The ‘Florida Man’ Shaping U.S. Foreign Policy

Gun Rights

The internet meme “Florida Man” captures the absurdity many have come to expect from the U.S. state. It’s easy to dismiss zany stories about Floridians catching alligators in trash cans and planting banana trees in potholes as having little bearing beyond the state’s borders. But foreign-policy practitioners cannot afford to ignore the upcoming battle between two important Florida Men: the candidates vying for the state’s governorship on Nov. 8.

The gubernatorial election, held on the same day as the U.S. midterms, will pit Florida’s sitting governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, against the state’s former governor, Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist. DeSantis, who outpaces his opponent in both campaign contributions and name recognition, is widely expected to win; FiveThirtyEight’s average of recent polls shows DeSantis leading Crist by 8.1 points. Some observers say DeSantis’s competent response to Hurricane Ian, which barreled across Florida last month, has further boosted his chances of victory.

Florida is known for its hyper-local yet nationally consequential political landscape; razor-thin margins in the state have decided national races, including the 2000 U.S. presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. But DeSantis’s likely triumph in Florida’s gubernatorial contest could have broad implications for U.S. foreign policy, too.

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The internet meme “Florida Man” captures the absurdity many have come to expect from the U.S. state. It’s easy to dismiss zany stories about Floridians catching alligators in trash cans and planting banana trees in potholes as having little bearing beyond the state’s borders. But foreign-policy practitioners cannot afford to ignore the upcoming battle between two important Florida Men: the candidates vying for the state’s governorship on Nov. 8.

The gubernatorial election, held on the same day as the U.S. midterms, will pit Florida’s sitting governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, against the state’s former governor, Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist. DeSantis, who outpaces his opponent in both campaign contributions and name recognition, is widely expected to win; FiveThirtyEight’s average of recent polls shows DeSantis leading Crist by 8.1 points. Some observers say DeSantis’s competent response to Hurricane Ian, which barreled across Florida last month, has further boosted his chances of victory.

Florida is known for its hyper-local yet nationally consequential political landscape; razor-thin margins in the state have decided national races, including the 2000 U.S. presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. But DeSantis’s likely triumph in Florida’s gubernatorial contest could have broad implications for U.S. foreign policy, too.

Though U.S. foreign policy is typically considered a function of the federal government, state governments also frequently work with foreign governments and businesses—a trend experts say has only accelerated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Florida is no exception: In 1996, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles unveiled a joint partnership to support Haiti’s democratic and economic development. In 2018, then-Gov. Rick Scott attended conservative Colombian President Iván Duque’s inauguration in Bogotá. And DeSantis issued an executive order last month to limit state and local government trade with companies linked to seven “countries of concern” that he alleges pose a cybersecurity threat, including China and Russia. DeSantis also waded into the foreign-policy conversation in June when he labeled Colombia’s new leftist president, Gustavo Petro, a “former narco-terrorist.”

More than one-fifth of Florida’s residents were born abroad, and the state boasts the largest diaspora populations of Colombians, Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans in the United States. Coupled with its geographic proximity to Latin America and the Caribbean, these demographics have given Florida significant influence on U.S. policy toward the region.

For decades, the state’s powerful diaspora interest groups have generally backed hard-line positions toward socialist regimes in Havana and Caracas. The Cuban American National Foundation, headquartered in Miami, steered the United States toward a staunchly anti-Fidel Castro policy beginning in the 1980s, and Florida’s senior U.S. senator, Marco Rubio, exemplifies the community’s continued influence. The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio reportedly drove the Trump administration’s reversal of the Obama-era thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.

Immigrants have flocked to Florida for decades, many fleeing oppressive regimes, political instability, and violence. Thousands of Haitians have set sail for Florida in recent months, often in overcrowded and ill-equipped boats. Across the United States, border officials encountered more than three times the number of Venezuelan migrants during the 2022 fiscal year than they did in the 2021 fiscal year, and more Cubans are arriving now than during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. But observers say Florida residents, including those of Latin American and Caribbean origin, increasingly oppose the influx of newcomers—a tension already affecting U.S. immigration policy. As of September, 47 percent of residents in the Miami-Dade region—home to Little Havana, Little Haiti, and “Doralzuela”—supported the Florida government sending migrants out of state.

Though the U.S. federal government retains primacy in regulating immigration, DeSantis has repeatedly proved himself willing to push the limits of his power and tangle with federal authorities. On Sept. 14, DeSantis used state funds to fly 48 unwitting Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. His office argued the move granted them “an opportunity to seek greener pastures.” Though DeSantis now faces several lawsuits—including from the migrants themselves and from the Florida Center for Government Accountability—his administration plans to continue such flights.

U.S. President Joe Biden rebuked Republican officials like DeSantis for “playing politics with human beings,” but the Biden administration has also faced criticism as it balances the political, humanitarian, and legal dynamics of immigration policy. This challenge is clear in the administration’s recent announcement that it will offer humanitarian parole to some Venezuelan migrants yet increase expulsions of others who enter the United States illegally.

As governor, DeSantis has also signed legislation banning so-called sanctuary cities, which generally help shield undocumented migrants from deportation by restricting collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. The state’s newly redistricted election map, meanwhile, skews heavily in the Republican Party’s favor—increasing the likelihood that the midterm elections deepen the bench of like-minded Florida members of Congress willing to reinforce DeSantis’s interests in Washington and beyond. Rubio, in particular, has allied with the governor, even defending a DeSantis-backed Florida riot law from criticism by a United Nations committee aimed at combating discrimination. DeSantis himself is also a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and his time on Capitol Hill has helped him forge ties with non-Florida legislators such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who supported the Martha’s Vineyard stunt.

Many migrants arriving in Florida are caught in a feedback loop of insecurity fueled by lax U.S. firearm regulations. Florida, which trails only Texas in its number of federally registered guns, is a wellspring for arms trafficking to Latin America and the Caribbean. As recently as 2016, U.S. firearms accounted for 99 percent of guns recovered and traced after crimes in Haiti. This month, Mexico filed a lawsuit in Arizona to curb trafficking of U.S. guns across the southern border.

Though Florida is not solely to blame for making the Americas the world’s most murderous region, its gun regulations are felt by U.S. neighbors and bear consequences for national immigration and security policies. Mass shootings at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub in 2016 and Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 thrust Florida to the forefront of the U.S. gun control debate. Endorsed by the National Rifle Association, DeSantis favors further loosening Florida’s firearm laws.

Meanwhile, the 2021 collapse of Champlain Towers South, a condominium building near Miami, drew international attention to the low-lying, peninsular state’s climate vulnerability. Experts have not definitively linked the collapse to environmental factors, yet Florida is clearly an early warning signal for emerging climate threats. A 2022 U.N. report singled out the state as an example of a place uniquely vulnerable to coastal flooding and other climate-related issues. Experts say ocean warming will only intensify storms—as Floridians learned last month with Hurricane Ian.

DeSantis has embraced some environmental reforms, championing an expansive resilience effort. This has included creating a state-level office for resilience and grant-making to help Florida communities reduce their vulnerability to sea level rise and flooding. DeSantis also helped lock in billions of dollars to restore the Everglades, a wildlife-rich wetland in the state. (Critics charge that these initiatives are smokescreens for DeSantis’s continued support of precarious development projects and the fossil fuel industry.)

How Florida’s next administration chooses to handle climate change could be a blueprint for other environmentally vulnerable communities around the world. DeSantis’s largely effective response to Hurricane Ian does not negate the storm’s massive devastation, which laid bare Florida’s continued lack of resilience to climate change. As such storms intensify, there is increasing urgency to develop effective defenses that low-lying communities worldwide can implement.

The election has another, potentially troubling dimension: DeSantis’s ties to the political upheaval that has compromised the United States’ global standing in recent years. The FBI probe into whether former U.S. President Donald Trump kept classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, his South Florida resort, has drawn international attention to DeSantis’s state. The club itself—an alleged magnet for foreign intelligence agents—has also become a national security liability.

Trump has suggested he may run again in 2024, but possible criminal charges cloud his political future. Some observers believe DeSantis is the Republican Party’s best bet in that race, though it’s unclear whether he will defy Trump—his longtime ally—and launch a presidential bid. Either way, DeSantis will need to appeal to the former president’s fan base, which dominates the Republican Party.

We don’t yet know whether DeSantis would court political support by complicating the federal investigation surrounding Trump and Mar-a-Lago. Overt obstruction is a remote possibility, but anything could happen in the current political arena, which has been shaped by the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. And even DeSantis’s continued criticism of the probe would hurt the United States’ global reputation as a standard-bearer for the rule of law. Whether DeSantis would intervene to defend Trump—as Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, DeSantis’s close ally, has done—or delegitimize him is unclear.

Sabotaging Trump could eliminate DeSantis’s strongest Republican competition for 2024, but it could also alienate pro-Trump voters whose support DeSantis might need in a faceoff against the Democratic nominee. A DeSantis presidential run—if done in the Trumpian mold—could also induce a U-turn in U.S. foreign policy and solidify the extreme right’s transformation of this sphere. DeSantis’s success or failure in Florida’s 2022 gubernatorial election could be an early predictor of his national viability. This may be the race’s greatest foreign-policy implication.

Whether DeSantis keeps his office or Crist makes an unlikely comeback, Florida will stay relevant to quagmires like U.S.-Cuba relations and emerging threats like climate change. As a top destination for international travel, the often-ridiculed state is the country’s face to millions of international visitors each year. Ignoring Florida Men could have broad consequences for the United States’ global image.

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