Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley is increasingly targeting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on environmental issues, assailing his policy record on climate and energy in his state at multiple GOP presidential debates as the two jostle for second in the party’s primary.
DeSantis appeared to come out ahead of Haley in Wednesday night’s fourth Republican debate, hosted by The Hill’s sister news organization NewsNation, which saw the Florida governor go on the offensive against the onetime UN ambassador and the subject of his environmental record go unmentioned. That marked a notable contrast with the previous two debates, in which Haley mounted a number of sharp attacks against DeSantis on the issue as she worked to build momentum both in the polls and among anti-Trump donors as the leading alternative to the former president.
She broached the subject at the second Republican debate in September, accusing the Florida governor of undermining his own presidential campaign pledges to ramp up fossil fuel production with his policies as governor. Specifically, she pointed to his opposition to fracking, the process of fracturing rock to extract natural gas, as well as offshore drilling in the Sunshine State.
DeSantis countered that Floridians voted in a ballot initiative to ban offshore drilling, with Haley in turn pointing to his opposition to fracking in Florida independent of any ballot initiative.
Haley went further in the third debate, saying DeSantis “was praised by the Sierra Club, and you’re trying to make up for it and act like you weren’t a liberal when it comes to the environment. You were, you always have been, just own it if that’s the case, but don’t keep saying you’re something that you’re not.”
SFA Fund, a super PAC that backs Haley, has worked to further broadcast her attacks, cutting an ad featuring clips from that exchange. The ad features misleadingly cropped quotes, however, as noted in a Washington Post fact-check.
DeSantis, who leads a state on the front lines of climate change, has a broadly pro-fossil fuels record as governor. He has also clashed with the environmental lobby and misleadingly argued there remains a “debate” about the effects of climate change at the first GOP debate. However, in his first gubernatorial run in 2018, he did speak in opposition to fracking, citing its potential hazards to Florida’s geologic makeup.
DeSantis echoed those concerns in the third debate, saying, “We are absolutely going to frack, but I disagree with Nikki Haley. I don’t think it’s a good idea to drill in the Florida Everglades, and I know most Floridians agree with me.”
Florida is not a major oil producer, and opposition to offshore drilling on its coast is a mainstream Republican position shared by its two GOP senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. DeSantis’s GOP primary opponent in the 2018 gubernatorial race opposed fracking in the state, as well.
As for the Sierra Club, the environmental group did offer commendations in 2019 for DeSantis’s moves to protect the Everglades. However, it has assigned him an “F” grade on his environmental record for 2023, as Sierra Club Deputy Communications Director Jonathon Berman noted.
Sarah Burton, the Sierra Club’s political director, further pushed back on Haley associating DeSantis with the environmental group in a statement to The Hill.
“That Ron DeSantis is proud of his record of endangering Floridians’ clean air and water, of restricting and undermining a clean energy future, and failing to address the insurance crisis making his state unaffordable for millions that have long called the state home should appall us all,” she said. “The fact that Nikki Haley believes this disastrous record is something the Sierra Club would endorse is incomprehensible.”
The Haley campaign also referred The Hill to DeSantis’s record on ethanol as a member of Congress prior to his governorship. During his time in the House, DeSantis co-sponsored legislation to end the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires oil refiners to blend a minimum amount of biofuel into the U.S.’s transportation fuel.
Ethanol is a pivotal issue in the early primary state of Iowa, where Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) has endorsed DeSantis. DeSantis has said he would protect the mandate as president.
In a statement to The Hill, the DeSantis campaign hit back at Haley over her own past policies.
“Ron DeSantis released the most detailed energy plan of any candidate in this race to restore American energy dominance and is boldly committed to returning the price of gas to $2 a gallon in 2025 by drilling for oil in U.S. oil-rich shale deposits like the Marcellus and Bakken,” Bryan Griffin, the DeSantis campaign press secretary, said. “Nikki Haley, on the other hand, supported a massive gas tax increase as governor of South Carolina and would be a disaster for the wallets of working families.”
A DeSantis spokesperson also referred The Hill to The Washington Post’s fact-check of the SFA Fund campaign ad.
Haley’s attacks on DeSantis’s record obfuscate the distinction between his priorities as governor and those he would have as president, said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist from southwest Florida.
“If [Haley] was governor of Florida I’m not sure she’d be doing anything different,” O’Connell told The Hill. “I see what she’s trying to say, she’s trying to say that Ron DeSantis is not who he says he is. But every Republican agrees on day one they’re going to unleash American energy. When it comes to American energy and it comes to environmental concerns, they’re pretty much all on the same page.”
“How you’re going to run Florida and how you’re going to be as president of the United States are two very different things,” he added.
Haley ramping up her rhetoric against DeSantis comes at a pivotal moment for her candidacy. DeSantis, once viewed as the heir to former President Trump’s dominance of the party, has faltered in direct competition with him, and anti-Trump Republicans increasingly view Haley as the best available alternative to the former president and Republican front-runner. Since the third debate, she’s secured the backing of Americans for Prosperity Action, the campaign arm of conservative mega-donor Charles Koch’s advocacy group. Recent polling has shown her on the brink of supplanting DeSantis for a still-distant second place behind the former president.
“This is about trying to say that you are the other candidate in the race against Donald Trump,” O’Connell said.
Trump’s front-runner status looms large in the ways the GOP candidates discuss climate and energy as well. The former president has falsely called climate change a “hoax” and vowed to restore the industry-friendly policies that marked his first term if reelected in 2024. Few of his competitors have strayed far from such rhetoric, and the two Republican candidates who have argued in favor of reducing carbon emissions — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez — have already dropped out of the race. In the first GOP debate, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the only candidate to raise his hand when moderators asked if they believed the global scientific consensus that climate change was caused by human activity.
Although Trump is comfortably ahead of all his competitors, he has declined to participate in the GOP primary debates, and with the number of candidates appearing onstage dwindling, the stakes have grown higher than ever for both Haley and DeSantis.
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