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Upcoming Newsom-DeSantis Debate Is a PR Gambit for Both Governors

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will play each other’s foils in a Fox News debate this month.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Florida Freedom Summit on November 4, 2023, in Kissimmee, Florida.

This November, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will journey to Georgia to take part in a Fox News debate. It is being touted as the battle of the up-and-comers and ought to bring a whole bunch more genuine political drama and tension to the debate stage than recent debates between GOP presidential hopefuls, minus Trump, most of whom are destined to remain bit players in the national game.

DeSantis is, surely, desperately hoping that if he can use the progressive California governor as his foil, it will kick-start his floundering challenge to GOP front-runner Donald Trump in the upcoming 2024 primary season. Newsom has made it increasingly clear, with his actions if not his words, that, if Biden steps aside in 2024, or, if Biden doesn’t step aside then come the next presidential cycle in 2028, he will be throwing his hat into the ring. And how better to tout his liberal credentials to a Democratic base than to take on the U.S.’s most high-profile conservative governor?

In the run-up to last year’s Florida gubernatorial election, DeSantis aggressively touted his flame-throwing brand of politics, signing laws such as the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which basically banned discussion of LGBTQ issues in K-12 classrooms. He also executed the PR stunt of bussing and flying undocumented migrants into Democratic strongholds such as Martha’s Vineyard — “taking it to the libs” in a way calculated to particularly antagonize immigrants’ rights advocates.

In the short term, DeSantis’s strategy worked; last November he easily won reelection. Since then, his hard-right drift has only intensified. He has gone to war against Disney and other corporations who have expressed unease at his efforts to banish LGBTQ themes from school and university classrooms. And, despite massive public support for maintaining abortion access in Florida, he signed off on one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws. He has also sought to fundamentally reshape public universities in the state, limiting the majors that can be offered and replacing liberal trustees in some institutions with a handpicked crew of conservatives.

Yet, this hard-right turn hasn’t done him any favors nationally: The MAGA crowd hasn’t peeled away from Trump and toward DeSantis, and more moderate Republicans seem unconvinced by his antics. He must be hoping that if he can deliver some knockout blows to Newsom later this month in the Fox debate, it will add much-needed oxygen to his campaign heading into the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary at the start of the nominating season.

The debate fits Newsom’s political needs too. For more than a year now, Newsom has used DeSantis as his perfect foil. In July 2022, he made the rather extraordinary choice to begin running television ads against the Florida governor, urging freedom-lovers to leave a state where their abortion rights, their private bedroom choices, and their access to the vote are under attack and to head west to California. It was one of the more creative acts of political trolling in recent U.S. history. Ever since then, as his national profile has increased, he’s been itching to bring this fight to a broader audience.

The California governor has a reputation of being an outspoken liberal. Yet, at the same time, he has been careful in recent months to seek a “middle ground,” perhaps in preparation for a national campaign. This legislative session, he vetoed a series of pro-trade union bills, including one that would have given striking workers the right to access unemployment benefits. And he has opposed providing social benefits (beyond some access to health care) for undocumented residents.

Newsom has gone out of his way to say he won’t run for president in 2024, but it’s difficult to believe he wouldn’t jump at the chance if the opportunity arose. For instance, what if Biden’s dismal poll numbers and the huge percentage of Democrats who say they believe the president’s age is an issue compels the party to find another baton-holder going into the 2024 election? Biden made the decision months ago to not put his name down in the New Hampshire primary; that was always a risky strategy, forcing the president’s supporters to write him in as a candidate; now, with Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips throwing his hat into the ring, it’s even riskier. For it’s at least possible that Phillips will win that primary. And, while the Minnesotan probably doesn’t have the chops to go all the way, if he damages Biden in early contests, suddenly it becomes more of a possibility that the president will step aside.

In such a scenario, Newsom, who has carved out a name for himself with his cutting-edge environmental policies, his opposition to the gun lobby and his outspoken defense of abortion rights, would be an obvious top-tier contender to replace him — that is, if he could finesse the awkwardness of taking on fellow-Californian Vice President Kamala Harris. Harris’s approval ratings are deeply underwater, yet as the sitting veep, were she to run the optics could become rather uncomfortable for Newsom. Even in the more likely scenario that Biden remains the nominee for 2024, Newsom continues to raise his national profile to increase his chances of becoming the Democratic nominee in 2028.

That national ambition explains his recent overseas trips to Israel and to China — in the latter of which he worked to secure cooperation in efforts to rein in the climate crisis. The more Newsom can use his status as leader of California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, to look like an international statesman, the better his chances of separating himself from the rest of the field of next generation Democratic Party hopefuls.

For DeSantis, it’s a heavier lift. A little under a year ago, in the wake of the no-show red wave in the midterms, when pundits largely blamed Trump’s ongoing influence over candidates for scaring off independent voters, DeSantis briefly shot to front-runner status in the GOP nominating contest, with more than half of GOP voters saying he was their favored candidate. Today, after months of failing to distinguish himself and his message on the campaign trail — including a dismal announcement of his candidacy on a Twitter livestream that crashed multiple times — he’s struggling to maintain second place, with Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy threatening to make him an also-also-ran candidate by dumping him into third or even fourth place. Polling shows that Haley and DeSantis are roughly neck and neck as the second-choice candidate of GOP voters. That’s important because, if Trump ever implodes, if his myriad legal woes ever catch up with him and start corroding his devotee’s support, it’s not at all clear that DeSantis stands to reap the benefit.

Coming back to the November 30 debate: DeSantis and Newsom may loathe each other, but they also need each other. Both candidates know how to frame their pet issues well, both are good debaters and both appear firmly committed to their political causes, rightly or wrongly. Both, too, have an awful lot of skin in this particular game. If the moderators get out of the way and let these two go at it, it should make for a night of fascinating television.

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