The Polarizing Political Visions of Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis

Ahead of the debate tonight between the two state governors, an in-depth look at their Catholic backgrounds and their starkly divergent competing policy agendas.

L to R: Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-Calif., and Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla.
L to R: Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-Calif., and Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla. (photo: Public domain)

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom couldn’t be more polarized in their policies, yet they are remarkably similar in their ambitions and degree of visibility, making them well-matched contenders in the political ring.

In the latest bout highlighting their differences, Newsom is threatening to charge DeSantis with kidnapping for sending asylum-seeking migrants from Venezuela and Colombia to California. The DeSantis administration has acknowledged responsibility for the flights, which have been condemned by California officials as a stunt. In a similar move, DeSantis in September 2022 arranged for two planes of immigrants to be flown to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts to call attention to the Biden administration’s border policies.

Newsom has welcomed immigrants to his state by providing them with various supports, including state IDs to those who are undocumented, while DeSantis has signed legislation making it a felony to bring undocumented immigrants into his state and declining to recognize driver’s licenses issued for those in the country illegally.

In ongoing exchanges between the two governors, Newsom has thrown the first punch as well. Over the Fourth of July weekend in 2022, he ran advertisements appealing to Floridians who were unhappy with the state’s 15-week abortion ban and other legislation, including voting laws and a Parental Rights in Education bill, which prohibited classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in Grades K-3.

He said in the ad: “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.”

Ahead of a two-day visit to California this week, DeSantis fired back directly against Newsom with the release of a video targeting the Golden State’s left-wing political policies.

“We’ve witnessed a great American exodus from states governed by leftist politicians,” DeSantis said in the video, Fox News reported June 19. “This is a result of better governance in states like Florida. It is the result of poor governance in these left-wing states. That’s why people are moving.”

‘Useful Foils’

Matthew Green, professor and chairman of the department of politics at The Catholic University of America, said the two Catholic governors serve as useful foils to each other. “DeSantis says something conservative. Newsom says, ‘If you don’t like Florida, come to our state.’ DeSantis says, ‘If you’re tired of wacky values, come to Florida.’ They are helping each other out by serving as foils.”

Despite their divergent visions, Newsom and DeSantis have in common their governance of large-population coastal states that would be considered big electoral prizes in a presidential contest and aspirations for the nation’s highest office. Also, just as DeSantis, 44, who announced May 24 that he is running for president, could be thwarted by the presence of former president Donald Trump in the race, Newsom has essentially been blocked from running in 2024 by President Joe Biden’s decision to seek a second term. Following Biden’s April 25 announcement, Newsom said he would not run and would support the current president. Still, at 55, Newsom could easily be a contender in 2028 or even in 2024, should Biden withdraw.

Additionally, both Newsom and DeSantis have been sufficiently successful in their respective states to win reelection to second terms, emerging as formidable fundraisers. After fending off a recall attempt in 2022, Newsom raised $113 million and had enough left to spend $10 million to create a political action committee called the Campaign for Democracy. The campaign’s mission is to “confront and defeat un-American authoritarianism” by Republicans like DeSantis, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, all of whom are said to pose threats to democracy. No less of a fundraising force, DeSantis had amassed $110 million in donations even before he announced his presidential candidacy.

Targeted Outreaches

Newsom and DeSantis also have drawn national attention as part of targeted outreaches, each attempting to portray his state as a haven — from COVID mandates and wokeism, in DeSantis’ case, and in Newsom’s, from restrictions on abortion.

Indeed, DeSantis opened his second inaugural address in January by saying, “Freedom lives here, in our great Sunshine State of Florida. … When the world lost its mind — when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue — Florida was a refuge of sanity, a citadel of freedom for our fellow Americans and even for people around the world.”

The theme echoed his 2022 State of the State address in which he claimed people from around the country had come to Florida to escape authoritarian mandates and restrictions. “Florida has stood strong as the rock of freedom,” he said. “And upon this rock, we must build Florida’s future. We have protected the right of our citizens to earn a living, provided our businesses with the ability to prosper, fought back against unconstitutional federal mandates and ensured our kids have the opportunity to thrive.” In a speech at Michigan’s Hillsdale College April 6, DeSantis said his refusal to comply with federal COVID vaccine mandates cost the state $2 million in fines but saved tens of thousands of jobs.

In promoting his state as a refuge for women from states with abortion restrictions, Newsom has said: “Come to California. We will defend your constitutional right to make decisions about your own health.”

Last September, he publicized the invitation on billboards in seven states he dubbed “anti-freedom” — Indiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Texas, South Carolina, South Dakota and Oklahoma. Some of the billboards included Christ’s words: “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these.”

Newsom clearly has made abortion one of his top priorities, according to Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, putting him at odds with the bishops of his state. “Last year alone,” Domingo said, “he allocated over $200 million in public funds to pay for abortion and abortion-related services for women in California and those coming to California for abortion. He pushed Prop. 1, perhaps the most permissive abortion law in the nation, legalizing abortion through all nine months.” Additionally, she continued, this year, he has created a stockpile of abortion drugs in response to court cases surrounding the availability of mifepristone, while failing to expand funding and access for maternal health. Under Newsom’s leadership, Domingo said, California is hosting a website devoted to finding abortion services and is considering spending money on a public-relations campaign to denounce pregnancy-resource centers.

“All of this while we continue to have more people living on our streets, more people incarcerated, more children in foster care and some of the worst student test scores in the nation. Rather than focusing on what California families say they need to thrive in the state — choice in education for their children, affordable housing, access to quality affordable child care, safe neighborhoods — he has chosen to focus on extreme hot-button political issues expedient to his future ambitions.”

Domingo said Newsom has prioritized tackling the homelessness and housing crisis, but with little result. “More people are currently living on California streets than ever before. Hundreds of legislative and budget solutions have been offered, including an optimistic attempt by Gov. Newsom to prioritize mental-health resources to the unhoused through his Care Court. It remains to be seen if this comprehensive plan will make the promised sweeping changes or languish without local buy-in and participation, as so many other ideas have.”

Despite its criticisms of Newsom’s policies, the California Catholic Conference supports the governor’s efforts to dismantle “death row.” Although the death penalty remains legal in California, Domingo said there have been no executions in the state since 2006. Newsom began working last year to remove the death chamber and is now relocating the 650 male and 21 female “death row” prisoners into the general population in other maximum-security prisons.

The conference also is working closely, she said, with the governor’s efforts to welcome migrants to California, particularly unaccompanied children. His pro-immigrant policies have included ensuring rights and protections for unaccompanied undocumented minors, expanding access to higher education, health care and public benefits for immigrants and removing the term “alien” as a description for noncitizens from the California state code.

Catholic Backgrounds

The mixed support Newsom has received from California’s bishops is yet another similarity between him and DeSantis, whose policies on immigration and capital punishment do not align with those of Florida’s bishops, though they have applauded his pro-life and pro-family initiatives, which include a law giving unborn children the right to life once a fetal heartbeat is detected. Both men also have in common a Catholic background and questions about their Catholic identity.

Newsom reportedly was baptized and raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools and a Catholic university. His first marriage, which ended in divorce in 2006, was in a Catholic church, but his second marriage in 2008 took place on the bride’s parents’ ranch and was officiated by a friend, Carol Simone, an author and teacher of meditation, metaphysics and other forms of healing. Newsom’s office did not respond to inquiries about his current involvement in and relationship to the Church.

Meanwhile, DeSantis has been embraced as a fellow Catholic by many of his supporters in the Church. During an appearance at Ave Maria University on Oct. 30, 2022, he reportedly attended Mass at Ave Maria parish with his wife and two of his three children before speaking. He then was hailed by Brian Burch, president of Catholic Vote, which hosted the event, as a political leader who stays true to the teachings of the Church. Neither Ave Maria nor Catholic Vote replied to inquiries from the Register about DeSantis and the event.

In his book, The Courage to Be Free, DeSantis writes of growing up knowing that Sunday Mass was “nonnegotiable.” He also tells of having an uncle who is a priest and an aunt who is a nun. In a 2022 article about DeSantis’ Ohio roots, the uncle is identified as Father Philip Rogers of Christ Our Savior parish in Struthers, Ohio, whose name is listed on the marriage license for DeSantis’ wedding in 2009 in a chapel at Disney World.

When contacted by the Register, Father Rogers said he had no comment. To be valid under canon law, the marriage would have required the approval of a bishop to deem the Disney chapel appropriate for a Catholic wedding. In the past, the bishop of Orlando has said that Disney’s secular entertainment environment is not suitable for the sacrament of matrimony. The Diocese of Orlando did not respond to questions about policies on Disney weddings and neither the governor’s office nor his campaign replied to requests for information about DeSantis and his faith.

An evangelical Protestant who grew up in the Catholic Church, John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy said although DeSantis is identified as Catholic, he sees him more as someone whose views are informed by the body of truth and principles that come out of the American experience and its founding, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.

“It seems to me his core is not necessarily the Bible or the teachings of the Church,” Stemberger told the Register. “His core is the Founding Fathers.”

DeSantis’ Positions

DeSantis has received the support of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops for his positions on abortion, educational choice, parental rights, conscience rights for health-care providers and increased investment to protect Florida’s environment and water quality, but he has disregarded their appeals to reverse course on capital punishment. Since he has been governor, there have been six executions, the latest of which took place June 15. He and the bishops also differ on his proposal to change Florida law to allow juries to impose the death penalty without unanimous agreement.

On immigration, DeSantis has been criticized by Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski for promoting Senate Bill 1718, which would have made it a felony to knowingly transport an undocumented immigrant. Archbishop Wenski said such action would criminalize “empathy.”

After several religious groups, including the Florida Family Council, pointed out that the bill would make it a felony merely to help an undocumented immigrant, affecting places like homeless facilities and pregnancy centers, it was amended to make it a felony to bring undocumented immigrants into the state, but not to assist them once they are here.

In a June 12 Associated Press report discussing DeSantis’ Catholic faith, Archbishop Wenski commented that no political party is “totally consistent with the gamut of our Catholic interests.”

“Biden makes a bigger deal of his Catholicism than DeSantis does,” Archbishop Wenski said, highlighting that this “gives all us bishops heartburn because of his radical abortion stance.”

Michele Taylor, associate director for communications for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops have praised the governor’s veto of $2 million in the state budget for family-planning providers to promote and provide Hormonal Long-Acting Reversible Contraception (HLARC). The bishops’ conference also spoke out in support of DeSantis’ signing in March of House Bill 1, which expands the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship program, removing previous income restrictions and enrollment caps.

In commenting on the legislation, the bishops said it would empower all parents to choose the educational environment and services that best meet the needs of their children: “Parents are the primary educators of their children; however the family also needs help from society.”

Under the law, any Florida family with a student in elementary, middle or high school can receive a voucher for the amount that would have gone to the local public school had the student attended it. The vouchers can be put toward private-school tuition or home-schooling expenses, but if a family does not need them at the time, they can be placed in educational savings accounts.

Party Lines and State Policies

Such accomplishments are significant because, were DeSantis and Newsom to go toe-to-toe in a national election, voters may be likely to focus on their legislative priorities, something Green said could serve as a platform for a presidential bid. DeSantis in particular, he added, has set an agenda that seems to have been deliberately designed for a presidential campaign. “If you look at what’s passing in Florida, it’s literally ripped from the Fox News headlines.”

Still, how such accomplishments will play on a national stage remains to be seen. In Newsom’s case, for all he has done, he still is dealing with population losses, worsening student test scores and a homelessness crisis Domingo described as “an uncontrolled explosion.”

In a recent interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News, Newsom acknowledged his state’s population declines, but urged Americans to consider California’s opportunities. “I love this state,” he said. “Don’t count us out.”

In reading and math scores, California ranks below the national average, although funding for K-12 schools and community colleges in the state increased by 39% between 2019-20 and 2021-22.

Lance Izumi, senior director of education studies for the Pacific Research Institute, said the percentage of eighth-grade students proficient in mathematics went from 3 in 10 to 1 in 4 between 2019 and 2022. Some of that can be attributed to California schools remaining closed during COVID longer than those in most other states, but meanwhile, Izumi said, “Newsom really hasn’t put out a program that is geared to closing those learning gaps.”

At the same time, he has done little to foster parental choice in education. Elected with the support of the state’s teachers’ unions, Izumi said, Newsom appears to be beholden to their agendas, which tend to oppose school choice. “If the public system is failing,” he said, “then people need to be given the opportunity to go outside that same system in order to better educate their children.”

Californians also have the option of publicly funded charter schools, something past governors have supported, but which Newsom has restricted. In 2019, for instance, he signed Assembly Bill 1505, which allows local school boards to deny a charter-school petition if they find the proposed school “is demonstrably unlikely to serve the interests of the entire community.” This provision, Izumi has observed, “is a carte-blanche reason to deny any charter petition.” Under the law, charter schools could be denied if a school board determines that they could adversely affect the district’s finances, undermine existing services and academic and program offerings or duplicate a program currently offered in the district.

Charters in California, Izumi added, also have received less funding compared to public schools.

For DeSantis, whose state continues to gain population, much of his success is tied to an agenda that could win him votes from a conservative base, but not necessarily swing voters. Also, there are those who claim that in ways likely to matter most to average citizens, Florida does not rank well compared to other states in such areas as quality of health care, school funding, teacher salaries, long-term elder care and unemployment benefits.

Still, the Florida Family Policy Council’s Stemberger said he has been waiting for decades for a governor like DeSantis. He cited such accomplishments as instituting one of the most robust school-choice policies in the nation, expanding the Parental Rights Act in Education Act to include grades K-8, a Heartbeat Protection Act that protects unborn babies with a heartbeat after six weeks’ gestation and a Protections of Medical Conscience law that allows health-care providers and payers to refuse to perform or pay for services that conflict with their moral, ethical or religious beliefs.

Furthermore, Stemberger applauds the governor’s support for a law prohibiting certain types of surgeries and therapies on minors with gender dysphoria. DeSantis has challenged calling such surgical procedures “gender-affirming care,” saying, “That is not health care. That is mutilation, so when we’re standing up against that, we’re protecting these kids.” Conversely, Newsom signed a bill designed to protect families from other states seeking so-called “gender-affirming care” for minors in California, including puberty blockers, sterilizing cross-sex hormones and gender-reassignment surgeries.

The Partisan Divide

Still, that two governors from Catholic backgrounds would clash with the bishops in their states on some issues is emblematic of how divided the Catholic vote is today, Catholic University’s Green said.

“Party matters so much now to your typical American voter that it can trump the positions of the Church, in some cases. One could argue that a lot of politicians of both parties are cafeteria Catholics. DeSantis is looking at Republican voters who want to shut the border and for whom immigrants are a problem. Newsom is looking at those in his state who are saying the most important thing is the right to abortion. Partisanship often upstages the broad teachings of the Church in the U.S.”