‘Pathetic man’: The California-Florida rivalry just exploded

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JEREMY B. WHITE | POLITICO

The feud between Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis is getting nastier — and that’s how both of them want it. The two governors have spent more than a year sparring over book bans, abortion, guns and more.

Then yesterday, the California Democrat suggested DeSantis could face state criminal charges after more than a dozen asylum seekers were flown to Sacramento and left at a Catholic church. The flight was similar to one the DeSantis administration facilitated last fall carrying almost 50 mostly Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard that caused a national furor and re-ignited the long-running debate over immigration.

While Newsom has made a habit of publicly attacking his red-state rival, the threat of criminal charges thrust the standoff into even more rhetorically combustible territory now that DeSantis is officially a candidate for the GOP’s 2024 nomination. The conflict between the two men escalated even further after a second flight touched down in Sacramento Monday carrying migrants that California authorities said appeared to have Florida documentation.

In a Monday tweet, Newsom called DeSantis a “small, pathetic man” and asked “kidnapping charges?” while citing California criminal code that states anyone who transports someone “by force or fraud” is guilty of kidnapping. The attacks intensify a mutually-advantageous conflict between Newsom, who leads the largest Democratic stronghold in America and has constructed a national persona around confronting Republicans, and DeSantis, who has made railing against “woke” ideologies and liberal policies a main selling point as he campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond.

At the same time, it allows both men to highlight their own partisan politics to their respective bases. “The best thing that could happen to Ron DeSantis is the liberal governor of California attacks him as he’s running for president,” said Matt Rexroad, a California-based Republican consultant. “And the best thing for Gavin Newsom, who wants to be plan B for the nomination this time or plan A next time, would be to be attacked by the governor of Florida.” “I’ll call it right now that Governor DeSantis will be making a big deal out of this in Iowa and New Hampshire,” he added. Officials with DeSantis’ administration have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

This is hardly the first time Newsom has publicly excoriated DeSantis. He has lambasted the Florida governor over his policies on education, guns, abortion and more. He launched a committee to buoy Democrats in Florida and other red states. He has simultaneously worked to solidify support for President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign, including by sending out a fundraising email the same day DeSantis officially entered the race. In May, Newsom directed his staff to demand records from Florida education officials over the Sunshine State’s successful campaign to convince social studies textbook publishers to change their content. Newsom also asked more than a dozen educational publishers to explain whether and how they changed their textbooks under pressure from Florida Republicans, warning in a letter that California would “not be complicit in Florida’s attempt to whitewash history through laws and backroom deals.”

The ceaseless spotlighting helps Newsom trumpet California as a progressive alternative to Republican-leaning Florida — often in emails to donors as he solicits more money for his “Campaign for Democracy” committee. DeSantis jabbed back at Newsom when the Florida governor landed in California in March to deliver a speech and raise money for local Republicans. “I know you guys have a lot of problems out here, but your governor is very concerned about what we’re doing in Florida, so I figured I’d have to come by,” DeSantis told people at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

Christian Ziegler, chair of Florida’s Republican Party, on Monday highlighted the influx of people moving to Florida from California, asking “if Gov Newsom is calling Gov DeSantis ‘pathetic’, how should we refer to the Governor of California, who has seen tens of thousands of his own citizens literally flee his failed leadership in order to end up in DeSantis-led Florida?” DeSantis is set to return to California for a fundraising swing later this month, including a planned stop in Sacramento.

Polls show he has slid behind former President Donald Trump as Republicans vie for California’s rich trove of presidential delegates. Newsom’s office did not explain on Monday why the latest flight of asylum seekers would be grounds for state charges, referring questions to California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office. The attorney general said in a Sunday statement that he was “evaluating potential criminal or civil action against those who transported or arranged for the transport of these vulnerable immigrants” and condemned “state-sanctioned kidnapping.”

Bonta’s office said the first group of migrants arrived with documentation recording their participation in Florida’s “voluntary transportation program” conducted by Vertol Systems Company, Inc., the contractor that conducted the prior flights. Bonta told the New York Times he believed the arrangement “wasn’t fully consensual,” which could be grounds for prosecution. Dan Newman, a political adviser to the governor, said Newsom viewed the flights as “inhumane and potentially illegal.” It also bolsters Newsom’s standing as a combative partisan who is eager to challenge Republicans.

The governor regularly describes this conflict as an existential fight over democracy, and he traveled to DeSantis’ state in April to meet with students at New College, a small liberal arts college in Sarasota that DeSantis has transformed into a conservative institution — and then fundraised off of his visit. Democratic political consultant Garry South said in an interview that Newsom’s threat of prosecution was unlikely to hurt Newsom in deep-blue California. But he argued Newsom had to act to deter more flights. “This was a stunt that plays well in their [Republicans’] home states, I guess,” South said. “But I just don’t think from a human decency standpoint that this can be allowed to become standard operating procedure.”

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