Republican presidential hopefuls have begun casting themselves as impassioned defenders of “parental rights,” turning schoolbooks and curricula, doctors’ offices, and sports leagues into a new political battleground as they work to distinguish themselves ahead of the 2024 GOP primary.

The issue had already emerged as a major vein in the GOP bloodstream, emanating partly from the coronavirus pandemic, when school closures and vaccine mandates upended family routines and rankled vaccine-hesitant parents. But it took off after Republicans watched Glenn Youngkin defeat Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial election following a campaign that placed “parents’ rights” at its center.

In leading these cultural clashes, DeSantis has become a superstar among highly engaged conservatives. He and his wife, Casey, were treated like rock stars at last year’s Tampa summit of Moms for Liberty, a group that mobilizes conservative matriarchs across the country, where he was heralded onstage as an “American hero” and a “shining light” for parents across the country who wish that “Ron would be their governor.” The Florida Republican was reelected to a second term in November by a 19-point margin, a victory he touted at a news conference earlier this week following a fresh round of attacks from Trump.

Tiffany Justice, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, said parental rights weren’t on the forefront of minds during Trump’s first campaign in 2016 or when DeSantis first ran for governor in 2018. But DeSantis was among the first to recognize during the pandemic the parental angst around closed schools, mask mandates and an apprehension to ideological creep into the classroom, she said, and it has him well positioned when parental rights becomes “a litmus test for all candidates in 2024.”

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