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'Like a boxing match': Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom embrace ‘risk’ in surprise debate

The two governors, on opposite ends of the aisle, have agreed to a debate moderated by Fox News host Sean Hannity. The result could have big implications for their political futures.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have agreed to a debate, to be moderated by Fox News' Sean Hannity.AP; AFP

Peter Thiel, the billionaire tech entrepreneur and benefactor of right-wing causes, opened last year’s National Conservatism Conference in Miami with a dense slideshow presentation during which he argued that regardless of whom Democrats nominate for president, their model for governance will mirror the social and economic policies of California.

Thiel contended it was imperative for conservatives to coalesce around a model that ran counter to California. And there was one he saw that could fit the bill.

“[Gov. Ron] DeSantis in Florida is probably the best of the governors in terms of offering a real alternative to California,” Thiel said, “[who has] tried to tackle California in some ways.”

Almost a full year later, DeSantis, who followed Thiel as a keynote speaker at the conference, is seeking to seize upon the California vs. Florida debate in an effort to juice his stalled presidential campaign. 

Last week, DeSantis accepted an invitation from California Gov. Gavin Newsom — who has for months sought to challenge DeSantis face-to-face — to participate in a debate hosted by Fox News host Sean Hannity. The event is so far framed around the many policy differences between the two governors. But with both men either actively running for president or widely viewed to someday seek the office, it’s highly likely their personal differences will be on display, too.

As political strategists on both sides of the aisle told NBC News, DeSantis’ acceptance was not coming from a place of strength; he agreed to the challenge as his poll numbers have been trailing off and he seeks to reset his campaign

What’s more, the one-on-one showdown carries considerable risk for the Florida governor, these strategists said, should he stumble or falter in the setting. With Newsom not running for president, DeSantis is taking time to confront an opponent who isn’t actually an opponent for 2024. 

But some strategists said this still is a risk worth taking for DeSantis, in no small part because of the interest a California vs. Florida contest could draw in prime time.

“It’s a decent idea because Ron DeSantis has to find a way to break through and make some news on his own that’s not about Donald Trump,” Justin Clark, Trump’s 2020 deputy campaign manager and GOP pollster with National Public Affairs, said. “This does carry some risk — it’s not a Hail Mary, but it’s going for it on 4th down late in the first half.” 

While DeSantis’ campaign has signaled it will lessen its focus on Florida to emphasize a broader message, the pending debate shows Sunshine State politics remain where the candidate finds his strongest footing.

“This gimmick is a sign of internal desperation after firing one-third of the staff amid a monthlong reset,” a Republican operative working with a rival campaign said. “If DeSantis and his team finally engaging with mainstream media interviews wasn’t a sign of how tough it’s gotten for him, this sure is.”

The event is not without risk for Newsom, either. For starters, it will be moderated by a right-wing opinion host — although Newsom’s calculus is that having Hannity moderate neutralizes a leading reason for DeSantis not to participate. Should DeSantis come across well, scoring points on Newsom in the process, the California governor could inadvertently play a role in boosting DeSantis’ GOP primary campaign while harming his own prospects for higher office.

At the same time, a strong performance could help elevate the California governor in what, for now, is a shadow 2028 campaign, in which Newsom is already considered a top-tier contender alongside fellow Democratic governors like J.B. Pritzker in Illinois, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris. 

Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist who formerly worked at the Democratic Governors Association, said the only thing that surprised him in this process was the selection of Hannity as moderator.

“There is some risk, but there’s also a real potential reward in going into the lion’s den and coming out unscathed,” he said. “Newsom is basically agreeing to do this on DeSantis’ turf. And it’s going to take a lot of prep. But if he can go in and he can clearly state his case despite the stacked odds, it can be a huge win for him and it’s a big stage.”

It’s a big stage that will allow Newsom to tell a story about California nationally — a story he “will tell as whatever point that he runs for national office,” Leopold said.

“Politics is showmanship and this is a huge opportunity to put on a good show,” Leopold added. “Having this sort of prime-time fight, like a boxing match, it’s a venue where you can reach people because people want to see that kind of battle.”

Newsom has pledged not to run for president in 2024, but he has for the past year sought to take the fight to leading Republicans, including DeSantis. He made headlines last year after joining Trump’s social media site, Truth Social, and launched ads in Florida targeting DeSantis’ positions on education and abortion rights. The two governors have also repeatedly tangled on Covid, crime, guns and immigration — including in June when Newsom told NBC News he was planning to launch an investigation into planes of migrants flown to California, which were orchestrated by DeSantis’ administration.

The Newsom/DeSantis battle began amid a wider effort by Democrats in 2022 to redefine the argument around personal “freedoms” as culture war battles championed by DeSantis dominated the midterm landscape. Though DeSantis overwhelmingly won re-election, Democrats implemented such messaging to great success, besting Republicans in a number of critical swing-state races where it was prominently featured. 

For DeSantis and like-minded allies, though, the Florida vs. California debate isn’t much of a fight. DeSantis has contrasted Florida’s increasing population (which the Census Bureau projected has risen by about 700,000 from April 2020 to July 2022) with California’s decreasing population (which the Census Bureau projected has decreased by about 500,000 from April 2020 to July 2022) as evidence that his model isn’t just winning, it’s already won.

In a memo to supporters, DeSantis’ campaign argued the candidate is squaring off with Newsom “to highlight the choice facing American voters next year."

“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,” the memo read.

Speaking with NBC News in a recent interview, DeSantis said next fall’s general election will essentially be a choice between wanting the country run like Florida or like California.

“[President Joe] Biden basically would like to Californicate the United States,” he said. “Biden also may not be the nominee. You could have Kamala from California. You could have Newsom.”            

It is not yet a sure thing the debate will take place, though both parties have now hyped the showdown. On Saturday, Nathan Click, a Newsom spokesperson, slammed DeSantis’ counter on the conditions for the debate as “a joke” that was “littered with crutches to hide his insecurity and ineptitude."                             

Newsom’s initial debate offer stated the governor wanted both men to use no notes, that the contest would feature no live audience and that both men would have four minutes of opening remarks. DeSantis’ counter called for a live audience, both governors being able to use a pen and paper during the program and opening statements swapped for a two-minute long hype video at the start of the debate. The two offered varying dates and locations but both included Nov. 8 and Georgia in their proposals.

Meanwhile, a person familiar with the Republican National Committee's debate criteria said DeSantis' face-off with Newsom would not violate the RNC’s requirement that candidates who appear in its approved debates do not participate in unsanctioned primary debates.

“This battle has the mystique of what the World Series used to be,” Leopold said of when Major League Baseball’s championship round marked the only time when American League and National League teams faced off in games that counted. “Because you have these two separate worlds where California can talk about investing in clean energy, and investing in programs that help the social safety net. And Florida has dismantled all of that. And there’s a real contrast in stories and it’s playing out in real time, as opposed to just a hypothetical.”

A second Republican aligned with a rival candidate said that although the event “reeks a little bit of desperation” since Newsom is not on the ballot next fall, a good showing by DeSantis could be beneficial for Republicans broadly.

“Gavin has most to gain from this because it just grants legitimacy to his shadow campaign-in-waiting in hopes that Biden doesn’t run in 2024,” this person said. “If DeSantis does well — and to be quite frank, if you’ve watched his debate videos, it’s hit or miss — then it’s a plus for Republicans. But it really is a toss-up. And there’s so many different factors you have to consider here.”

One factor, of course, is whether people even tune in. 

“I mean, I watched the 2016 debates with popcorn,” this operative said of whether they will watch. “So probably, yeah. Just for the entertainment factor.”