Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley traded barbs during Wednesday evening’s GOP presidential primary debate over their past positions on bathroom access for transgender people, with both candidates launching accusations against one another on the issue.
The tense exchange between the GOP presidential hopefuls came during the fourth Republican presidential primary debate, which was held on the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, after DeSantis claimed Haley ‘killed’ a bill during her term as governor of South Carolina that would have prevented biological males from using female restrooms.
‘You know, they had a bill to say that men shouldn’t go into girls’ bathrooms and she killed that bill, and she brags that she killed that bill. Even to this day she brags that,’ DeSantis claimed during the event. ‘I don’t think men should be going into little girls’ bathrooms. I think it’s wrong.’
In response, Haley accused the Florida governor of lying about the matter.
‘First of all, Ron has continued to lie because he’s losing,’ Haley said.
‘That’s not a lie. You said it on tape,’ DeSantis interjected.
‘You are lying,’ she quipped. ‘I will say, when I was governor, 10 years ago when the bathroom situation came up, we had maybe a handful of kids that were dealing with an issue.’
Explaining her positioning on the issue at the time during Wednesday’s debate, Haley said she believed there wasn’t a ‘need to bring government into’ the situation and insisted that boys should ‘go into boys’ bathrooms and girls go into girls’ bathrooms.’
Recognizing that the ‘issue has exploded’ from what it was during her tenure as governor, Haley said she believed at the time that anyone who had an issue with that policy should ‘use a private bathroom.’
‘This shows how hypocritical Ron continues to be,’ she added. ‘When he was running for governor and they asked him about that he said he didn’t think bathroom bills were a good use of his time. You can go look that up.’
‘I signed a bathroom bill in Florida, so that’s obviously not true,’ he responded.
‘The idea that you would say I was against it –’ Haley said before being cut off.
‘I signed it, you didn’t,’ DeSantis told Haley. ‘You killed it, I signed it. I stood up for little girls, you didn’t do it.’
DeSantis also claimed he had spoken with South Carolina legislators from the time who told him that the reason the measure was raised was because boys were going into girls’ bathrooms in some Palmetto State schools.
‘There was this going on,’ he said. ‘I was actually just in South Carolina. Some of the legislators told me at the time there were boys going into the girls’ bathroom. That’s the whole reason why they did it.’
‘No, no, no, no, no,’ Haley interjected.
‘And so they say when she does that explanation that that doesn’t hold water,’ he added. ‘This is the upstate of South Carolina. I signed the bill. I protected the girls. She did not do it. I know that.’
Haley strongly rejected DeSantis’ premise, saying that South Carolina officials ‘never allowed that to happen’ and that it wasn’t as big of an issue at the time.
‘You are not going to talk about my state like that because I will tell you for a fact South Carolinians never allowed that to happen and we did not have that issue at the time,’ she said. ‘What I have always said is boys go into a boys’ bathroom, girls go into a girls’ bathroom.… But I also say that biological boys shouldn’t be playing in girls’ sports and I will do everything I can to stop that because it’s the women’s issue of our time.’
Attempting to simmer the conversation, the three debate moderators told the candidates they were moving on, but not before DeSantis said, ‘I actually get this stuff done.’
Though DeSantis was correct in concluding that the bill went nowhere and Haley had criticized it, the South Carolina measure, which would have applied to public and school restrooms, never made it to Haley’s desk because it didn’t make it out of committee.
In 2016, Haley said she didn’t believe it was ‘necessary’ at the time to pass a bill forcing individuals in the state to use a bathroom that aligned with their sex.
Discussing the same bill during a 2022 appearance on Fox News Channel, Haley said she ‘strong-armed’ the bill and insisted that they weren’t ‘gonna have that in South Carolina’ because she believed schools should work directly with parents on the issue.
But Haley’s point about DeSantis’ past support for certain bathroom bills also stands, though he ultimately signed into law a measure in May 2023 that prevents transgender people from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity in public schools, universities, government buildings and prisons.
Prior to that action, however, DeSantis insisted that bathroom issues were not a top concern of his in 2018.
Asked by moderator Frank Luntz during a GOP gubernatorial forum whether he would support or oppose a law that would allow a transgender person to pick the bathroom that they choose, DeSantis responded, ‘I would not pass a law. I would leave it as it is and stay out of that.’
‘Obviously, I’d have to read the bill, but I think getting into the bathroom wars – I don’t think that’s a good use of our time,’ he added at the time.