California Gov. Gavin Newsom says there’s no chance “on God’s green earth” he’s running for president in 2024, but he wants to make clear that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running, is “weak” and “undisciplined” and “will be crushed by Donald Trump.”
DeSantis, meanwhile, likes to mock Newsom’s apparent “fixation” on Florida while insisting that the Democratic governor’s “leftist government” is destroying California.
Welcome to one of the fiercest rivalries in U.S. politics, featuring dueling term-limited governors who represent opposite ends of the ideological spectrum from two of the nation’s largest and most influential states. Newsom and DeSantis will not face each other on any ballot in 2024, but in many ways, they are defining the debate from their corners of America as the presidential primary season gets underway.
Newsom addressed his contempt for DeSantis and his loyalty to President Joe Biden in a recent interview just as the Florida governor launched a two-day fundraising trek across California. The Golden State has become one of DeSantis’ favorite punching bags as he tries to avoid a direct confrontation with his chief Republican presidential rival, Trump, and his escalating legal challenges.
“He’s taking his eye off the ball,” Newsom said of DeSantis’ escalating attacks against him. “And that’s not inconsistent with my own assessment of him, which is he is a weak candidate, and he is undisciplined and will be crushed by Donald Trump, and will soon be in third or fourth in national polls.”
Representatives for DeSantis did not make the governor available for an interview. Beneath the war of words, however, strategists in both parties suggest there may be a mutually beneficial dynamic at play. As they jab at each other’s policies and personalities through comments in the press and on social media, the governors are scoring points with their respective political bases, raising money and expanding their national brands.
But it’s not all helpful.
Newsom, in particular, is facing nagging questions about his presidential ambitions less than a week after DeSantis dared him to “stop pussyfooting around” and launch a primary challenge against Biden.
Newsom, whose second and final term concludes at the end of 2026, has seen his national profile grow since he easily beat back a recall attempt in 2021 and cruised to reelection last fall. He finished the midterm campaign with roughly $16 million in the bank. And in March, he channeled $10 million to a new political action committee he’s calling the Campaign for Democracy.
All the while, Newsom’s team has been moving deliberately to avoid the perception that he’s running a shadow presidential campaign just as Biden ramps up his political activities.
For example, Newsom’s new PAC is initially focusing on challenging Republican leaders in deep-red states that are largely irrelevant in the 2024 presidential race. He campaigned in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi in April on his first trip associated with the PAC.
Newsom will avoid battleground states or key presidential primary states for the foreseeable future, his allies say.
At the same time, the California governor and his team have been in regular contact with Biden and his top aides, including Jen O’Malley Dillon, who managed the president’s 2020 campaign and serves as deputy White House chief of staff. A Biden campaign official said that the president’s team coordinates closely with Newsom.
“Newsom is not going to run against Joe Biden and never would. But life is long, and Newsom is one of the prominent national Democrats. It’s part of that role to have these big national battles,” longtime Newsom adviser and friend Nathan Ballard said of the feud with DeSantis.
“There is the 2024 election, and then there is a 2028 election,” Ballard added.
Indeed, veteran Democratic consultant Roy Behr, whose clients included former California Sen. Barbara Boxer, said the two governors are engaged in what could become an early preview of the 2028 presidential contest.
“It’s not inconceivable that four years from now, these two guys could be their respective parties’ nominees,” he said. In tangling with DeSantis, who is 44, the 55-year-old Newsom is building his national brand and visibility and is “certainly trying to create opportunities for himself.”
DeSantis did not plan to make any public appearances during his California fundraising tour, which included stops in Sacramento and the Bay Area on Monday and continues Tuesday with events planned for San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles.
Over the weekend in Nevada, DeSantis noted that he’s seen a surge of “disgruntled Californians” moving to Florida.
“Why would you leave like a San Diego to come to say, Jacksonville, Florida? I see people doing that,” DeSantis told thousands of conservative activists at a weekend gathering close to the California border. “It’s because leftist government is destroying that state. Leftist government is destroying cities all over our country. It’s destroying other states.”
Former Nevada attorney general Adam Laxalt, who hosted the weekend event and leads the pro-DeSantis super PAC, said the policy contrast between the leaders of Florida and California is “a debate that our whole country needs to have.”
“California has been the model for many leftist policies. I would take the contrast between Florida’s policies and its results led by Gov. DeSantis and the California policies, any day of the week,” Laxalt said in an interview. “We can already see what leftist policies do.”