Forget Donald Trump versus Joe Biden. The biggest prelude to 2024 might just be the escalating back-and-forth between Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis.
The governors for California and Florida have hurled insults about each other’s leadership and policies during most of the Covid-19 pandemic. But now Newsom has ratcheted up the conflict by taking almost daily pot-shots at his Republican foils such as DeSantis and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Most recently, Newsom dropped more than $100,000 on a new ad airing on Fox News that tweaked DeSantis in his home state.
Fox-watching Floridians won’t likely switch their voter registration or move to California after seeing a TV spot in which Newsom warned them “freedom is under attack in your state.” But the ad is producing a frenzy of national coverage that boosts Newsom’s profile while allowing DeSantis to sharpen his attacks on Democrats ahead of a possible 2024 White House bid.
The fight highlights how two young governors have captured the attention of their respective parties: On one side is Newsom, a progressive and telegenic leader who survived an attempted recall. On the other is DeSantis, who is often heralded as a more disciplined Donald Trump but who also has a penchant for populism and a refusal to back down from a fight.
“Most politicians operate best when they have somebody or something to contrast against, and there’s no bigger contrast to Gavin Newsom and California right now than Florida and Ron DeSantis,” said Jim Ross, a Democratic consultant who ran Newsom’s first mayoral campaign.
Republicans’ response to Newsom is simple: Bring it on. They say they would love a chance to highlight California’s homelessness crisis, shrinking population and other factors that make it a regular GOP punching bag.
“Egotistical Gavin Newsom is desperate for relevance and attention,” said Christian Ziegler, vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida and a Sarasota County commissioner. “This ad will have zero impact on anything going on in Florida — both in terms of policy and politics. And the only one losing sleep over this ad won’t be Ron DeSantis, but instead Joe Biden will lose midday nap time over this as it clearly shows that Newsom is positioning himself to take on the Democratic president.”
Anthony Pedicini, a GOP campaign consultant in Florida, quipped that “you don’t see many people from Florida leaving to move to California. Newsom should focus on fixing California and leave Florida to the guy that got it right — Ron DeSantis.”
For Newsom, the recent feud fused an old approach with new urgency. He has always relished lambasting red-state governors to create a contrast with California’s progressive agenda. Florida has been a favorite target. Newsom regularly derided the state’s lax approach to the coronavirus as he touted California’s more-stringent strategy. DeSantis’s emergence as a national figure and presidential contender has further fueled that antagonism.
Newsom has intensified his attacks on both Republican elected officials and the U.S. Supreme Court after the high court handed down landmark opinions on guns, abortion and the environment that were anathema for California Democrats. Newsom announced he was signing gun restrictions last week with a Twitter video directed squarely at his opponents. “To members of the United States Supreme Court, to right-wing Republicans all across this country: do you have no common decency?” he asked.
It also allowed Newsom to continue seeking to shape the national Democratic Party’s tactics. The governor has already publicly assailed Democrats’ approach to abortion rights as too timorous, asking “where the hell is my party?”
“Governor Newsom believes now is not the time for Democrats to roll over and accept defeat. Now is the time for Democrats to fight,” campaign spokesperson Nathan Click said in an emailed statement.
DeSantis, who has been moving ahead confidently on his 2022 reelection campaign and is viewed as a likely candidate in 2024, has focused more of his energy of late on Biden, bashing him over everything from immigration to gas prices as he also opened up battles over education and gender identity. But California — and by extension Newsom — has also been a favorite source of criticism. In the last month, DeSantis has routinely cited the recall of San Francisco’s district attorney to highlight what he calls a growing backlash to liberal policies. He also started a much-publicized feud with California-based Walt Disney Co. over the entertainment giant’s opposition to a Florida law that bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for kids in kindergarten through third grade.
DeSantis campaign spokesperson Dave Abrams, in a statement, derided the California governor’s ad by saying that “Gavin Newsom might as well light a pile of cash on fire. Pass the popcorn for his desperate attempt to win back the California refugees who fled the hellhole he created in his state to come to Florida.”
Basic campaign math, however, made the Florida jab a worthy investment for Newsom. It cost less than a percentage point of a 2022 reelection account containing around $20 million. With a second term all but assured, Newsom diverted that money elsewhere and made a bigger splash than he likely would have with a conventional California ad. As of Tuesday, the Twitter video had more than three million views.
“For $100,000 you got a million dollars’ worth of attention,” Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio said, with “coast to coast tongue wagging.”
While many Democrats nationally chimed in with a favorable opinion of Newsom’s jab, one of the Democrats actually running against DeSantis this year wasn’t as enthused about it.
“We’ll take all the help we can get, but the message shouldn’t be about leaving Florida, it’s about fighting for the state that we all love and exposing Ron DeSantis’ failures on our economy, housing, and freedoms,” said Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who has been trailing her Democratic primary opponent Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.). “We don’t want Floridians to leave — we want them to join us as we defend our freedoms and our democracy.”
Denying White House interest has become a regular exercise for the clearly ambitious Newsom. The governor and his team dutifully rejected the notion that the ongoing feud with Republicans and recent ad in Florida was a warm-up for a presidential run. Click said he was “absolutely not” exploring a 2024 campaign and pointed to the governor’s previous comment that he had “subzero interest.” Newsom would face a narrow path, likely needing to challenge Vice President Kamala Harris — a fellow Californian with an overlapping base — should Biden not run again.
DeSantis too regularly shoots down questions over his 2024 aspirations, saying he is focused on his November reelection. The Florida governor has more than $100 million in funds from big-money donors as well as small-dollar donations from individuals in all 50 states. He has topped Trump in a series of straw polls and isn’t asking the former president for an endorsement.
Nevertheless, the ongoing fight underscores what “might conceivably be a marquee 2024 matchup” if “all the dominoes fall in the right direction,” Democratic political consultant Maviglio said. That helped generate additional interest as national pundits and politicians rushed to analyze what it meant.
Whether or not Newsom runs for president, the national spotlight could bolster his standing in California as he approaches a likely final term by allowing him to “demonstrate political strength” and elevate issues that resonate with voters, Ross said.
“We’ve seen it with governors in California where they get re-elected, they go into their second term and pretty quickly they become less and less relevant because everyone else is lining up to run,” Ross. “There’s too many what-ifs to make this a declaration for president. I think it’s a declaration of ‘I want to create some political capital and political strength’ that you can use for other things, that you can use for whatever.”