scorecardDon't make America Florida, make it New Jersey instead, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy says
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Don't make America Florida, make it New Jersey instead, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy says

Kimberly Leonard   

Don't make America Florida, make it New Jersey instead, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy says
PoliticsPolitics5 min read
  • Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is pitching his home state of New Jersey as a model for America.
  • He sat down with Insider in Florida, criticizing the state's policies under DeSantis.

PALM BEACH, Florida — Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida hasn't been subtle about selling his vision of what America should be.

For over a month, he has been traveling across states to promote his bestselling "Courage to Be Free" book, the tagline of which is "Florida's Blueprint for America's Revival." Just like the merch that's been hitting Republican campaign rallies and spotted all over the Sunshine State, the message is clear: Make America Florida.

But DeSantis isn't the only one arguing that America should look more like his home state. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is urging voters to look much further north on the East Coast, to New Jersey. In an interview with Insider, held on April 1, he joked that New Jersey used to be a national punchline, but that Florida had taken its place.

Taking a more serious tone, he bemoaned the push in GOP-led states to ban abortion, tighten voting access, constrain LGBTQ rights, and loosen gun laws even in the wake of mass shootings.

"I say this with a heavy heart," Murphy said. "I'm not happy about this. We're a patchwork-quilt country. It really matters where you live and where you work, and it didn't used to be that way. But it is now. It's thanks to governors; it's thanks to the Supreme Court. And so Florida, in my humble opinion, is going the wrong way."

Murphy is laser focused not just on New Jersey but on states, as chair of the Democratic Governors Association, that have gubernatorial races this year: deep-red Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Democrats hold seats in two of the three states, and they're hoping that voters will be drawn to the glaring policy contrasts — contrasts they plan to carry into 2024 when President Joe Biden is expected to run for reelection.

"The Republicans, their MO is to change the subject and divide us," Murphy said. "Our MO is delivering the kitchen table, focus on the stuff that matters for Americans, particularly American working families, and I think we're proving that that model is successful."

But Republican governors have been touting their own policies, too, with DeSantis being the most vocal and the one most able to hold the media's gaze. The buzz has helped DeSantis consistently rank in second place in polling for a hypothetical 2024 Republican presidential primary, behind former President Donald Trump.

Republicans, including in Florida, have lowered taxes, passed pro-law enforcement laws, moved migrants to blue states, and expanded vouchers for families who don't want to send their children to their county-designated public school.

Restrictions on how teachers instruct about race, gender identity, and sexuality, are done in the name of giving parents control over what their children learn. Republicans have also pushed to ban transgender healthcare for minors and limited corporations' sustainable investing.

They've especially been unapologetic about their COVID-19 actions. While blue states advocated for lockdowns, including virtual learning, red states including Florida reopened earlier. They also refused to force people to get vaccines or wear masks. As more and more people moved into Florida, DeSantis has made it clear that he thought the policies he pushed for, amid heavy backlash, were correct.

"Florida was a refuge of sanity when the world went mad," DeSantis often says at political events.

Murphy, who has ordered a post-mortem of New Jersey's pandemic policies, sees it differently. "He took a risk and he got lucky," he said of DeSantis. "Is that what we want in a leader? You want the guy who oversees the nuclear weapons, our armed forces, you name it — is that what you want?"

'Freedom' on the ballot

In public appearances and in his book, DeSantis described a far more deliberate approach to his pandemic policies, saying he read numerous studies from Europe, where schools were open, and argued early that transmission was seasonal — in Florida's case, during the sweltering summer months that drive people inside.

But one thing is clear: Murphy and DeSantis are selling two different versions of America to voters, and each acknowledge their goal is to advance "freedom," though defined differently.

Under Murphy, New Jersey expanded an AP African American history course that Florida rejected, passed a sweeping gun measure that requires firearm owners to pass a safety course, and expanded voting access through a law that allows automatic voter registration and in-person early voting.

Murphy also signed a bill into law to protect out-of-state patients seeking an abortion in New Jersey. He supports abortion at any time in a pregnancy, he told Insider.

Asked to respond to excerpts of the Murphy interview provided by Insider, the DeSantis team raised studies about test scores falling in New Jersey, a result tied to the pandemic, but otherwise deferred to the governor's previous comments on the topics. DeSantis has defended his rejection of the AP course by saying it contained "indoctrination" given that some courses included writings about queer theory and the prison abolition movement.

Asked about this response, Murphy replied: "God bless him. I don't agree."

Voting is typically seen as one referendum on candidates' policies. Murphy eked out a narrow reelection in 2021. DeSantis, on the other hand, won a landslide victory of 19 points in 2022, a record in Florida, which used to be seen as the largest battleground state in the US. How does Murphy explain the wide swath of support for a man he sees as so wrong on the issues? He said he couldn't.

"Whatever the reason, he has taken the state in the wrong direction," Murphy said. "And I think he'll pay a price for that ultimately."

According to US News & World Report's Best States rankings, New Jersey is the No. 1 state for education and No. 4 for healthcare. Florida is third for education and 25th for healthcare. Florida ranks higher than New Jersey on US News' economy category, and in the overall rankings.

Murphy offered up his contrasts between New Jersey and Florida in a meeting room at the oceanfront Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, where the Democratic Governors Association was having a conference. Though Democratic politicians bash Florida, the Palm Beach region is a draw for political events on both sides of the aisle because it's a hotspot for wealthy donors.

Most political insiders assume that DeSantis will run for president in 2024, even though he hasn't formally announced. He's widely expected to launch a bid in May or June, after Florida's session is over. The Florida governor recently has seen a drop in national polling in a hypothetical 2024 GOP presidential primary contest, but even his critics admit his approach to publicity works well for him.

"Politically, he's very savvy," Murphy said.

Presidential buzz often surrounds Murphy, too. A former Goldman Sachs executive and US ambassador to Germany during the Obama administration, Murphy told Insider he was "enthusiastically" supporting Biden for reelection in 2024. That hasn't stopped the rumor mill over which Democrats might jump into the race if Biden, 80, somehow bows out.

Aside from red-shifting Florida, Democrats do have reason to be hopeful that they can win elections in 2023 and 2024 given that congressional candidates didn't see the "red wave" many expected.

Murphy said governors had an opportunity to execute measures Biden signed into law, from the bipartisan infrastructure bill that'll fix ailing roads and bridges, to the Inflation Reduction Act that will put subsidies into renewable energy and reduce how much people spend on their healthcare.

"There's certainly a kick in our step at the DGA," Murphy said.