DeSantis v. Newsom: A Shadow Presidential Debate

(Scott Olson/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
December 1, 2023

Florida governor Ron DeSantis (R.) launched Thursday's Fox News debate with California governor Gavin Newsom (D.) with a story about how Newsom's father-in-law moved to Florida and praised the Sunshine State's better governance. Sparks flew from there.

"So I was talking to a fellow who had made the move from California to Florida," DeSantis said. "He was telling me that Florida is much better governed, safer, better budget, lower taxes, all this stuff, and he's really happy with the quality of life, and then he paused and he said, 'You know, by the way, I'm Gavin Newsom's father-in-law.'"

The anecdote, which Newsom did not refute, came in response to moderator Sean Hannity's question to both governors on why so many people have left blue states, particularly California, for red states, including Florida.

It set the tone for a vitriolic debate that, while billed as a red state versus blue state showdown, shone a spotlight on both politicians' national ambitions, even though DeSantis is the only one running for president.

While Newsom frequently taunted DeSantis for trailing former president Donald Trump in the GOP presidential primary, DeSantis accused Newsom of running a "shadow campaign." Newsom himself focused on national issues, declaring at the debate's outset that his role Thursday night was to defend the "Biden-Harris record" and contrast his governing with Republican policies.

When Hannity questioned Newsom on speculation that the governor could jump into the race with the help of his national fundraising apparatus should President Joe Biden drop out, Newsom said that wasn't an option because Biden is doing "fantastically."

"If they come to you at the [Democratic National Convention] and Joe is incapable of running, and they ask you, are you a hard no?" Hannity asked.

"It's not even optional, he's doing fantastically," Newsom responded. "I appreciate and respect the work that the president is doing, and the vice president—it's the Biden-Harris campaign and team."

Throughout the night, Newsom deflected or dodged several of Hannity's questions. He did not offer a reason for California's higher unemployment rate and asserted that the state's crime was at a 50-year low—despite FBI figures showing that violent crime in the Golden State is rising while declining nationally. Hannity urged viewers to look at FBI statistics and decide for themselves. On the border crisis, Newsom blamed Republicans in an attempt to refute DeSantis's charges that President Joe Biden is failing to secure the border. Newsom said that Republicans are failing to agree to comprehensive reform.

Newsom called it a "factual lie" that Californians have higher taxes than Floridians after Hannity displayed a slide showing that sales, gas, and corporate taxes are all significantly higher in California than in Florida. Hannity also displayed a slide showing that California imposes a 6 percent income tax on middle-class earners, while Florida is a zero percent income tax state. Newsom pointed to California's progressive rate, which levies a 13 percent tax on high earners but little to nothing on the poorest. DeSantis stressed California's high cost of living—the third-highest in the nation—along with high gas prices and home prices that make life difficult for the poor.

DeSantis repeatedly invoked the 750,000 Californians who have left the state, blaming their departures on the collapse of public safety and high costs of living.