California governor Gavin Newsom attempted to troll Florida on July 4 with a 30-second advertisement, run on Fox News, attacking Sunshine State governor Ron DeSantis for supposedly denying Floridians their freedom. Pretty rich, given that DeSantis is running for reelection using the motto Keep Florida Free, and has a 20-plus point lead over both of his potential opponents, according to the most recent state poll. The Newsom–DeSantis feud could be a preview of the 2024 presidential election, so it’s worth unpacking his critique.
“Freedom is under attack in your state,” Newsom says in the ad, which ran in Florida. “Republican leaders, they’re banning books. Making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms, even criminalizing women and doctors,” Newsom said. “I urge all of you living in Florida to join the fight or join us in California, where we still believe in freedom. Freedom of speech. Freedom to choose. Freedom from hate. And the freedom to love. Don’t let them take your freedom.”
Washington Post opinion writers Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent praised Newsom for the ad, arguing that “few national Democrats, if any, are making a comprehensive case that right-wing radicalization threatens a nightmarish future, on many fronts at once.” And given Democratic jitters about Joe Biden and his would-be successors, Newsom’s growing national profile is certainly noteworthy. But his criticism of Florida doesn’t hold up. When I moved my family from Oregon in 2019, the obvious destination would have been south, to California, but we relocated to Florida and haven’t regretted it. Many of the millions who have come here sought to escape the sort of “nightmarish future” they believe is unfolding in blue states. Newsom’s attacks on Florida overlook this reality—and obscure basic facts.
California was far from free for much of the pandemic. In April 2020, a paddleboarder was handcuffed and arrested for being out in the Pacific Ocean alone while beaches were closed. Newsom put harsh limitations on personal freedoms, imposing mask and vaccine mandates that resulted in many Californians losing their jobs. A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, ranking states on a Covid Report Card, had Florida sixth-best in overall performance, while California finished at 47. (As Bloomberg recently noted, Florida’s age-adjusted Covid mortality rates are almost identical to California’s.)
DeSantis also fought to keep Florida schools open. According to Burbio’s K-12 school opening tracker, Florida’s percentage of in-person school days was third-highest among the states in the 2020–2021 academic year, while California’s was dead last. Virtual learning represented a massive infringement on both the freedom of parents and the academic development of children, but Newsom was too afraid of teachers’ unions to insist on in-person learning during the pandemic.
Economic freedom is in dire shape in the Golden State. California imposes a crushing tax burden, with residents making between $61,215 and $312,686 paying a top marginal tax rate of 9.3 percent and residents making more than $625,370 paying a top marginal rate of 12.3 percent. According to the Tax Foundation, California has the fifth-highest state and local tax burden of any state, while Florida has the 11th-lowest. Californians also pay an additional 70 cents per gallon for gas, thanks to the state’s highest-in-the-nation levies. According to AAA, the average cost of a gallon of gas on July 6 was $4.51 in Florida and $6.21 in California. And, according to the Wall Street Journal, residential electricity costs 66 percent more in California than in the rest of the U.S.
Newsom’s attacks on DeSantis’s record also repeat distortions, as in his reference to “book banning.” Florida did reject a number of math textbooks in an annual review—some for ideological reasons, others for failing to satisfy state criteria. But not buying books isn’t the same thing as banning them. In any case, Florida’s law gives school districts the latitude to buy up to half their books as they see fit; the state also approved K-5 textbooks from STEMscopes, a company that runs an emphatic endorsement from Black Lives Matter on its website, so it’s not as though officials are stacking the ideological deck.
Newsom’s claim that DeSantis is “restricting speech in classrooms” appears to be a reference to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law. The law restricts “classroom instruction” on gender identity and sexual orientation for kindergarten through third grade but doesn’t prohibit casual conversations about these topics. A recent poll indicated that 67 percent of parents and 61 percent of overall respondents support the legislation. Newsom is no friend of free speech, either: in February, he announced that he was assembling a team to combat Covid “misinformation” online, opening the door for state-sanctioned Internet censorship.
Newsom alleges that DeSantis is “making it harder to vote.” Last year, DeSantis signed a bill that tightened voter-identification requirements, prohibited the mass mailing of ballots, and banned ballot harvesting. Yet these provisions tend to be popular and were commonplace around the country before the pandemic. Florida’s voter turnout is unlikely to decline. If residents in the state are concerned that they won’t be able to vote, the liberal media here hasn’t found them yet.
Using the powerful imagery of a woman in scrubs and handcuffs getting her mugshot taken, Newsom says that Republicans are criminalizing abortion in Florida. But Florida’s new abortion law allows the procedure up until 15 weeks—a more permissive standard than can be found in many European countries, including Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, and Norway. The law also includes exceptions for women whose health is threatened by the pregnancy or in the case of a “fatal fetal abnormality.” It establishes penalties for doctors who perform illegal abortions but does not punish women who receive them.
Americans seem to get all of this. As Newsom knows, California is losing people while Florida keeps adding new residents. According to a Moody’s analysis of consumer-credit reports, Florida gained more new residents than any other state, while California lost the most from February 2021 to February 2022. IRS data from 2020 reveal that net adjusted gross income from California declined by $17.8 billion, second-worst in the country behind New York, while revenue increased by $23.7 billion in Florida, the most of any state. Newsom’s ad may be part of a gambit to reverse this dynamic, but it won’t succeed. And if Newsom wants to run for national office on his California record, Republicans should say: go for it.
Photos by Aric Crabb/MediaNews Group/East Bay Times via Getty Images (left) / Joe Raedle/Getty Images (right)