FactChecking DeSantis-Newsom Debate

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom — who head two of the largest states in the country — squared off in a debate on Nov. 30 on Fox News. The governors spun, mangled and exaggerated some of the facts on issues including COVID-19, migration, abortion, book bans and gasoline prices.

The debate, which was moderated by Sean Hannity, was billed as “The Great Red State vs. Blue State Debate.” But it wasn’t a preview of the 2024 presidential election. DeSantis is currently trailing former President Donald Trump in the polls for the Republican presidential nomination, while Newsom has ruled out challenging President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination.

Florida’s COVID-19 Restrictions

In a lively exchange on COVID-19 mitigation measures in Florida, Newsom accused DeSantis of initially supporting restrictions “until he decided to fall prey to the fringe of his party.” During that exchange, DeSantis claimed that Newsom was wrong about DeSantis closing beaches and imposing quarantines — but in both instances the California governor was right.

Newsom: You closed down your beaches, your bars, your restaurants.

DeSantis: False.

Newsom: It’s a fact.

DeSantis: The beaches were not closed.

Newsom: You had quarantines.

DeSantis: False.

Newsom: You had quarantines. You had checkpoints all over the state of Florida. By the way, I didn’t say that. Donald Trump laid you out on this. Dead to rights. You did that. You followed science, you followed [Dr. Anthony] Fauci.

DeSantis: That’s not true.

It’s true that DeSantis resisted closing beaches and issuing stay-at-home orders, but he did both in orders that were crafted in a limited way. He also directed the Florida Department of Transportation, or FDOT, to set up checkpoints in an attempt to enforce an order requiring travelers entering Florida from the New York state area to isolate for 14 days. 

Here’s a brief timeline of events that shows how DeSantis issued a series of increasingly restrictive executive orders to slow the spread of COVID-19.  

The Florida governor issued executive order 20-68 on March 17, 2020, directing public beaches to restrict “gatherings to no more than 10 persons” and urging beachgoers to “support beach closures at the discretion of local authorities.”

On March 30, 2020, DeSantis signed an executive order (20-89) directing four counties in South Florida to restrict public access to “non-essential” businesses. Over the following two days, he issued two executive orders: The first (20-90) ordered beaches to be closed in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and the second (20-91) ordered senior citizens and those with a “significant underlying medical condition” statewide to stay at home. The Tampa Bay Times said that DeSantis had – up until that point — resisted issuing a statewide stay-at-home order.

The April 1, 2020, order, the Tampa Bay Times wrote, “does not mandate any business shut down,” but “it severely restricts the movement of employees and customers and many non-essential stores and offices will likely chose to temporarily close. Businesses are encouraged to telework and restaurants to provide food via drive-thru, take out or delivery.”

As for checkpoints, DeSantis issued an executive order (20-82) on March 24, 2020, ordering people entering Florida from Connecticut, New Jersey and New York “to isolate or quarantine for a period of 14 days.” He followed that up three days later with another executive order (20-86) directing FDOT to set up “appropriate checkpoints, including at welcome centers and rest stops,” and requiring travelers from those states and others areas “with substantial community spread” to fill out forms at the checkpoints disclosing “the address of their location of isolation or quarantine for a period of 14 days.”

Californians Moving to Florida

Both governors sought to portray their states as a more desirable place to live. DeSantis emphasized Florida’s relative low overall crime rate and taxes, while Newsom countered by touting the state’s low murder rate and a progressive tax system that benefits low- and moderate-income taxpayers.

Asked by Hannity to explain why California residents are moving to Florida, Newsom said: “You mean the last two years, more Floridians going to California than Californians going to Florida?” Newsom added, “That’s going to be fun to fact-check.”

The facts, however, show that Newsom is wrong to suggest that California has seen a two-year net increase in migration of residents moving between the two states.

According to Census Bureau migration data for 2022, 50,701 Florida residents had been living in California the year prior, and 28,557 Californians had been living in Florida – a net gain for Florida and a net loss for California of 22,144 residents.

In 2021, 37,464 Florida residents had been living in California the year prior, and 24,692 California residents had been living in Florida – a net gain for Florida and a net loss for California of 12,772, Census data show.

That’s a two-year net gain for Florida of 34,916 new residents.

California Gasoline Prices

For a variety of reasons, including higher state taxes and clean fuel mandates, California typically has among the highest gasoline prices in the United States. But DeSantis left the misleading impression that the state’s gasoline prices are currently $7 per gallon.

The issue of gasoline prices came up when Newsom was making a point about California’s progressive tax rate. DeSantis interjected, “How does paying $7 a gallon gas help working people?”

Gasoline prices fluctuate, and prices have reportedly topped $7 a gallon at some individual stations in the state, from time to time. But currently, the statewide average for regular gasoline in California is less than $5.

As of Dec. 1, a gallon of regular gasoline cost $4.83 in California, which is the highest in the country, according to AAA. The least expensive gasoline is in Texas, where the average is $2.75 a gallon. In addition to Texas, 27 other states have lower gasoline prices than Florida ($3.16 a gallon).

Book Bans in Florida

As governor, DeSantis signed laws that, according to PEN America, “bar instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade (HB 1557), prohibit educators from discussing advantages or disadvantages based on race (HB 7), and mandate that schools must catalog every book on their shelves, including those found in classroom libraries (HB 1467). Due to the lack of clear guidance, these three laws have each led teachers, media specialists, and school administrators to proactively remove books from shelves, in the absence of any specific challenges.” 

During the debate, Newsom said “1,406 books have been banned just last year under Ron DeSantis’ leadership” – which is not quite right. PEN America reported that during the 2022–23 school year, there were 1,406 “instances of books banned” in Florida schools. Some of the books on the list are duplicates, such as Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s first book, “Bluest Eye,” which is listed as being banned in 12 Florida schools or school districts.

Newsom also asked, “What’s wrong with Amanda Gorman’s [poem]?” – referring to “The Hill We Climb,” which Gorman read at Joe Biden’s inauguration. Newsom suggested that her poem was banned, and it is true that it is on PEN America’s list of banned books.

But, as we wrote, Gorman’s poem was not banned. In one K-8 school in Miami-Dade County, the book was moved to a shelf for upper-grade students. The school said, “The book is available in the media center as part of the middle grades collection,” meaning sixth through eighth grades.

Florida’s Abortion Ban

In April, DeSantis signed legislation, known as the Heartbeat Protection Act, that banned abortion in Florida after six weeks of gestation. A year earlier, DeSantis signed a bill that banned most abortions after 15 weeks.

During a discussion on abortion, Hannity asked DeSantis about his reason for signing legislation instituting a six-week ban after he had already signed similar legislation prohibiting abortion after 15 weeks. In his response, DeSantis said of the six-week ban: “That bill attaches when there is a detectable heartbeat for the child.”

That is inaccurate for a couple of reasons. For the first 10 weeks, the correct medical term is “embryo,” not fetus or, as DeSantis said, “child.” Also, as we have written before, a heartbeat isn’t audible at six weeks.

“What is interpreted as a heartbeat in these bills is actually electrically-induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops,” the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said in a statement to us in 2019. “Thus, ACOG does not use the term ‘heartbeat’ to describe these legislative bans on abortion because it is misleading language, out of step with the anatomical and clinical realities of that stage of pregnancy.”

For more, read our Ask SciCheck “When Are Heartbeats Audible During Pregnancy?”

Abortion Ban, Again

Newsom repeatedly claimed that the six-week abortion ban signed by DeSantis in Florida “criminalizes women” who seek abortions. Although he did not respond to that point in the debate, DeSantis has made repeated public statements that that is not the meaning or intent of the law he signed in April.

Newsom and other Democrats have seized on the language of the new law, which would make it a felony for “[a]ny person who willfully performs, or actively participates in, a termination of pregnancy” after six weeks of gestation. They say the inclusion of anyone who “actively participates” might subject women getting an abortion to criminal charges.

As we wrote last month when this issue was raised in an ad from a political action committee tied to Newsom, DeSantis has repeatedly said he does not support penalties against women who get abortions. In an interview with Norah O’Donnell on “CBS Evening News” on Sept. 13, DeSantis said the law he signed — which includes an exception for mothers whose lives are at risk, and delays the abortion ban to 15 weeks for pregnancy caused by rape, incest or human trafficking — only includes criminal penalties for medical providers who perform abortions beyond the deadlines in the law, not the women who get abortions. “We’ve litigated this,” DeSantis said.

In the case of Florida v. Ashley, an unwed Florida teenager was prosecuted for manslaughter and third-degree murder after she shot herself in the abdomen while in the third trimester of pregnancy. She survived, but the fetus did not. The state Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that she could not be criminally prosecuted.

The court noted that the penalty section of a 1993 Florida law limiting abortions in the third trimester stated, “Any person who willfully performs, or participates in, a termination of a pregnancy in violation of the requirements of this section is guilty of a felony of the third degree․” In its opinion, the state Supreme Court noted that “in order to overturn a long standing common law principle,” the state Legislature would have had to enact a statute that explicitly criminalized women who got an abortion in violation of the state statute. “Florida has not done so,” the court wrote.

So, since 1997, Florida has had similar language in its abortion laws, and no women getting abortions in violation of those state laws have been criminally prosecuted.

Nonetheless, on Sept. 15, Florida Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book filed a bill citing ambiguity in the wording of the new law and proposing changes to it to make clear that women getting an abortion cannot be criminally charged. The DeSantis campaign did not respond when we asked if the governor would support Book’s bill.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org does not accept advertising. We rely on grants and individual donations from people like you. Please consider a donation. Credit card donations may be made through our “Donate” page. If you prefer to give by check, send to: FactCheck.org, Annenberg Public Policy Center, 202 S. 36th St., Philadelphia, PA 19104. 

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