Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and Disney CEO Bob Chapek
CNN  — 

Months before Disney CEO Bob Chapek tiptoed into a roiling debate in Florida and before the legislation that opponents would call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was even filed, Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered a threat to business leaders who got in his way.

“If you are in one of these corporations, if you’re a woke CEO, you want to get involved in our legislative business, look, it’s a free country,” the Florida Republican said last June. “But understand, if you do that, I’m fighting back against you. And I’m going to make sure that people understand your business practices, and anything I don’t like about what you’re doing.”

DeSantis this month made clear he wasn’t bluffing. A day after Chapek publicly condemned a controversial Florida bill that would ban classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity before fourth grade, DeSantis ripped Disney to a room of supporters. He called Disney a “woke corporation” and criticized its business interests in China. Fox obtained and posted a video from the private event, and DeSantis and his staff helped spread it on social media.

For DeSantis, already considered a future presidential contender, the episode has only further bolstered his standing within his party, and it has exposed a widening chasm between the current crop of Republican leaders and the corporations that have traditionally curried favor with the GOP. More and more, Republicans, once loath to criticize big business, have adopted former President Donald Trump’s approach of calling out corporations whose stances on hot-button issues they disagree with.

One longtime Republican consultant in Florida, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely about DeSantis and Disney, told CNN it was “a different day for the corporate-loving GOP in Florida.”

“This thing with Disney, this is his modus operandi,” the consultant said of DeSantis. “There’s no playbook anymore for corporations. You just have to take your lumps.”

Disney has faced internal strife and a public reckoning in the days leading up to and after the bill’s passage by the Florida Legislature. Chapek, who first said in a tepid statement that Disney’s involvement would be “counterproductive” and did not publicly criticize the bill until it had passed, later apologized to his LGBTQ employees, telling them, “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry.” The fallout continued Wednesday as some Disney employees staged walkouts.

Meanwhile, conservative pundits flocked to Twitter to praise DeSantis for standing up to the entertainment giant. One commentator for the National Review wrote that DeSantis had given Republicans “a playbook for confronting woke ideology going forward.”

Disney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Leaning into fights

To the outside world, it was perhaps surprising that a Republican governor would put his state’s best-known company on blast. Disney, after all, isn’t just an iconic brand, it’s also a main driver behind the tourism industry that helps keep Florida’s income tax-less economy afloat. Before the pandemic, the theme park annually drew nearly as many visitors as there are people in the state (about 20 million), and it employs 77,000 Floridians.

But unlike past GOP leaders, DeSantis has been unmoved by corporate pressure or threats of economic boycott over divisive policies. Rather, he has gained a national following by leaning into fights, no matter who is on the receiving end.

One Republican noted that the legislation Disney objected to didn’t originate with DeSantis and said his involvement was initially minimal. When he first remarked on the bill officially titled “Parental Rights in Education” in February, DeSantis acknowledged that there weren’t many instances of Florida classrooms teaching about sexual orientation and identity.

But as outrage against the bill spread throughout the country, to late-night television and the White House, DeSantis and his team began to aggressively push back. After “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at the bill, the governor’s spokeswoman tweeted that anyone who opposed the measure was “probably a groomer,” a term used to describe a sexual predator who trains a victim to trust the predator. Opponents of the bill said her comments evoked ugly, debunked arguments used in the past by anti-gay activists to diminish and demean the LGBTQ community.

With the bill gaining momentum, Disney, which is headquartered in Burbank, California, but has 38 registered lobbyists in Florida, worked behind the scenes with state lawmakers to try to soften the legislation. It passed both Republican-controlled chambers largely unchanged.

Chapek told shareholders March 9 that he had called DeSantis after the bill passed the state Senate to convey the company’s “disappointment and concern.” DeSantis’ office said his support for the legislation hadn’t wavered. He then went public with his criticism of Disney.

“When you have companies that have made a fortune off being family-friendly and catering to families and young kids, they should understand that parents of young kids do not want this injected into their kids’ kindergarten classroom,” DeSantis told supporters in the video reported by Fox. This time, he didn’t mention that there are few examples of this occurring in Florida.

As a Republican legislative aide told CNN, “It’s like Ron Burgundy said: That escalated quickly.”

Christopher Miles, a Miami-based GOP consultant, said watching a Florida governor go after Disney was “not a world I expected to be living in a couple of years ago.” But he said DeSantis, like Trump, has gained popularity by bucking conventional wisdom.

The surprise isn’t that DeSantis pounced, Miles said, it’s that Mickey Mouse walked into the trap.

“If you come at Ron DeSantis directly, he will come after you. He has made that clear,” Miles said. “It’s almost like Disney gave him a nice platform to run for president, and it was a good opportunity for him to spike the football. If you draw DeSantis into a fight, he’s going to go to the mat.”

A shift within the GOP

Disney’s unsuccessful attempt to fight the Florida bill may also be the latest sign of corporate leaders’ dwindling sway over state governments when it comes to divisive policies.

Last year, Georgia marched ahead with legislation that put new voting restrictions in place despite objections from some of the state’s largest businesses and Major League Baseball, which pulled its All-Star Game out of Atlanta.

By the time Florida passed its own bill to limit early voting, the business community was largely silent.

The NCAA issued a statement last year signaling it could pull championship events from states that altered the eligibility status of transgender athletes. Undeterred, DeSantis signed a bill banning transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s scholastic sports.

The NCAA still held the men’s and women’s Division I Cross Country Championships in Tallahassee, only a few miles from where the anti-transgender legislation became law. Florida is scheduled to host several more championships in the coming years.

“If you don’t want to hold an event in my state, you know what, I got a lot of events in my state,” DeSantis said at the time. “I’m not worried about that.”

In the past, corporate leaders were able to convince some Republican politicians that contentious social policy bills would stifle economic activity in their states. In 2015, blowback was swift in Indiana when then-Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill making it legal for businesses to reject service to LGBTQ people if they cited religious exemptions. Criticism came from corporations, sports leagues and conventions, which warned of economic repercussions. Within 10 days, Pence signed new legislation softening the law.

Before Disney weighed in, the Florida bill hadn’t stirred that kind of response from businesses.

“The folks who consider the GOP to be pro-business, that’s not how they have been acting,” said Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group. The organization recently rejected a $5 million donation from Disney because it felt the company hadn’t done enough to stop the bill from passing in Florida.

But Republicans remain convinced that overzealous corporate leaders are using their power to suppress conservative voices and ideals. Other than President Joe Biden and the media industry, no entity at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando was treated as a greater threat to America than the corporate boardroom. An entire panel at CPAC was devoted to fighting back against what participants saw as the leftward lurch of multinational corporations. Pundits and politicians took turns knocking Fortune 500 companies such as Facebook, Spotify and even Coca-Cola, and attendees were encouraged to spend their money at businesses that were in line with their values.

“It is really important that we start building our own institutions and our own little networks that are friendly to the American way of life,” said Terry Schilling, the president of the conservative American Principles Project.

Fundraising pause

Chapek announced after passage of the LGBTQ topics instruction bill that Disney would halt political contributions in Florida. Disney has been a prolific donor to Florida campaigns, mostly to Republicans, contributing more than $2.1 million to candidates and committees since the start of 2021. The company had previously donated $50,000 to DeSantis’ bid for reelection this year.

The DeSantis campaign released its response on Tuesday: A video of a campaign worker delivering the text of the legislation to Disney’s headquarters in Central Florida and a message to “Just read the bill.”

Chapek said DeSantis had agreed to meet with Disney’s LGBTQ employees. DeSantis’ office said it was not aware any meeting had been scheduled.

DeSantis’ dust-up with Disney has provided fodder for his political opponents in Florida, but few within the state’s business community are coming to the company’s defense. The Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Florida, two top business groups, have remained silent throughout the saga. Neither responded to requests for comment.

Nor have Republicans publicly defended Disney, their longtime campaign benefactor. One Republican aide said it was too soon to know the full impact of Disney’s pullback on the GOP’s ability to fundraise. In addition to cutting Republicans big checks, Disney properties often host GOP events at no cost to the party.

It is unlikely to make a difference to DeSantis, who already has $89 million for his reelection fight.

“He thinks it doesn’t matter. He’s got a bottomless pit of goodwill, and his base will support him,” said Ron Book, a longtime Florida lobbyist. “Everything he does, he’s talking to his base.”

CNN’s Frank Pallotta contributed to this report.