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If you’re anything like me, the thought of a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump fills you with a mix of apathy and dread.
That’s partly why I was hopeful to watch the debate Thursday night between two very different standard-bearers for their respective parties: Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Kudos to both governors for agreeing to the match hosted by Sean Hannity on Fox News.
Even if they won’t be the top candidates in 2024, the debate offered insight to what the future may hold. In fact, the nearly two-hour sparring match sounded more like a presidential debate than two governors battling over their differing governing philosophies. More on that later.
Hannity billed the debate as a red-state, blue-state showdown that promised to get to the heart of some pressing issues, such as taxes, the economy, the border, energy and crime – concerns Americans continually say they care most about.
And you really can’t get any more different in how two governors approach those things than Newsom and DeSantis.
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The governors do share a few similarities: They govern two of the most populous states in the country, and they are in their second terms, after having been reelected by wide margins last fall. And, unlike Trump (77) and Biden (81), both are solidly under the age of 75 (DeSantis is 45; Newsom 56).
Apart from that, how they are leading their states is diametrically opposed.
Red vs. blue in practice
While this might have been their first face-to-face debate, the governors have long taken shots at each other. For instance, Newsom has actively run ads in Florida, promoting California as a place where “we still believe in freedom.”
Clearly, “freedom” means something different to Newsom than it does to DeSantis.
A big reason Newsom needs to appeal to Floridians is because people are fleeing California and moving to states … like Florida.
They are leaving the Golden State in droves because they are in search of freedom of another kind: lower costs of living, less suffocating taxes and regulation, and a government that doesn’t try to raise their kids for them.
More than ever, families are choosing where to live based on a state’s politics and policies.
The numbers speak for themselves. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2022 report on net domestic migration, Florida topped the list, gaining 318,855 people from other states. Texas and the Carolinas also saw large increases.
Guess which state lost the most? California. That state saw the most out-migration, losing 343,230 of its citizens. New York and Illinois weren’t far behind.
It’s not a coincidence that the states losing the most people are blue states – and that those Americans are finding homes in red states.
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No surprise, COVID-19 was a topic of heated discussion. Newsom and DeSantis contrasted hugely in how they governed during the pandemic, something DeSantis stresses often. The Florida governor took the approach of fewer restrictions and much shorter lockdowns, which allowed businesses and schools to open faster than they did under Newsom’s leadership.
Despite their opposing tactics, virus impacts in the two states were nearly identical. Yet in Florida, because of less government interference, schoolchildren and the economy fared substantially better.
The governors tackled other issues as well, from education to abortion.
DeSantis this year signed into law a universal school choice program that will give parents the option to send their children to private school or home-school them, with financial help from the state. Meanwhile, in California, private school choice funding is nonexistent.
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DeSantis has taken a lot of flak for some of his other school agenda, which seeks to curb what schools can teach young children about sexual orientation and gender. Yet what he’s doing in Florida is centered on parental rights.
Abortion could prove a weakness for DeSantis, who has signed a six-week ban in his state. Recent elections have shown voters are concerned about losing abortion access and have supported measures that enshrine reproductive rights into state constitutions. California was one of those states, and Newsom has further expanded abortion provisions.
Eyes on the White House
Let’s be honest. Both these governors have ambitions beyond their current jobs. They want to be president.
DeSantis is currently jockeying for his party’s nomination. And it’s no secret that Newsom is running a shadow campaign if the opportunity were to arise for him to take Biden’s place. In the meantime, Newsom is standing in as a younger, more eloquent surrogate for the president. That’s what he did Thursday.
A year ago, DeSantis was coming off a decisive reelection win, and it looked like he could give Trump a run for his money. Today, DeSantis’ poll numbers have tanked, Trump is the clear front-runner, and the Florida governor is fighting for second place in the primary with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
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Thursday’s debate was an opportunity for DeSantis to again show the country the kind of leader he is and his successes in Florida, apart from the silliness of GOP primary squabbles.
Maybe DeSantis can reclaim some of the momentum he had early on by focusing on the economic issues and freedoms that have attracted so many people to Florida – and how he could use that blueprint to improve the country’s outlook.
And, of course, beat Biden.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who won DeSantis, Newsom debate? Freedom – and Florida