Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to guests at the Republican Party of Marathon County Lincoln Day Dinner annual fundraiser on May 6, 2023 in Rothschild, Wisconsin.
CNN — 

“DeSantisland” was likely not the happiest place on Earth on Thursday.

As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gears up for an expected jump into the 2024 presidential race next week, his powerful adversary, Disney, trampled his pre-launch buzz by scratching a $1 billion plan for an office campus that could have brought 2,000 jobs to the state.

The move was the latest twist in a bitter feud between DeSantis and one of the most important corporations operating in the Sunshine State, rooted in a political collision over the Republican governor’s hardline conservative ideology that will become his pitch to GOP primary voters. And it raises the question of whether Floridians are paying a big price for his political ambitions.

Disney’s power play showed that CEO Bob Iger wasn’t bluffing when he asked whether Florida wanted the firm to “invest more, employ more people, and pay more taxes” last week. The timing of the Thursday announcement seemed calculated to damage the governor ahead of the most important week of his political career to date, when he is expected to soft launch his White House bid and make the all-important sell to fundraising bundlers. Disney did not specifically blame DeSantis for the move, partly citing “changing business conditions.” But the message was clear.

“When you are involved in a situation like this, it doesn’t happen very often that events like this are random or coincidental,” said Mark Johnston, a professor of marketing and ethics at the Crummer School of Business at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

Disney’s latest swipe at DeSantis set off multiple political reverberations. It offered a huge opening for ex-President Donald Trump and other Republican primary candidates to argue DeSantis is blundering through an ill-conceived battle with the corporate giant and to accuse him of squandering jobs and business in pursuit of higher office.

Trump’s campaign gleefully declared that DeSantis got “caught in the Mouse Trap,” after predicting weeks ago that the governor would lose his face-off with Mickey Mouse. (In that same statement, the campaign claimed the GOP front-runner, while in office, was known as the “job’s President.”)

The fact that some of the new jobs in the Disney project were expected to be transferred from California also undercut a narrative central to the DeSantis platform that businesses and citizens are fleeing liberal areas for a dynamic state dubbed “DeSantisland” by his supporters and which he calls “the free state of Florida.”

More fundamentally, the latest sign DeSantis was outmaneuvered by Disney threatens to highlight damaging perceptions Trump and other critics are seeking to sow about his candidacy – that despite his thumping reelection win in November, DeSantis lacks basic political skills and strategic nous. This theme has been gathering steam following a series of missteps by DeSantis – who for months was seen as a severe threat to Trump – as he prepped his campaign. His collision with Disney also calls into question whether the bullying persona that the governor adopted to appeal to the conservative base is grounded in reality.

In other words, has DeSantis picked an enemy – that after decades of mastering societal currents and protecting its image in the courts – is tougher and better at politics than he is? If so, what might this augur for his capacity to thrive in a coming clash with a candidate who is as feral as Trump?

DeSantis may have met a rival who is as tough as he is 

In a series of moves over the last year, DeSantis created the “Mouse trap” for himself. He recently slammed Disney during a visit to South Carolina, a key primary state and declaring: “They may have run Florida for 50 years before I got on the scene, but they don’t run Florida anymore.”

The dispute between the governor and Disney dates back to the firm’s objections to legislation that DeSantis signed last spring that restricted the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity for kindergarten through third grade, dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay bill.” The measure is part of his targeting of cultural issues and his campaign against “woke” diversity, equity and inclusion policies. The strategy is calculated to appeal to conservatives who believe America’s traditional values are under attack from a more diverse and inclusive society. But the governor’s clash with Disney – a huge firm that appeals to millions of mainstream Americans and has sought to become more inclusive in recent years – could hint at difficulties DeSantis might have in selling such policies toward more moderate voters in a general election.

DeSantis claimed in his recently published autobiography that Disney had been pressured by “leftist activists” to take a position that alienated Floridians, including parents and children, and that had nothing to do with its core business. He justified his subsequent effort to take control of a special tax district that gave Disney wide autonomy by saying that it had ceased to act in the interests of Florida. “The Walt Disney Company had decided to bite the hand that had fed it for more than fifty years,” he wrote.

Disney, in response to the governor’s moves, has accused DeSantis of infringing its right to free speech and has launched a lawsuit that could shadow his presidential campaign.

In keeping with his bruising political persona, DeSantis reacted defiantly to Disney’s announcement that it would halt the office project. Jeremy T. Redfern, a spokesman for his office said, “Disney announced the possibility of a Lake Nona campus nearly two years ago. Nothing ever came of the project, and the state was unsure whether it would come to fruition.” Redfern also took a swipe at the entertainment empire: “Given the company’s financial straits, falling market cap and declining stock price, it is unsurprising that they would restructure their business operations and cancel unsuccessful ventures.”

DeSantis rivals pounce 

Whatever the economic backdrop of this dispute, it has enormous political implications, as could be seen from the swift reactions of some his potential GOP primary rivals.

Trump’s camp issued several statements, including one that crowed that “President Trump is always right,” and recirculated his previous prediction that DeSantis would be “absolutely destroyed by Disney.” The situation is a win-win for Trump: It allows him to portray DeSantis as weak and politically naive and also to take shots at an impressive economic and political record in Florida the governor is using as a bedrock of his campaign. Trump has long styled himself as a famed dealmaker, and while this persona may not be justified by his years of questionable investments and business failures, it remains a powerful one among GOP primary voters, and could help him drive home his attacks on the DeSantis business record.

“Ron DeSantis’ failed war on Disney has done little for his limping shadow campaign and now is doing even less for Florida’s economy,” the Trump campaign said in a statement.

Another possible GOP primary candidate, former Vice President Mike Pence, also leveraged the Disney announcement to jab DeSantis. He argued the governor should have simply taken the win in the legislature over the teaching of gender issues in schools.

“I like Walt Disney, not woke Disney,” Pence said on Fox Business. “I just don’t believe it’s in the interests of the people of any state for a government to essentially go after a business that they disagreed with on a political issue.”

Democrats also weighed in, foreshadowing general election attacks they could make against DeSantis should he wis the Republican nomination.

“Gov DeSantis is more interested in running for President than running the state of Florida” and is trying to “out-Trump Trump” in the GOP primary, Florida Democratic Rep. Maxwell Frost told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on the “Situation Room.”

“And now the people of Florida are paying the price,” he said.

Given his political exposure on Disney and the combative political image that is central to his White House hopes, DeSantis probably has no option but to further escalate the showdown.

“He wants Republicans to know that ‘I am not going to give in just because somebody clamored for it, because the winds changed,’” said Scott Jennings, a veteran of the George W. Bush White House and a CNN political commentator.

So the feud with Disney is unlikely to end while DeSantis is a presidential candidate, even though it may eventually end up hurting both the well-known entertainment giant and the state that hosts Disney World – and that he calls home.

“I think that there’s a growing sense that – how does this end in a positive way?” said Johnston, the Rollins College professor. “It’s not Disney needs to lose and the state needs to win or vice versa. It’s how do we do this so that both sides can walk away from this and we can go back to having a great relationship between Disney and the state of Florida.”