Fox News officially titled it “The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate.” But the faceoff quickly turned into a full-out political brawl between Gavin Newsom, California’s Democratic governor who isn’t running for president; and Ron DeSantis, the Florida Republican governor who is, and is not gaining ground against former President Donald Trump in voter polls.
The event was held in Alpharetta, Georgia, aired on Fox News, and moderated by Sean Hannity. Our PolitiFact partners examined the two state officials’ wide-ranging statements. You can read the full coverage here.
Newsom has relished taunting DeSantis on social media and Fox News and, earlier this year, he invited DeSantis to debate — arguing that the red-state policies DeSantis has passed are stripping Americans of their freedoms. DeSantis counters that he is the stronger defender of freedom, and has blasted California as “the petri dish for American leftism” and argues that “everything [President Joe] Biden is doing, they would accelerate.”
True to the event’s billing, the nation’s culture wars were front and center on the debate stage. DeSantis portrayed California as a failed state with rampant crime and homelessness led by an “elite” politician too liberal for the rest of the country. “They have failed because of his leftist ideology,” DeSantis said.
Newsom shot back, playing up California’s immense economy and describing his state as one without peer. He expressed his commitment to Biden’s reelection. He also called out DeSantis for his covid-19 policies, saying more Floridians died of covid due to his more relaxed public health rules: “Tens of thousands of people lost their lives and for what, Ron?”
Abortion was a clear flashpoint. Newsom defended California’s strong abortion protections and attacked DeSantis, alleging he “criminalizes” women and doctors. He also suggested that if DeSantis became president, he would further roll back abortion rights nationwide. Newsom, asked by Hannity if he would sign a law banning abortion later in pregnancy, argued that such cases are extremely rare.
“I trust the mother and her doctor to make that decision,” he said.
The two also sparred over book bans, parental rights, and policies regarding the LGBTQ+ community.
DeSantis criticized Newsom on California’s growing homelessness, which he said contributed to the “destruction of qualify of life” in the state.
Newsom pointed out that the crisis has been brewing for decades. He noted, though, that under his leadership, billions of dollars in taxpayer money has been directed toward countering homelessness. He also boasted about the state’s investments in mental health and addiction programs.
“The difference is I’m the first governor in California history to take this head-on,” Newsom said, arguing that under his policies 68,000 people have been moved off the streets and into shelter or housing.
Here are the health-related claims PolitiFact examined:
Newsom borrowed a page from Trump’s playbook by misleadingly portraying DeSantis as a lockdown leader. Newsom’s comments focused on DeSantis’ actions in the pandemic’s first few weeks, when nearly all governors operated in lockstep. Newsom omits that DeSantis reopened earlier than most governors in spring 2020.
“You passed an emergency declaration before the state of California did,” Newsom said. “You closed down your beaches, your bars, your restaurants. It is a fact.”
Many local governments closed beaches for a limited time, but DeSantis did not close them statewide.
DeSantis issued an executive order on March 17, 2020, directing Floridians to “limit their gatherings” at beaches to no more than 10 people and to “support beach closures at the discretion of local authorities.”
He also ordered beaches in Broward and Palm Beach counties to close for 11 days, following recommendations from local officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The governor’s refusal to close most beaches to spring break crowds drew heavy criticism and litigation.
Newsom was on firmer ground in his claim about closing bars. DeSantis ordered all bars and nightclubs closed for 30 days. Restaurants did not close. His March 17 order said restaurants were limited to 50% customer capacity and had to separate seating by 6 feet.
Governors nationwide issued multiple orders in March 2020 in response to the pandemic. DeSantis issued an order March 1 to establish covid response protocol and direct a public health emergency. On March 4, Newsom declared a state of emergency to help California prepare for the pandemic.
Florida’s abortion limits and DeSantis’ abortion survivor story
As Hannity pressed Newsom on whether he supported any abortion restrictions, Newsom attacked Florida’s abortion laws.
“He signed a bill banning any exceptions for rape and incest,” Newsom said of DeSantis. “And then he said it didn’t go far enough and decided to sign a six-week ban … that criminalizes women and criminalizes doctors.”
DeSantis signed legislation in 2022 that outlawed abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. It does not make exceptions for cases of incest, rape or human trafficking but includes an exception for a mother’s life.
DeSantis signed a stricter bill in April that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Whether the law takes effect hinges on how the Florida Supreme Court rules in a lawsuit against the current 15-week ban. The 2023 law does contain exceptions, including to save a pregnant woman’s life or in cases of fatal fetal anomalies. Abortions for pregnancies involving rape, incest, or human trafficking would be allowed until 15 weeks of pregnancy if a woman has documentation such as a restraining order, police report, or medical record.
The law penalizes physicians, but whether it also criminalizes women is less clear, so we have rated a similar claim Half True. The law says that anyone who “actively participates in” an abortion commits a third-degree felony, which opens the door to prosecutors charging women, but we don’t yet know whether they will or how courts would respond to such charges. DeSantis has also said that he doesn’t want women prosecuted, only doctors.
Defending the law, DeSantis repeated an anecdote from the first GOP presidential debate about a Floridian named Penny Hopper. Miriam “Penny” Hopper is a real person, and an anti-abortion activist. Some of the details about her birth story have been called into question.
Hopper said she survived an abortion attempt in Florida in 1955. Her claim has been featured by anti-abortion groups and used to support what abortion opponents call “born alive” bills in state legislatures, which aim to protect infants who survive abortions, even though there are federal laws for that purpose.
In interviews, Hopper has said she had been delivered around 23 weeks of gestation after her mother went to a hospital in Wauchula, Florida, while experiencing bleeding. Hopper said the doctor induced labor, and she was born at 1 pound, 11 ounces, and that the doctor told staff to discard her “dead or alive.” She said her grandmother found her the next day on the hospital porch in a bedpan. Then, Hopper said, a nurse volunteered to take her to a larger hospital that was about 40 miles away.
That a baby born at 23 weeks could survive overnight without medical attention in 1955 is medically dubious, experts said. From the 1950s through 1980, “newborn death was virtually ensured” for infants born at or before 24 weeks of gestation, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology says on its website.
The Washington Post also reported that contemporaneous newspaper accounts offer a different scenario at the hospital, and said the staff spent days keeping her alive before arranging a police escort to rush her to another hospital.
This article was reprinted from khn.org, a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF – the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism.