As California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) consider an in-person face-off this fall, strategists across the political spectrum see a shared opportunity for the governors to position themselves as the future of their respective bases.
While Newsom has for months been seeking to debate DeSantis — and both governors are notorious for slamming each other’s policies — only in the past couple weeks did plans for a televised tete-a-tete become semi-official. Newsom sent Fox News’s Sean Hannity an offer delineating his terms of participation at the end of July, after which DeSantis followed up with his own counterproposal.
The proposed debate comes as DeSantis struggles to gain traction against former President Trump in the Republican presidential primary after he was touted as a viable alternative to replace Trump as the party’s standard bearer.
Democrats say that Newsom, on the other hand, is increasingly being viewed as a leading candidate in the 2028 race or even as a possible alternative to President Biden if he quits the 2024 race.
“There is no downside at all for Newsom,” Daniel Schnur, a Republican-turned-Independent political strategist, told The Hill.
“If Biden does run for reelection next year, this is excellent national exposure for the future. If Biden were to step aside, Newsom will have positioned himself as a plausible successor,” said Schnur, who teaches political communications at several California universities.
“Either way, this is an immense boost to Newsom’s profile and will be of great benefit to him at some point,” he added.
Republicans say the debate provides an opportunity for both candidates.
“I think there’s a lot of upside in it for Gov. DeSantis and quite frankly, there’s upside in it for Gov. Newsom for the same reason,” said Justin Sayfie, a Florida-based Republican strategist.
“In the current political age we’re living in, voters want to see that the people they’re going to vote for can win the rhetorical battle against the other side,” he continued. “This gives both candidates an opportunity to showcase that.”
The debate also gives DeSantis, 44, the opportunity to emerge in the public eye as the future of the Republican Party — and as a candidate with the strength to take on Newsom, who at 55 is seen as one of the Democratic party’s younger stars.
“That debate stage later this month will be crowded with a bunch of other Republicans on it,” Sayfie said. “This gives DeSantis an opportunity not to share the stage with any other Republicans.”
Trump has dominated the Republican primary polls and news cycle, making it difficult for the Florida governor to break out of second place.
“Hunter [Biden] and Joe [Biden] and Donald Trump are taking up all of the media oxygen. So this is a way the DeSantis team feels that they can get the spotlight on them,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist.
“it’s the inability to get the media to focus on what he’s saying or on his campaign,” O’Connell said. “That is really what I see that debate being about.”
In a memo sent to donors and supporters last week, DeSantis’s team emphasized that the debate was not about “California vs. Florida.”
“Ron DeSantis is debating Gavin Newsom to highlight the choice facing American voters next year,” the memo reads. “The left wants America to follow the path of California’s decline — Ron DeSantis wants to reignite the American Dream, restore sanity and ensure our nation’s best days are ahead.”
However, DeSantis’s campaign did not hesitate to compare the two states in the memo, declaring that California “embodies American decline, while Florida is the blueprint for the Great American Comeback.”
“I absolutely think the debate with Gov. Newsom is a good idea,” said Dan Eberhart, a DeSantis donor. “It gives Gov. DeSantis a platform to talk about what he’s done effectively in Florida and a successful red state’s vision for the future of America.”
The debate, which is likely to occur in November, was initially proposed by Newsom’s team, who on July 28 sent Hannity an email suggesting a televised “Red v. Blue Debate” that would focus “on the impact of representation at the state level.”
Within the proposal were stipulations that the two governors be the only speakers at the 90-minute, in-studio debate, which would be solely moderated by Hannity and aired live on Fox News.
While the governors would not be able to bring notes on stage, they would have access to a pen and pad during their conversation, per the proposal. Hannity would “ask all questions, ensure that equal time is maintained and that governors do not interrupt each other during their designated time to speak.”
A coin toss would determine which governor speaks first, with each person receiving four minutes maximum for an opening address. The loser would make the first closing remarks, which would be up to two minutes each. During the debate, the participants would take turns responding to questions in 90 seconds, with the same amount of time allocated for a rebuttal.
Newsom and his team suggested Nevada, Georgia or North Carolina as potential locations for the debate, due to their positions as either battleground or purple states. They offered Nov. 8 or 10 — immediately after the 2023 Election Day — as possible dates for the debate.
DeSantis’s counteroffer suggested that the governors each record a video “to make the case for their governing philosophy” instead of offering opening statements, according to a memo first obtained by Politico. Additionally, the proposal called for the forum to be held in front of a live audience.
Nathan Click, a spokesperson for Newsom, characterized DeSantis’s counterproposal as “a joke,” in a written statement shared with The Hill.
He described the offer as “littered with crutches to hide his insecurity and ineptitude,” while accusing the Florida governor of “swapping opening statements with a hype video, cutting down the time he needs to be on stage, adding cheat notes and a cheering section.”
“Ron should be able to stand on his own two feet,” Click continued. “It’s no wonder Trump is kicking his ass.”
Evaluating the potential pros and cons of holding such a debate, political scientist Eric Schickler deemed the proposed event as “mostly reward for Newsom.”
“It’s unlikely that Democratic voters would judge him as losing this debate, and so in that sense, it only raises his profile,” Schickler, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Hill.
Newsom comes in with the advantage of not only being “a pretty good debater,” but also with the feelings of intense dislike for DeSantis among Democrats, according to Schickler.
“You want to be a part of the conversation — seen as a Democrat who can really take on the Republicans,” the professor said. “Being one of the handful of Democrats who are seen as strong potential 2028 candidates is important.”
He acknowledged, however, that the positive impact for Newsom could become less powerful if DeSantis’s potential as a presidential candidate continues to weaken.
“When [Newsom] issued the invitation initially, DeSantis seemed like the most likely alternative to Trump and potentially the person who beat Trump,” Schickler said.
“For Newsom to beat DeSantis or be seen as taking him on is a kind of feather in his cap — it’s maybe a little less so if DeSantis continues to fade,” he added.
Schicker also referred to the likelihood that DeSantis would try to attack Newsom on certain local issues, including the Florida governor’s claims that Californians are flocking to his state.
“The problems California is having — with housing, homelessness and so on — certainly is a big obstacle, probably the most significant obstacle facing Newsom,” he said, stressing a need for demonstrable progress on these matters.
On the other hand, however, Newsom is also likely to call out DeSantis on many of Florida’s contentious issues, including secondary and higher education and abortion, Schickler added.
Schnur, the Republican-turned-Independent strategist, echoed these sentiments, noting that in addition to gaining national media attention, Newsom could gain “tremendous political benefit” at home in California as well.
“He is facing some very difficult fights on housing, health care, homelessness and environmental policy, all of which divide Democratic voters,” Schnur said. “The debate is an ideal way to remind his supporters here that he is on their side.”