how strongly his message carries beyond Florida and seems to curtail his ability to criticize his presumptive main rival, Mr. Trump. Allies have been urging Mr. DeSantis to formally jump into the race, seeing it as the only way to deal with the former president.

“Trump was born without gloves,” Mr. Conant said. “He is always on offense. If you’re going to run against him, expect him to wake up every day punching you.”

As the pressure builds, the end of the DeSantis campaign-in-waiting finally seems near. Those close to him say he plans to make his presidential bid official in mid-May or late May. And he has assembled the makings of a senior campaign staff in Tallahassee, including veteran advisers from his time as governor and when he served in Congress. A super PAC backing his candidacy says it has raised $33 million and has hired operatives in key early voting states.

The group, Never Back Down, also brought in Adam Laxalt, the former Nevada attorney general, as its chairman. Mr. Laxalt is a Trump ally who amplified the former president’s conspiracy theories about the integrity of the 2020 election. But he has longstanding ties to Mr. DeSantis, too, dating back to their days as roommates during naval officer training.

“If Gov. DeSantis heeds the growing calls for him to run for president, we can hit the ground running for him to win,” said Erin Perrine, the communications director for Never Back Down.

As the political operation backing him grows, Mr. DeSantis has spent more and more time out of state, including appearances promoting his new memoir and a foreign trade mission this week. In his absence, cracks have started to appear in his political coalition back home for the first time.

On Wednesday, State Senator Joe Gruters, a Republican who is a close ally of Mr. Trump, made an open show of defiance against Mr. DeSantis by voting no on a bill related to Disney. The bill — part of a yearlong feud between the company and Mr. DeSantis that has energized segments of the Republican base while alienating some members of the donor class — would nullify development agreements involving Disney.

In a statement, Mr. Gruters, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said that the state should “support our job creators” and avoid influencing the behavior of corporations with “the heavy hand of government.”

While he was the lone Republican to vote no, and the bill passed easily, the moment came as a sign that tensions between Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Trump are spelling the end of the days when the state party stood unanimously behind the governor.

Mr. DeSantis’s attacks on Disney have also recently led to criticism from national Republicans, including from Mr. Rubio, who expressed concern that businesses might grow afraid to come to Florida, as well as from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

“I think it would be much better if he sat down and solved the problem,” Mr. McCarthy told CNBC on Thursday. The comments suggest a growing dissatisfaction with how the governor has handled the fight with one of America’s most influential corporations and could signal plans to align with Mr. Trump in the primary.

Local leaders have taken shots at Mr. DeSantis, too.

Last week, Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami, a Republican who may also run for president, criticized how Mr. DeSantis treats others during an appearance on Fox News. “Well, he seems to struggle with relationships, generally,” said Mr. Suarez, who has occasionally clashed with the governor over the years but had not attacked him so personally. “I mean, I look people in the eye when I shake their hands.”

Even Dwyane Wade, the popular former star for the N.B.A.’s Miami Heat, seemed to weigh in, saying in a television interview that he left Florida in part because of the state’s stance on transgender issues. (Mr. Wade’s teenage daughter is transgender.)

“My family would not be accepted or feel comfortable there,” he said, without directly referencing the governor.

As part of Mr. DeSantis’s agenda, state leaders have pushed laws banning children from drag shows and criminalizing gender-affirming health care for minors, as well as expanding a law that restricts the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identities in public schools.

The change to the resign-to-run law is not the first time a pliant legislature has helped out a governor. Legislators under former governors Charlie Crist and Rick Scott adjusted the law when it seemed in their interest. Mr. DeSantis’s office did not respond when asked if he supported the change.

Not every new law the governor sought this session is sure to pass.

A proposal on immigration looks like it will be somewhat watered down. And the sponsor of a bill that would make it easier to sue the media has said that the legislation is unlikely to move forward this year.

Still, those who have seen Tallahassee in action say it was an unusually productive time.

“I think it’s clear the governor has had a remarkable session, one of the best I can remember,” said Brian Ballard, an influential lobbyist who has served as a fund-raiser for both Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis.

With Republicans holding supermajorities in both legislative chambers, Florida Democrats could do little but watch.

Dan Gelber, the Democratic mayor of Miami Beach and a former state senator, said many of the governor’s priorities were “not important” to most Floridians.

“It’s a heaping portion of red meat for his base,” Mr. Gelber said.

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.

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