What you need to know about the California governor debate

Gov. Gavin Newsom (left) and challenger Brian Dahle held their only election debate Sunday at KQED in San Francisco.

By Alexei Koseff 
CalMatters Government Writer 

After months of an extraordinarily quiet race, in which Gov. Gavin Newsom has barely even acknowledged his own campaign for re-election, the Democrat came out blazing Sunday in the only gubernatorial debate, relentlessly attacking his Republican challenger as a stooge of oil companies who has obstructed his every effort to solve the biggest problems facing California. 

The barrage — at times remarkably personal, as when Newsom warned that his “extreme” anti-abortion opponent would force 10-year-old incest victims to carry a pregnancy to term — seemed to stun Brian Dahle, a state senator and farmer from rural Northern California, who struggled to respond to some of the criticism. 

But Dahle was clear in his message to voters, who will decide this fall whether to give Newsom a second term in the governor’s office: Despite billions of dollars in new funding for everything from schools to homeless services, California is worse off than it’s ever been because Newsom’s solutions are the wrong ones. 

He accused the governor of focusing more on national issues than those plaguing the state, a claim that Dahle has repeated with increasing frequency in recent months as Newsom launched broadsides against the leaders of GOP states and speculation mounted that he is laying the groundwork to seek higher office. 

“I want to start out by thanking the governor for taking time out of going forward on his dream of being president of the United States and actually coming to California and having a debate,” Dahle said. “Californians are suffering. They’re fleeing California and they’re going to other states where he’s campaigning nationally.” 

The exchange prompted the debate moderators to ask Newsom whether he would commit to serving out the full four years should he win another term. 

“Yes,” Newsom said. “And I’ve barely been out of state. I was out of state for a few hours to take on his party and [the] leader of his party, Donald Trump, who he is a passionate supporter of.” 

The one-hour debate, hosted by KQED at its San Francisco headquarters, is unlikely to change the contours of a race that public polls show Newsom is expected to win by double digits. It aired live on the radio and online Sunday afternoon, as many viewers were tuned to NFL games instead.  

Reporters, who were initially offered access to the studio where the candidates debated, watched a livestream from a separate room. A spokesperson for KQED declined to comment on why journalists were barred from attending in person. 

Here are some of the other highlights: 

‘Extreme’ positions on abortion 

Newsom immediately sought to draw a contrast with Dahle on abortion. While the governor has spent millions to air a television ad touting Proposition 1, a ballot measure that would put the right to abortion into the state constitution, a campaign account controlled by Dahle donated $20,000 this month to defeat it. 

Dahle, who calls himself “pro-life,” denied that. A spokesperson later said it was an in-kind contribution, because Dahle’s campaign shared polling it had conducted with opponents of Proposition 1. 

“You’re not pro-life. You’re pro-government-mandated birth,” Newsom said. “What my opponent believes is some 10-year-old that’s raped by her father should be forced to bear her brother or sister. His position is extreme.” 

Dahle did not discuss the specifics of his beliefs about abortion. He instead lambasted Newsom for adding hundreds of millions of dollars in new money for abortion services in the latest state budget, including $20 million to help women from outside California travel here for the procedure. 

“He wants to make this a sanctuary state where all of Americans can come here and get an abortion at the expense of California taxpayers,” Dahle said. “I know that’s a great platform when you’re running for the president of the United States. But here in California, people are struggling, and yes, I would absolutely take that out of the budget.” 

Yet Dahle said that, as governor, he would allow some funding for abortion services if necessary to reach a budget deal with a Democratic-controlled Legislature. 

Bringing down gas prices 

Dahle focused on the high cost of living in California, as exemplified by gasoline prices that are nearly $2 per gallon more than the national average. 

He said the state is affordable only for Newsom’s wealthy friends, blaming overly burdensome environmental regulations and climate policies that Dahle believes are the wrong priority at a time when the state is deep in drought and struggled to keep the lights on during a recent historic heat wave. 

“We have no water. We have no electricity. We have no plan,” Dahle said. 

Rather than the inflation relief rebates that the state began sending out to most Californians this month, or the special session that Newsom plans to call later this year to tax oil industry profits, Dahle once again urged Newsom to suspend the state’s gas tax, which he argued would provide more immediate assistance to drivers. 

Newsom denounced Dahle’s answers as ripped from “Big Oil’s talking points.” The governor bragged that gas prices were down 65 cents per gallon since their peak after he ordered the state to transition early to its cheaper “winter blend” of fuel. Prices remain so much higher than the rest of the country, he said, because the oil industry is gouging Californians. 

“There’s no justification — none, whatsoever — for these outrageous, usurious costs,” he said. 

All talk, no progress? 

By the end of their hour together, the candidates fell into a familiar pattern. 

Newsom would trumpet some historic funding in the latest state budget — the highest per-pupil spending ever for K-12 schools, two dozen positions in the Department of Justice to combat fentanyl trafficking, a new court to compel more homeless people into treatment — and blast Dahle for voting against it.  

Then Dahle would counter that it was all talk and Newsom had done nothing to actually solve the problem. 

“The governor talks really slick and smooth about all of these processes he’s doing,” Dahle said. “What he’s done in the last four years is throw money at every single issue, more than there’s ever been. And what are the results for Californians?” 

Take their exchange on the drought, which has only worsened this year even as Newsom implored Californians to reduce their water usage. The governor said his plan was “not just about a mindset of scarcity,” but “also about creating more water” by building additional storage. 

Dahle shot back that the proposed Sites Reservoir in Northern California has yet to start construction nearly a decade after state voters approved bonds for the project. Newsom said he is seeking federal funding to help cover the $5.2 billion cost, while Dahle noted that a nearly $100 billion projected surplus in this year’s budget easily could have paid for it. 

“In four years, not one shovelful of dirt,” Dahle said. “Talk is cheap, governor. You’ve got to perform.” 

Dahle also hit Newsom for the homelessness crisis in California. Though the governor made it a priority of his first term, the number of people sleeping on the streets has only increased. 

Newsom cited an innovative program he launched during the coronavirus pandemic, transforming vacant hotels and motels into homeless housing, and said he was ramping up pressure on local governments to take the problem more seriously. 

“It’s an outrage. It’s unconscionable what’s happening on the streets and sidewalks. That’s why we’re requiring accountability plans,” Newsom said. “We’re not going to hand out any money any longer if local governments can’t produce real results.” 

By contrast, he said, Dahle’s plan for solving homelessness — including banning encampments near sensitive areas such as schools — is “illusory.” 

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