(CNN) — America got a preview this week of what the 2024 presidential campaign might look like if President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump stepped aside to clear the way for the next generation’s possible candidates in waiting: Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gavin Newsom of California.
DeSantis and Newsom, a Republican and a Democrat who are each running for reelection this fall, have been shadowboxing with ferocity on the sidelines since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic — demonstrating their shrewd political instincts, a voracious appetite for attention and the ability to fire up their parties’ bases better than many of their peers. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who is also defending his seat in November, has often been in the mix too.
All three governors attempted to drive the national narrative this week with dueling political stunts, flexing their power through made-to-go-viral maneuvers that would have been unthinkable in the more staid age of campaign politics that preceded the Trump years.
DeSantis and Abbott forced the immigration issue by sending migrants to liberal areas because they know there are few issues that do more to fire up the GOP base — but also because that’s the turf they want to fight elections on in 2022 and 2024. They also know they have an opening, even beyond the base, because the Biden administration has failed to articulate a clear policy in the eyes of many voters and has been grappling with nearly 2 million border encounters reported by US Customs and Border Protection in the fiscal year that ends September 30.
At least for a day or two, they changed the national conversation from the topic that Democrats want to talk about ahead of the midterms: how abortion rights are being rolled back after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade. That was the area Newsom drew attention to this week by putting up billboards in red states, as he seeks to make California a safe harbor for abortion and cast himself as a champion for reproductive rights.
The ultimate showman, Trump ushered American voters into this new era of performative politics with his bare-knuckled tactics, proving that incendiary acts would be rewarded at the ballot box by many in the GOP.
The array of stunts that Trump pulled is too long to mention. But they included trying to unnerve Hillary Clinton at a 2016 debate by showing up with women who accused her husband, former President Bill Clinton, of sexual misconduct. While in office, Trump made his infamous 2020 march from the White House — in the midst of nearby racial injustice protests — to St. John’s Church, where he held up a bible and declared himself to be a “law and order” president. Those kinds of moves often electrified his base and infuriated the left, casting the die for the current politics of outrage.
Newsom, DeSantis and Abbott are testing what the next phase of that playbook looks like. This week, DeSantis cribbed the moves of other GOP governors like Abbott and Arizona’s Doug Ducey, who have been sending busloads of migrants from the border to liberal cities like New York, Chicago and Washington, DC, to protest the glaring shortcomings of the Biden administration’s immigration policy. DeSantis took those tactics to the next level by arranging to send two planes of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, the uber-liberal wealthy Massachusetts enclave that has long been the vacation playground of Democratic presidents.
Uproar ensued as critics accused DeSantis of upending the lives of vulnerable migrants from Venezuela to achieve his political goals. Though islanders generously offered assistance after the flights arrived Wednesday afternoon, it was perceived as a cruel joke to send planeloads of destitute people to a tiny island where off-season jobs are scarce, affordable housing is non-existent and there is very little shelter capacity.
A similarly chaotic scene unfolded in Washington, DC, on Thursday where Abbott had directed two buses of migrants to be dropped off at the residence of Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been tasked with part of the administration’s immigration portfolio.
They were left on the sidewalk, some carrying their belongings in trash bags, until volunteers swooped in to help. Abbott tweeted that Harris “denies the crisis” and said that led him to send “migrants to her backyard to call on the Biden administration to do its job & secure the border.” Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, retorted that “they were just literally dumped like human garbage” on the street.
DeSantis has defended his role in the Martha’s Vineyard transports by asserting that liberal towns and cities that want to offer sanctuary are better equipped to handle the influx of migrants into the US. Florida, he said earlier this week, is “not a sanctuary state.” He added that “it’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction, and, yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures” — language that lent credence to the notion that migrants are being treated like livestock as they are shuttled around the country.
Newsom looks to raise profile by calling out GOP governors
Newsom, who has burnished his star power in Democratic circles by trolling red-state governors like DeSantis and Abbott for what he describes as their assault on human rights, was among the loudest critics this week.
He tweeted a letter that he sent to the Department of Justice asking officials to investigate the transports and “these inhumane efforts to use kids as political pawns,” a reference to several Venezuelan families with children who were on the Vineyard flights. He noted that several of the migrants alleged that “a recruiter induced them to accept the offer of travel based on false representations that they would be transported to Boston and would receive expedited access to work authorization.” Newsom suggested such a scheme could be criminal — possibly even supporting “charges of kidnapping under relevant state laws.”
CNN’s Maria Santana reported that three migrants who were sent to Martha’s Vineyard were told by a woman named “Perla” that they would get help with shelter and jobs once they arrived.
At a Friday news conference, DeSantis responded to the assertions in Newsom’s letter with an insult: “I think his hair gel is interfering with his brain function.” He also said he intends to use “every penny” of some $12 million that Florida budgeted to relocate migrants, calling this week’s moves “just the beginning.”
The California governor relayed his response by Tweeting, in part: “Hey @GovRonDeSantis, clearly you’re struggling, distracted, and busy playing politics with people’s lives. Since you have only one overriding need — attention — let’s take this up & debate,” Newsom tweeted. “I’ll bring my hair gel. You bring your hairspray. Name the time before Election Day.”
Newsom’s letter to the Department of Justice was the latest extension of his effort to set the progressive agenda, using DeSantis and Abbott as his foils while showing that, unlike Biden for most of his first term, he’s eager to engage in tough political combat with his adversaries.
Earlier this summer on July 4, Newsom began airing ads on Fox News targeting DeSantis by telling Floridians that freedom is “under attack in your state” because of DeSantis’ moves to ban books, restrict voting, limit the discussion of sexuality in classrooms and curtail access to abortion. DeSantis’ campaign responded by trashing Newsom’s record in California, with his spokesman telling CNN he’d turned California into a “hellhole.”
Newsom ratcheted up the political stunts this week in a move destined to infuriate abortion opponents. He announced a new website that is intended to link women in states where abortion is being banned or curtailed with reproductive health care and abortion services in California, including tools to help them find providers and how to seek financial assistance.
But he didn’t stop there — going on to erect 18 billboards advertising California’s abortion services in seven red states that have enacted abortion restrictions: Indiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas.
“Need an abortion?” one of the billboards reads, “California is ready to help.”
Like the moves from DeSantis and Abbott, it’s a gambit that could complicate Newsom’s efforts to demonstrate mainstream appeal in a future presidential run, but one that will bring him adulation within his base.
It remains unclear whether Trump will make another bid for the White House, but even if he doesn’t, DeSantis, Abbott and Newsom are demonstrating that his circus politics are here to stay.