AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and California Governor Gavin Newsom squared off last night in a debate on Fox News moderated by Sean Hannity. While the event was billed as a “Great Red State vs. Blue State” showdown, it quickly took on the tenor and substance of a back and forth between two men with their sights set on the White House.
Newsom for his part did his best to downplay his presidential aspirations, repeatedly insisting that he was only on stage to “tell the truth about the Biden-Harris record” and defend California’s policies. “One thing we have in common,” Newsom said early on, “is that neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024.”
But the very fact that Newsom was on stage with DeSantis before a national audience belies his supposedly selfless motivations. Within the context of Newsom’s nationwide campaigning for Biden and the California governor running ads in Texas and Florida promoting his record, only the most credulous observer could see last night’s debate as anything other than an opportunistic politician eager to pick up his party’s banner should a clearly declining Biden falter down the stretch.
Throughout the debate, Newsom lived up to his status as a slick and skilled politician, repeatedly deflecting questions and making plenty of emotional appeals to viewers.
At one point during the debate, DeSantis appeared to catch Newsom off guard by holding up a page from the book “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel found in many public schools that contains explicit sexual images. DeSantis accused Newsom of allowing this and similar inappropriate materials to remain in California school libraries while they have been removed in Florida.
But Newsom recovered quickly, avoiding the specific issue of parental rights and instead personally attacking DeSantis. “I don’t like the way you demean the LGBTQ community,” Newsom said. “I don’t like how you humiliate people you disagree with. I find this primarily offensive.”
Newsom also hammered DeSantis on his struggles in 2024 GOP primary polling, several times referencing the fact that he is down big to former President Donald Trump. “You are trolling folks and trying to play political games so you can out-Trump Trump,” Newsom said. “How is that going for you, Ron? You are down 41 points in your own home state.”
The central problem for Newsom throughout the debate, however, was that the situation in his state has become so bad that his record as governor is impossible to defend.
In the opening question of the night, Hannity presented a chart showing a net population loss for California over the last two years, while Florida saw a net population gain, and asked both governors to explain the disparity. While DeSantis offered several examples of Newsom’s policies that are driving Americans out of the state, Newsom avoided the question entirely and offered instead a long digression on how the Biden-Harris administration is supposedly helping the country.
DeSantis would return to the population loss question several times, at one point revealing that Newsom’s own father-in-law was one of the Californians who relocated to Florida over the past two years. Newsom’s only rejoinder was a line that more Floridians have moved to California than Californians have moved to Florida – a claim that was quickly debunked by users on X.
Newsom also became bogged down in technicalities when it came to a defense of California’s tax policy, and actually attempted to make the case that taxes are lower for middle- and working-class families in California than in Florida. According to the Tax Foundation, California ranked 46th nationally in state and local tax burden in 2022. Florida ranked 11th.
During a back and forth over COVID-19 policies, Newsom even accused DeSantis of “following the science” and “listening to Fauci,” apparently intended as a criticism. But the attack fell resoundingly flat given that Newsom himself kept his state shut down longer than almost any other state in the country, while Florida became one of the first to reopen.
Newsom later took some serious flak over his state’s rampant crime and homelessness problem, another issue for which he appeared to have no answer. In one of the most colorful exchanges of the night, DeSantis held up a map of San Francisco covered in brown splotches representing human feces. At one point, Newsom even attempted to blame Ronald Reagan for California’s homelessness crisis.
While DeSantis clearly isn’t the natural politician that Newsom is, he was unquestionably better able to defend his record as governor and offer more specifics on how his policies have benefitted Florida. Newsom can lob all the ad hominem attacks that he wants, but the reality is that California has become a national meme for failed left-wing governance, while Florida has prospered since DeSantis took office in 2018. Americans have already voted with their feet on who they think the better governor is.
On the whole, the debate was a victory for DeSantis in the sense that he was able to present some key elements of his governing record and enjoy a national spotlight without having to jockey with other Republican presidential hopefuls like he has during the GOP debates.
However, current polling suggests that even this strong performance won’t do much to change the reality of Trump’s dominance in the 2024 GOP primary race. From the standpoint of DeSantis’s presidential campaign, the debate may help bolster his standing among non-Trump voters, but likely won’t do much to change the overall landscape of the race.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @ShaneHarris513.