Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gavin Newsom from California, two of the nation’s most well-known governors who sit on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, engaged in a fiery 90-minute debate on Thursday night from Alpharetta, Georgia, which was broadcast live on the Fox News Channel.
The stakes were undoubtedly higher for DeSantis, 45, who hopes that the primetime platform can catapult what has become a stagnating presidential campaign that has him in a distant second place (or worse) in all national and early state polls against former President Donald Trump for the GOP nomination.
For Newsom, 56, it was an opportunity to bring him more exposure for a potential 2028 presidential run, as well as serve as a dynamic surrogate for Democratic President Joe Biden, who is struggling himself in recent national and battleground states.
The two men debated the economy, immigration, homelessness, free speech, education and the handling of COVID-19, among other issues. Both men spoke over each other throughout the debate and both held their own ground. DeSantis frequently said that Newsom was ignoring the facts and was sticking to his talking points. Newsom was steadfast in upholding the performance of President Joe Biden. Newsom also mocked DeSantis’ performance in the polls.
DeSantis kicked off the evening by going after Newsom on how he handled the pandemic.
“He’s imposed restrictions, he led the country in school closures…he’s very good at spinning these tales, he’s good at being slick and slippery, he’ll tell a blizzard of lies to try to mask the failures, but the reality is, they have failed because of his leftist ideology. And the choice for America is this: What Biden and [Vice President Kamala] Harris and Newsom want to do is take the California model and take that nationally. In Florida we showed that conservative principals work. This country must choose freedom over failure.”
Newsom responded by saying that he was there to “tell the truth about the Biden-Harris record” and also “compare and contrast Ron DeSantis’ record and the Republican Party’s record as a point of contrast that’s as different as light and darkness. You want us to bring us back to a pre-1960s world, America in reverse. You want to roll back hard-earned national rights, on voting rights, on civil rights on LGBTQ rights, on women’ rights. Not just access to abortion, but also access to contraception. You want to weaponize grievance, you are focusing on false separateness…You in particular, Ron, are on a banning binge, a cultural purge, intimidating and humiliating people you disagree with…you and President Trump are trying to light democracy on fire.”
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There are of course, natural similarities to the two states that they govern: both have long coastlines, multicultural populations, sunny (in most places) climates and of course, and both are home to Disney theme parks.
Both men, who were reelected last year by strong margins, have seen their approval ratings slump in recent months. A poll conducted by UC-Berkeley and the Los Angeles Times in October among California voters showed Newsom at 44%, down from 55% in February, according to the Times.
DeSantis is also slumping in recent surveys taken in the Sunshine State. A University of North Florida poll published on Thursday showed DeSantis with 47% approving of his performance and 48% disapproving. A Florida Atlantic University published earlier this month also found that Floridians were now mixed on DeSantis performance, with 50% approving and 49% disapproving.
A huge issue of conflict was on parental rights.
In 2022, DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education law, which critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibited discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in public classrooms in kindergarten through third grade and only when age-appropriate in higher grades.
DeSantis displayed two books that he called “pornography” and said were not age appropriate.
Newsom responded by claiming that DeSantis had been on a “banning book binge,” saying that he had banned 1,406 books in the last year by DeSantis. “What’s wrong with Toni Morrison’s books? What’s wrong with Amanda Gorman’s book of poetry?” Mentioning two titles that local school districts have removed from their libraries.
DeSantis called it “false narratives” as he has said over the past year when he’s been accused of banning books.
Newsom said that California requires parental involvement in curriculum development, and called it a “complete lie” that California requires sex education in K-3 grades. “That doesn’t happen until middle-school,” he said.
“What you’re doing is using education as a sword to your cultural purge,” Newsom added. He then referenced a measure on the ballot in California in 1978 known as the Briggs initiative, a proposal that would have made it illegal for gays and lesbians to teach in California’s public schools.
Newsom called it the “original don’t say gay” measure.
“I don’t like the way you demean people,” he said. “I don’t like the way that you demean the LGBTQ community. I don’t like the way you demean and humiliate people that you disagree with. I really find this fundamentally offensive, and this is a core value that distinguishes the values of my state, and frankly the vast majority of Americans against the weaponization of education.”
Pen America, an organization focused on free speech, released a pair of reports this week on free expression policy in both states.
Pen America said that under DeSantis, “Florida has faced the country’s most intensive rollback of Americans’ right to freely express themselves.”
They also wrote in their report that “The First Amendment is not liberal or conservative, elitist or populist—it enshrines constitutional rights that are fundamental to our democracy. Today in Florida, as a deliberate and intended consequence of many of DeSantis’s policies, these constitutional rights are under heavy strain.”
One of Newsom’s most vulnerable issues is homelessness. The frustration with that led to a recall election on Newsom in 2021, which he won easily, getting 61% of the vote.
California has 171,521 people experiencing homelessness last year, vs. 25,959 in Florida, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
DeSantis attacked Newsom on the issue, referring to how when he was mayor of San Francisco (from 2003 to 2011), he put out a 10-year plan.
“It was going to end homelessness,” DeSantis began. “Then a few years later, he had another plan. And now… it’s only gotten worse. In the last 10 years in California the homeless [population] has gone up 45%, it’s gone down in Florida 45%, but it’s caused a huge problem with quality of life in California. The people who flee always bring up this, they really empowered lawlessness and drug use. And you know, Gavin Newsom at one point tried to say that California was the freedom state. I just kind of laughed, they’re locking people down. California does have freedoms that other states don’t. You have the freedom to defecate in public in California. You have the freedom to pitch a tent on Sunset Blvd. You have the freedom to create a homeless encampment under a freeway and even light it on fire. You have the freedom to have an open-air drug market and use drugs. You have the freedom if you’re an illegal alien to get all these taxpayer benefits, so those are freedoms, they have contributed to the destruction of the quality of life in California, and the results speak for themselves. People are leaving the state because they have failed in addressing the homeless population.”
Newsom responded by saying that it has been an issue “decades in the making in the state of California, ever since we started shuttering down our mental health institutions back in Ronald Reagan’s day.”
“The difference is I’m the first governor in California history to take this head on,” he said. “We are investing more resources, more accountability, we’ve gotten 68,000 people off the streets. Close to 6,00 encampment we’ve gotten off the streets. We’ve also invested unprecedented resources in reforming our behavioral health system. Ron has literally the worst mental health system in America. Forgive me outside of Mississippi and Texas.”
Florida is ranked as the 5th worst state for mental health care, according to Forbes Advisor.
DeSantis came back by showing a graph that he said represented the amount of human feces in the city of San Francisco, and said that the city was willing to clean up for a visit for a Communist dictator, but not willing to do it for their own people, referencing how the city did do a major cleanup for the recent visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit for the APEC summit.
The debate later moved onto the issue of abortion, where Democrats believe they have an advantage going into the 2024 election.
Newsom blasted DeSantis for signing what he said was the “most extreme anti-abortion bill in America.”
“He signed a bill banning any exceptions for rape and incest, and then he said it didn’t go far enough and then he signed a six week ban before women even know they’re pregnant, Ron. Before women can even access a doctor’s appointment.”
Moderator Sean Hannity then asked if Newsom believed there was a point where abortions should be illegal. Newsom said such abortions in the later months of a women’s pregnancy are almost always because of fetal anomalies to protect the life of the mother.
Hannity then asked DeSantis why he signed a six-week ban on abortion law earlier this year.
“I believe in a culture of life,” DeSantis said. “I think we’re better off when everybody counts, when everybody has an opportunity to do well. That bill attaches when there’s a detectable heartbeat for the child and some states have done that, some states have done other, some states have done later, and obviously they have the right to do that.”
The issue of population migration naturally came up.
California’s population has dropped 1.3% from April, 2020 to July, 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Florida’s population increased 3.3% in that same period, also according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There were more than 50,000 Californians who moved to Florida in 2022, according to the Associated Press.
When asked to give Joe Biden a grade for his performance in office, Newsom gave the president an “A,” while DeSantis gave him a “fail.”
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