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‘Small, pathetic man’: Inside the bitter rivalry between Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom

The two men offer drastically different versions of America’s political future, Josh Marcus reports

Friday 01 December 2023 20:24 GMT
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Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom
Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom (Getty)

It’s been more than two decades since a state governor was elected to the White House, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the 2024 presidential race.

Five current or former governors are still in the running for the Republican nominee so far.

But no statehouse rivalry is more pronounced in US politics than the one between Florida governor and 2024 Republican candidate Ron DeSantis, and his Democratic counterpart from California, Governor Gavin Newsom.

The pair, both seen as promising presidential picks one day, have been trading barbs for years, and things have only heated up as a presidential election season approaches. Their battles have much to say about where each party is going, and the political fate of these two men could suggest which vision of politics and leadership the American people want more.

On 30 November, the duelling duo finally had a chance to spar in real-time in a debate moderated by Sean Hannity.

At times, it appeared to be a practice session for an unlikely 2024 presidential debate – though one where one of the individuals on stage isn’t even running and the second is flailing in his party’s polls.

Hot on the agenda was the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2024 race, LGBT+ rights and abortion - with plenty of personal jabs mixed in.

The idea of a debate between the pair was first floated in a tweet by journalist Dan Rather in 2022. Mr Newsom replied, addressing Mr Desantis in a tweet: “Clearly you’re struggling, distracted, and busy playing politics with people’s lives. Since you have only one overriding need -- attention -- let’s take this up & debate. I’ll bring my hair gel. You bring your hairspray. Name the time before Election Day.”

Here’s a look back at some of their feuds — on nearly every major policy issue — that preceded the debate.

Ron DeSantis releases presidential campaign ad

The pair have disagreed on gun safety.

In August, the Florida governor signed a measure allowing permitless carry of firearms. Mr Newsom slammed Republicans in the wake of the signing. “They don’t care about our kids,” Mr Newsom said on MSNBC. “Cause if they did, they’d ban these damn weapons of war. They would have background checks that require some common damn sense.”

They have also sparred about migration.

In June, Mr Newsom lashed out at Mr DeSantis this, calling him a “small, pathetic man,” after Florida officials facilitated a large group of South American migrants being dropped off without warning at a Sacramento church, a repeat of the Florida governor’s highly controversial move to do the same in Martha’s Vineyard last year.

The California governor said Florida officials could face kidnapping charges.

Then, of course, there was the Covid-19 pandemic, during which the pair did not see eye-to-eye.

In March, during a visit to California to speak at the Reagan Presidential Library, the Florida Republican blasted Mr Newsom for following the advice of public health experts at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, accusing him of “subcontract[ing] ... leadership to health bureaucrats,” and claimed that Californians were flocking to Florida.

“When the world went mad, when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue, Florida stood as a refuge of sanity, a citadel of freedom for people throughout the United States and indeed, throughout the world. We refused to let our state descend into some type of Faucian dystopia, where people’s rights were curtailed, and their livelihoods were destroyed. We made sure people had a right to work and we got people back to work and businesses back open,” he said.

Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom have offered starkly different visions on issues like Covid, immigration, and abortion access (AFP/Getty)

The Florida governor also said the Californian’s leadership showed how Democrats “coddle the criminals and put the rights of the criminals over the safety of the public and the rights of victims.”

Mr Newsom, for his part, has made a point of showing how on issues like Covid and gun crime, California is empirically a safer place to be.

"Just look at the data – California residents are safer, healthier and more prosperous than those unfortunate enough to have you as their Governor," Mr Newsom told CBS News during the Florida governor’s visit. "Oh by the way, you’re going to get smoked by Trump."

The two have also disagreed on LGBTQ+ rights and the ability to discuss sexual orientation in classrooms.

In April, the California Democrat met with students of Florida’s New College, a public liberal arts college that has recently become a target in Mr DeSantis’s wide-ranging campaign to bend Florida’s education system in a hyper-conservative direction by limiting access to materials concerning gender and sexuality, as well as the history of racism.

“I can’t believe what you’re dealing with. It’s just an unbelievable assault,” Mr Newsom said at an appearance at a library near campus. “It’s common with everything he’s doing, bullying and intimidating vulnerable communities. Weakness, Ron DeSantis, weakness masquerading as strength across the board.”

Ron DeSantis during a spring 2023 visit to the Reagan Presidential Library in Southern California (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Last summer, Mr Newsom had an even bigger provocation for Mr DeSantis, using extra campaign cash to release a 30-second ad in Florida urging residents of the Sunshine State to move to California.

"Freedom, it’s under attack in your state,” the spot claimed.

“Republican leaders, they’re banning books, making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms, even criminalizing women and doctors," the governor said in a voiceover narration accompanying images of Mr DeSantis and former president Donald Trump.

Indeed, the two states couldn’t be more different across a variety of areas, with Florida all but banning abortion, while California ceased doing business with Walgreens because the company wouldn’t sell abortion pills.

The rivalry has extended outside of the presidential contest to the world of business.

In May, the Walt Disney Company announced it was pulling out of a planned $1bn development in Florida, keeping thousands of jobs in California, as the Magic Kingdom feuded with Mr DeSantis over the state’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law and its decision to dissolve Disney’s special municipal district privileges in the state.

The pair finally came face to face on 30 November for a debate, with a backdrop of the shadow campaign they’ve been running against each other for two years.

The California Democrat started off the debate with a dagger to the heart of his rival, who is still running for the 2024 nomination: “Neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024.”

Mr DeSantis pushed back on this — not in the expected direction: “Why don’t you just admit it? You’re running.” Earlier this month, the Florida Republican said that Mr Newsom “caters to a very far left slice of the electorate,” suggesting that he is running a “shadow campaign” and could step in should President Biden ultimately decide not to run.

Mr Newsom has repeatedly confirmed that he is not planning on a 2024 run — and did so again when Hannity asked. He stuck to this sentiment during the debate and instead touted President Biden’s successes.

But Mr DeSantis confronted Mr Newsom about his support of current immigration policies: “This is a guy who says the Biden administration is not lying to the public about the border...They are lying to you.”

The California governor didn’t take that sitting down. “I’m the only guy here that’s a border state governor. You’re trolling folks and trying to find migrants to play political games and try to get some attention so you can out-Trump Trump,” Mr Newsom said. “And by the way, how’s that going for you, Ron? By the way, you’re down 41 points in your own home state.”

In yet another disagreement, the pair discussed LGBTQ+ rights. The Florida Republican defended his state’s Parental Rights in Education Act — what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law — by pulling out a picture from a graphic memoir, which Mr DeSantis said “is in some of the schools in California,” that depicted an oral sex scene: “This is pornography... This should not be in schools.”

The California Democrat then pointed out Florida’s book bans, and accused the state’s governor of using “education as a sword for your cultural purge.” He added, “I don’t like the way you demean the LGBTQ community. I don’t like the way you demean and humiliate people you disagree with, Ron. I really find this fundamentally offensive.”

While the impact of the debate on Mr DeSantis’ polling numbers remains to be seen, it managed to provide entertainment along with a glimpse at what a future Newsom vs DeSantis election may look like - if we ever got there.

Kelly Rissman contributed to this report

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