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Ron DeSantis bets big on his Disney feud

Interviews with voters, along with three polls, show strong GOP support for DeSantis over Disney in their fight, despite skepticism from some donors and strategists.
A side by side of Mickey Mouse with a blue overlay and Ron DeSantis with a red overlay
Ron DeSantis may have his eye on a different group of Republicans as he doubles down on his battle with Mickey Mouse.NBC News; Getty Images

LAKE COUNTY, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has heard plenty of warnings from donors, supporters and consultants that he's foolish for going up against Disney. People love Disney World. Waging this public fight is bad for Florida's economy. It’s even worse politics, they say. 

But Republicans who would make up the voter base in a presidential primary may see it differently. NBC News interviewed nearly three dozen potential voters, strategists and pollsters, finding a picture of a primary electorate that is skeptical of Disney and supportive of DeSantis calling out the corporate behemoth.

That finding is bolstered by three surveys that demonstrate support for DeSantis over Disney among Republicans — though DeSantis is taking a much bigger risk once Democrats and independents weigh in. 

As he bores in on his battle with Mickey Mouse, DeSantis has his eye on those conservative voters he’ll need to win over if he decides to jump into the 2024 presidential race.

Yet while there is the potential for GOP support, donor dissatisfaction exposes a real political risk to the governor should donors turn off the spigot in a heated primary battle.

“The people that say this is an issue that’s going to cost him and is ruining his chances, I think, are just blatantly not right about that,” said Michael Binder, faculty director of the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of Northern Florida, which conducted one of the surveys that showed DeSantis with much higher approval than Disney among Republicans.

Binder noted longtime tensions among Floridians and Disney, and pointed out that if DeSantis is to compete in a presidential primary, he'll need to make some noise.

“You can’t get to the general unless you get through the primary," he said. "And Donald Trump takes up a lot of space.”

'Go woke, go broke'

DeSantis has been at war with Disney for more than a year, when then-CEO Bob Chapek issued a statement opposing DeSantis-backed legislation banning the discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms from kindergarten through third grade.

Since then, DeSantis has stacked a local governing board overseeing Disney with his supporters, Disney has sued DeSantis and the local board has voted to sue Disney. Disney CEO Bob Iger said his company is being targeted, calling DeSantis' actions “anti-business” and “anti-Florida.”

The nearly two dozen Floridians who spoke to NBC News in the Villages, the world's largest retirement community that went for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, and Lake County, a conservative stronghold about 40 miles away from Walt Disney World, expressed widespread support for DeSantis’ battle.

“I’m definitely on DeSantis’ side. Go woke, go broke,” said Mikey Young, a Lake County voter, who was upset over the direction Disney had taken its company. “It’s absolutely ridiculous what they’re doing. And they’re trying to infiltrate the children.” 

“I think it’s turning a little bit woke,” said Deborah Folckemer, also from Lake County. “I think that’s what’s changed. It’s not the old Disney.”

Rosemary Sikucinski said she and her husband decided not to renew their annual passes to Disney World after Chapek's comments.

“They’ve gone too liberal,” Sikucinski, a resident of the Villages, said. At the same time, Sikucinski said that while DeSantis may be right that Disney gets favorable treatment, his relentlessness “certainly gives the perception that he’s being very vengeful toward that corporation.”

Another resident, Laurie Goddard, also sided with DeSantis. 

“I agree with what he’s saying. I think he’s doing the right thing.”

Polling bears out that many conservatives aren't on Disney's side.

A University of Northern Florida poll in March showed both Ron DeSantis and Disney held overall favorability at 50% and 52%, respectively, among all respondents. Among Republicans, however, DeSantis’ favorability shot up to 87% and Disney’s dropped to 27%. 

An Ipsos/Reuters poll in late April found that 64% of those surveyed believed DeSantis was punishing Disney for free speech. But again, the responses split along party lines, with independents and Democrats siding with Disney. Among Republicans polled, 64% said DeSantis was rightfully rolling back special treatment for the company.  

And in a Harvard CAPS Harris poll in mid-April, 54% of those surveyed said they supported DeSantis’ actions to “limit Disney’s autonomy in Florida by appointing an oversight board and threatening to remove its special tax status.” Support was at 73% among Republicans.

Republicans in other parts of the country said that GOP primary voters were yearning for a candidate who stirs the pot and will go up against the left. 

“The Republican base wants to see a fighter,” said Matt Salmon, a former Arizona congressman and state party chair. Salmon said he believes Republicans don’t view the Disney brand the same way it once did. “The Republican base lovingly says Disney is the epitome of the woke agenda.”

Kevin Hermening, GOP party chair in Wisconsin's Marathon County — which hosted DeSantis at a Lincoln Day Dinner recently — said he supports the governor's point of view, but he doesn't see it from a culture war aspect.

"I’m a businessman. ... I’ve never liked it when certain businesses get a special deal compared to their competition," Hermening said.

But in some areas, the DeSantis-Disney war is barely registering on the radar, and veteran Republicans doubt whether it will be a factor in the election.

“It’s a land fight, and nobody knows what the hell it’s about,” said Brandon Scholz, former chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party. “It’s really inside baseball. Who really understands what this is except for a bunch of insiders?”  

Amy Tarkanian, former Nevada GOP state party chair, echoed the sentiment.  

“Nobody’s mentioning it. Out of all the possible issues that are out there. It’s not even whispered,” said Tarkanian, who isn’t yet supporting a candidate in the primary. “If you’re talking about Disney, your average voter is going to say, ‘It’s too expensive to take my family of four,’ they’re not going to say, ‘Oh, Gov. Ron DeSantis, what are you doing?’”

Skepticism from influential Republicans

Inside DeSantis world, there is division over the governor's battle, with some aides wanting him to move on, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation. But DeSantis' strategy, as of now, is to stay the course.

“Gov. Ron DeSantis is putting Florida first. As shown by his landslide re-election win, the people of Florida overwhelmingly support his courage to stand up to woke corporations, like Disney," said Erin Perrine, spokeswoman for the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down. "He will win this fight, continue standing up to woke corporations and always put the people who elected him into office first.”

DeSantis has drawn criticism from inside and outside his political universe, including from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Trump declared that DeSantis had been “absolutely destroyed” by Disney. Former U.N. ambassador and GOP primary candidate Nikki Haley mocked DeSantis and invited the entertainment giant to bring its tens of thousands of jobs to South Carolina.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board warned that DeSantis "is escalating a feud with a business that risks alienating moderate and independent voters who otherwise support Florida’s sex-education law and his good policies such as school-choice expansion." Holman W. Jenkins Jr., a member of the paper's editorial board, wrote a separate column titled, "The Stupid War Between Disney and DeSantis."

The protracted battle has left some in the donor world unsettled just as high rollers are deciding with whom to place their loyalties. Ron Gidwitz, a major Republican fundraiser who has also served as finance chair to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, groused to NBC News over DeSantis’ “craziness” in his war with one of the most recognizable brands in the world.

“How do you get into a fight with Mickey Mouse?” he asked.

But Salmon sees it another way: “Mickey Mouse was where that company was 50 years ago — 60 years ago. Not now.”