Newsom's pestering of 'sixth grade bully' DeSantis seeps into presidential race

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
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Appearing on Sean Hannity's Fox News show, a conduit into the bloodstream of former President Trump's America, California Gov. Gavin Newsom seemed to delight in trolling Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis.

Newsom said Trump will "clean his clock" in the GOP presidential primary and immediately accepted Hannity's challenge to debate the conservative Florida governor. DeSantis returned fire three days later, saying Newsom has a "bizarre" fixation on Florida and should "stop pussyfooting around" and run for president. Hours later, the DeSantis campaign started selling T-shirts with that slogan for $34.47.

The problem for DeSantis: Each time he swings back at Newsom, he finds himself in a fight with the wrong guy.

Aides to Newsom and DeSantis agree that there's no greater political dichotomy at the moment than California and Florida, and their governors. But at least for now, the rivalry benefits one man more than the other.

DeSantis is campaigning for president in 2024, and instead of "punching down" in a fight with a governor, it serves him better to spar with candidates in his path to the White House: Trump and President Biden, according to Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee lobbyist and informal advisor to DeSantis.

"Newsom has been someone that's like a gnat or mosquito in your face just trying to annoy you and get attention to distract from what's really going on in his own state," Iarossi said.

Newsom's confidants agree that the Florida governor had been relatively disciplined in not engaging with Newsom and brushing off his comments, in an effort to appear presidential. Yet they celebrate each time DeSantis takes the bait, elevating Newsom's national profile and giving him an opportunity to fight DeSantis in a way that helps Biden in the presidential race.

"All that does for Newsom is tell him he got under his skin, and Newsom can keep teeing off," said Jim DeBoo, the California governor's former chief of staff.

During the Fox News interview this month, Newsom offered a full-throated defense of Biden's "bipartisan" record as commander in chief. He slapped down Hannity's claims that Biden isn't cognitively competent to run again and praised the president's work to boost the semiconductor industry, his infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act.

Read more: Biden announces funding to combat climate change, raises campaign money, during swing through California

While acknowledging California's homelessness crisis, Newsom pushed back on the GOP's constant attacks on him and the state, boasting about its thriving economy and challenging the argument that more Californians are fleeing to Florida than the other way around.

"With all due respect, Florida doesn't even come close," Newsom said. "Eat your heart out, Texas. California continues to be the dominant economic engine for the American [people]."

Newsom's performance earned national praise from Democrats and some Republicans. DeSantis' decision to respond in kind — and his answer — show that he "isn't ready for prime time," DeBoo said. "He answered it the way a sixth grade bully would have answered something, as opposed to a presidential candidate."

Iarossi contends that DeSantis' response made sense to try to fire up GOP voters in California on the eve of a fundraising trip to the Golden State. Iarossi said DeSantis raised more money in California than in any other state, including Florida, in the 24 hours after his campaign launched.

DeSantis on Monday released a campaign video calling attention to a "great experiment in governing philosophy" between the two states and dragging California's crime, homelessness crisis and population decline. The next day, he released another video of himself "in the once great city of San Francisco."

"We came in here, and we saw people defecating on the street," said DeSantis, on a sidewalk littered with garbage. "We saw people using heroin. We saw people smoking crack cocaine, and you look around, the city is not vibrant anymore. It's really collapsed because of leftist policies."

Iarossi said the juxtaposition of California and Florida allows DeSantis, in one example, to show why his conservative governing style works. It's also a smarter play for DeSantis than the direct back and forth with Newsom.

"I don't expect there to be any focus whatsoever on Gavin Newsom going forward," Iarossi said. "There's not really a reason to get dragged into a fight with a governor from another state when you're looking to be elected the next president of the United States."

Democrats nationally view Newsom's efforts as helping the party and helping Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris win reelection.

"The major problem we had for a long time was that DeSantis had remarkably high name recognition nationwide, but people knew nothing about him," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist based in D.C. "They had no idea of the policies that DeSantis was passing and the extreme positions he was taking."

Newsom is drawing that out for voters nationwide, she said.

The California governor has loudly criticized DeSantis for banning instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida schools, legislation critics refer to as "Don't Say Gay."

DeSantis went to battle against Disney and took control of government services in the Disney World theme park district after the company publicly opposed the law. Newsom posted a video of himself at Disneyland in Anaheim watching the first-ever LGBTQ+ "Pride Night."

Newsom called DeSantis “a small, pathetic man” and threatened kidnapping charges after his administration helped transport migrants from Texas to California. In the Fox interview, he questioned what kind of “faith tradition” supports moving people from one state to another and dehumanizing them in an effort to score political points.

National Democrats' fawning over Newsom marks a change from last year, when he ruffled feathers for saying the party was not doing enough to push back on the Republican agenda and stoking national interest in his presidential ambitions.

"I think there were some people that were frustrated, and now I think most people are very happy," Lake said. "He's done it in such an appealing and accessible way, and it's really helped to define DeSantis, which was a major piece of business."

Read more: Newsom threatens DeSantis with kidnapping charges after migrants flown to Sacramento

Newsom has made it his personal mission to draw attention to and combat far-right policies.

The governor drew headlines across the country one year ago when he ran a reelection ad in Florida comparing laws in red states and California on abortion, banned books and other topics. In April, DeSantis signed a bill into law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The California Constitution guarantees the right to have an abortion, and Newsom has beckoned women from other states to come for services that are outlawed elsewhere.

He also needled DeSantis when, through the California Democratic Party, Newsom donated $100,000 to a political action committee supporting Charlie Crist, the Democratic challenger in Florida's 2022 gubernatorial election.

Newsom formalized his fight against the GOP this spring and transferred $10 million of his state campaign funds to a new federal PAC, the Campaign for Democracy, which he said he created to help Democrats in the 2024 election and push back on Republican leaders.

He has also played the role of a Biden surrogate since the president announced his intent to run for reelection. During Biden's recent trip to California, Newsom said that "no president in modern American history has done more" to address climate change. He co-hosted a fundraiser for the president in Marin County.

Newsom has made a point of denying any interest in the White House even louder than before. In the interview with Hannity, he refused to take the host's bait and talk about whether he has been implored to run.

Though Newsom isn't in the 2024 presidential contest, it would be "game on" if he jumps in, Iarossi said.

"You have two governors of two large, powerful states, who have complete opposite political philosophies and leadership styles," Iarossi said. "It would be a battle about the future of America and which direction we're going in."

Don't rule out that matchup in 2028.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.