Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Desantis, Newsom to Tangle Over Hot-Button Health Issues

Florida’s Republican presidential hopeful, Ron DeSantis,and Democratic firebrand Gavin Newsom of California square off today in a contest of governors that can best be described as the debate to determine ¿quién es más macho? — who is more manly — about protecting your freedoms. 

Both men have led their respective states since 2019, and they’ve lately been engaged in an escalating feud. While Newsom isn’t running for president himself — yet — he’s a key surrogate for President Biden. Fox News is playing up the faceoff, which it’ll host, as “The Great Red Vs. Blue State Debate.” 


The Health 202 is a coproduction of The Washington Post and KFF Health News.

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The debate promises to put America’s culture wars front-and-center. Abortion. Homelessness. Transgender health care. The coronavirus pandemic response. Health coverage for undocumented immigrants. Even drag shows, DEI and Disney’s First Amendment rights.

Though conservative TV host Sean Hannity is moderating the 90-minute showdown in Alpharetta, Ga., seemingly a home-field advantage for DeSantis, Newsom is relishing the confrontation after goading Florida’s governor into going head-to-head. 

Both men use each other’s states as punching bags. DeSantis portrays Newsom as too liberal for America, presiding over a failed state where homelessness and crime are rampant, citizens are forced to mask up and get vaccinated, and access to abortion and public assistance like Medicaid is too easy, breaking society morally and financially.

In a fundraising video for his presidential campaign, DeSantis called California “the petri dish for American leftism,” adding that “everything Biden is doing — they would accelerate and they would cause this country to collapse. That is not the future that we need. Florida shows a model for revival, a model based on freedom.”

Newsom has blasted DeSantis as a “small pathetic man” and argues that small-d democracy itself is at stake in the presidential election. His political operation paid for an ad on Florida’s airwaves this year in which Newsom told Sunshine State residents: “Freedom — it’s under attack in your state.”

He has knocked DeSantis’s education policies that restrict teaching gender and sexuality to schoolchildren as well as laws the Florida governor pushed through the legislature banning abortion after six weeks and limiting gender transition-related health care. 

“Your Republican leaders, they’re banning books, making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms,” Newsom said in his ad. “Even criminalizing women and doctors. Join us in California, where we still believe in freedom.”

Newsom’s health and education policies are largely the opposite of DeSantis’s. He’s expanded access to gender-affirming care for children and adults, and is expanding Medicaid beginning Jan. 1 to cover lower-income undocumented immigrants. Backed by the Democratic-controlled state legislature, Newsom led an effort in 2022 to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution, and he’s fought to block local school districts from restricting access to certain books.

While DeSantis directs resources to the presidential campaign, where he’s struggling to maintain his second-place standing in the GOP primary behind front-runner Donald Trump, Newsom struck again this month with another Florida ad buy, this time centered on reproductive health and abortion access. 

The ad alleges that DeSantis has criminalized doctors and women seeking an abortion after six weeks and argues that they could be arrested “by order of Governor Ron DeSantis.”

Both men face a monumental test in their debate. Newsom must demonstrate his loyalty to Biden, the Democratic Party leader and the actual candidate next November, while scoring points against DeSantis.

DeSantis, a wooden public speaker who struggles to connect with his audiences, has faced some criticism in Republican circles for a lackluster campaign. He’s got to persuade GOP voters that he’s a formidable option to Trump, without any major gaffes. 

The proxy battle could shape not only next year’s presidential contest, but the 2028 field of White House contenders as well.

One other hot-button issue we’re watching for is homelessness, considering nearly one-third of all homeless Americans live in California. Expect DeSantis to hammer Newsom over Californians fleeing for cheaper living elsewhere — including to Florida. Newsom, meanwhile, will play up the unprecedented investment he’s spearheaded to combat the humanitarian crisis (without clear results as of yet).

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