Govs. Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis, big-state governors with big national ambitions, clashed Thursday in a debate that quickly devolved into a slugfest of insults and accusations over abortion, crime, taxes and almost every other policy they champion.
They called each other liars and bullies. Newsom, DeSantis said, was too cozy with President Joe Biden. DeSantis, Newsom said, was an extremist. DeSantis said California taxes are too high. Newsom warned that Florida’s abortion policy would make lots of women criminals.
DeSantis, the governor of Florida, is seeking the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Newsom, the governor of California, has said he’s not interested in a 2024 bid but has taken the political and financial steps that could lead to a future candidacy.
The 90-minute clash, broadcast on Fox News Channel and moderated by commentator Sean Hannity, was a highly unusual matchup of up-and-coming political stars six weeks before the first votes of 2024 are cast in Iowa.
Newsom quickly made clear he’s squarely in Biden’s camp.
“You, in particular, Ron, are on a banning binge, a cultural purge, intimidating and humiliating people you disagree with. You and President Trump are really trying to light democracy on fire, “ he said.
He took a jab at DeSantis’ struggling campaign. “You’re behind by 40 points,” Newsom said, as former President Trump remains far ahead.
And he chided DeSantis for often mispronouncing Vice President Kamala Harris’ name. “It’s Madam Vice President to you,” Newsom said.
DeSantis was ready. People are leaving California in droves, he said, sick of high taxes and too much crime, and thousands are heading for Florida. Look out for what Newsom and his allies want to do to the country, he said.
“What California represents is the Biden/Harris agenda on steroids. They would love nothing more than to get four more years to be able to take the California model nationally. That would be disastrous for working people in this country,” DeSantis said.
As an added dig, he mentioned Newsom’s in-laws, who have moved to Florida.
The two governors fought throughout the night, talking over each other with accusations of lying.
“This is a slick slippery politician whose state is failing,” DeSantis charged.
“You want to bring us back to a pre-1960s world,” Newsom said.
Who’s got the best economy?
California, Newsom said, grew faster than Florida as the economy recovered from COVID-19 in 2021. True. But Florida has grown faster so far this year.
Newsom charged Florida “has one of the most regressive tax rates in the United States of America. Who does he tax? He taxes low income workers.” California’s tax burden falls more heavily on millionaires, Newsom said.
Florida has no state income tax. California has an income tax with rates that climb along with incomes. Top rate in California is 13.3%, which applies to millionaires.
But looking at the entire tax picture, which includes property, gasoline, and other taxes, WalletHub, a financial services firm, found that Florida has the 46th lowest tax burden in the nation. California ranks 23rd.
Fighting over Covid and abortion
They fought over COVID-19 policies.
Florida lifted its restrictions far sooner than California.
“Gavin Newsom did huge damage to people in California….he had the kids locked out of school because of the teachers union,” DeSantis said.
He hammered Newsom for having his children attend private schools while the public schools were closed. Newsom’s four children were back at school in October 2020, while many public schools remained closed.
They fought even harder over abortion
Newsom painted DeSantis as an extremist for signing legislation outlawing most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. In November, his campaign ran an ad saying the Florida law would make many women criminals.
“So extreme is your ban that criminalizes women, that criminalizes doctors that even Donald Trump said it was too extreme, “ Newsom said during the debate.
Hannity asked if Newsom would support a ban on abortion in the third trimester of pregnancy. Newsom said he would support abortion during that period only with “extreme, extreme exceptions.”
Newsom repeatedly tried to get DeSantis to answer whether he would sign a national abortion ban if president. DeSantis did not answer.
Crime and guns
Newsom cited Florida’s crime rate, noting that “You had one of the worst mass shootings in America” at Marjory Stone Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He called DeSantis “weak, pathetic, small” on the issue.
After the 2018 massacre, where 17 people were killed and 17 others were injured, “You made it easier for felons to get guns without any background checks, without training,” Newsom said. In April, DeSantis signed legislation allowing Floridians to carry a concealed weapon without a government-issued permit.
“This is the slick politician,” DeSantis responded, citing California crime data. “People are leaving California in droves largely because public safety has collapsed.”
The state, he said, “has largely legalized retail theft…they’re easier on sex offenders. They’re easier on all these crimes that affect the quality of life.”
Newsom, DeSantis said, is lying when he says felons can legally own or possess guns.
“More people are leaving California than are moving to California,” DeSantis said, which is true.
But that doesn’t mean they’re heading directly from California to Florida.
An estimated 50,700 people left California between 2021 and 2022, according to census data, nearly twice as many as moved from California to Florida in 2018. About 28,500 people moved from Florida to California last year.
A big reason, DeSantis said, involves California’s homeless population. “You have the freedom to defecate in California…you have the freedom to have an open air drug market and use drugs,” DeSantis said.
“Those are not the freedoms our founding fathers envisioned. The results speak for themselves.”
Newsom countered that DeSantis has promoted discrimination against gay people and others. “You’re nothing but a bully. Intimidate and humiliate people. That’s our calling card.”
They also fought over immigration.
Look at the U.S.-Mexican border, he said. It’s open and terrorists are pouring in.
Biden, Newsom countered, put a $14 billion package that includes 2,300 border agents and customs officials that’s stalled in Congress. “You hear nothing from Ron DeSantis. You hear nothing from the Republican Party,” he said.
Congressional Republicans are pushing hard for tough immigration restrictions; negotiations with Democrats have been intense this week.