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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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‘A brilliant move’: How the Newsom-DeSantis debate offers major upsides for the governors


Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis took parallel paths from opposite ends of America’s political spectrum to the front lines of the high-stakes battle between progressives and conservatives over the future of the nation.

But when they finally meet on stage Thursday in Georgia, the stakes are low for both politicians in a debate about their vastly different visions for the country.

“For both of them there is a significant amount of upside opportunity here,” said Lanhee Chen, a former Republican candidate for state controller and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “It’s kind of a brilliant move on both Newsom and DeSantis’ part.”

The long-awaited showdown on Fox News gives DeSantis, the governor of Florida, an opportunity to lift his fading presidential campaign. Once considered the heir apparent of Donald Trump, DeSantis’ “anti-woke,” right-wing campaign has languished in the shadow of the former president and failed to build a strong base of support in the crowded GOP president primary.

For Newsom, the debate helps burnish his image as a liberal firebrand leading Democrats into battle with Republicans for the soul of the country. The contest elevates the California governor’s standing as a top surrogate for President Biden and cements Newsom’s place on a list of potential future presidential nominees.

“In a worst case scenario, Democrats think he won and Republicans think he lost, so I don’t think there’s much risk,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist based in Washington, D.C. “It’s a bold step and you know, some people may say it’s political, but even if people think it’s political they will love it when he’s giving Ron DeSantis, who Democrats despise, a hard time.”

Newsom’s political team isn’t worried that the debate could help DeSantis’ campaign. Recent polls show DeSantis is vying against Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, for a distant second to Trump in the 2024 Republican primary.

“Let’s call it like it is: The Republican race for president is essentially over,” said Sean Clegg, one of Newsom’s senior political advisors. “We’re more concerned about the attack on democracy and the particular brand of anti-democratic, anti-freedom legislation coming out of the state of Florida, and I think we’re going to have a robust discussion about that.”

Newsom has been itching for the one-on-one debate with DeSantis for more than a year.

The California governor ran ads in Florida on the Fourth of July last year attacking DeSantis and his push to restrict civil rights and abortion and LGBTQ+ protections, accusing the Republican-led state of undercutting basic American freedoms.

In August of that year, Newsom donated $100,000 to DeSantis’ Democratic opponent in the 2022 Florida gubernatorial election. He challenged DeSantis to the debate the next month after the Florida governor sent a group of new migrants in Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.

“Hey [DeSantis], clearly you’re struggling, distracted, and busy playing politics with people’s lives,” Newsom posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Since you have only one overriding need — attention — let’s take this up & debate. I’ll bring my hair gel. You bring your hairspray. Name the time before Election Day.”

In interviews, Newsom accused DeSantis of being a “bully,” taking particular offense with the Florida governor’s effort to prevent the Special Olympics from requiring vaccine mandates for its at-risk athletes. Newsom said his own late mother worked with the Special Olympics.

After DeSantis went to battle against Disney when the company publicly opposed his Florida law banning instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, Newsom posted a video of himself at Disneyland in Anaheim at the first LGBTQ+ Pride Night.

The governor, his advisors and Democratic strategists were surprised when DeSantis agreed to the debate more than a year after Newsom first challenged him. DeSantis accepted the invitation in August when asked by Fox News host Sean Hannity.

“We never thought Ron DeSantis was going to take the bait to agree to this debate. We never did,” Clegg said. “It wasn’t an empty gesture. The governor is doing the debate and Ron DeSantis only agreed to it a year later because his campaign hit the skids.”

Though DeSantis has faced criticism for taking the time to spar with a political rival who isn’t even in the presidential contest, Chen said the debate gives DeSantis an effective foil to elevate his campaign in a way that other candidates in the GOP primary should envy.

“There’s no downside and only upside for DeSantis,” Chen said. “They’re each going to make points that will talk past each other. But it’s really about the exposure and the chance for him to speak to issues that he feels he’s strong on.”

Unlike in the GOP primary debates, DeSantis won’t have to fight to talk over a half-dozen other candidates on Thursday to connect with a national audience. Similar to how the debate gives Newsom an opportunity to build his brand, it also sets DeSantis up to position himself as a national leader into the future, Chen said.

“If this does not go the way he hopes in 2024, then he’ll be around for several more cycles to come and positioned as a national leader,” Chen said.

The seeds of the rivalry were planted during the COVID-19 pandemic when the governors took diametrically different approaches to the public health crisis.

Concerned about the potential that seriously ill patients could overrun California hospitals, Newsom used his executive powers to institute a stay-at-home order and restricted the ability of businesses to open to the public in order to reduce transmissions. For more than a year, the Democratic governor imposed an evolving series of restrictions on public gatherings and enacted mask mandates, before eventually announcing that the state was “turning the page” on the pandemic in June 2021.

After an initial, short-lived shutdown, DeSantis took the opposite route, choosing to forgo sweeping rules and to allow Floridians to live largely without restrictions for much of the pandemic. He went a step further and banned local governments, educational institutions and private companies from imposing vaccine mandates on Florida residents.

Newsom and California became a model of science-based governing and collective efforts to protect the most vulnerable. DeSantis and Florida served as a model for individual freedom.

Their radically different approaches drew comparisons across the country. DeSantis catapulted to conservative fame as a hero for the right and villain of the left. Newsom became a regular target on Fox News and found himself facing a GOP-led recall in 2021.

After soundly defeating the attempt to remove him from office and easily winning reelection the following year, Newsom focused on resuscitating what he considered to be a listless national Democratic Party. He criticized national Democrats for failing to fight back against the GOP and launched his own campaign earlier this year to raise money for Democrats in the 2024 election and push back on GOP governors like DeSantis.

The debate allows Newsom to continue to set himself apart from other future presidential candidates, said Bill Burton, a Democratic political strategist and former aide to President Obama.

“Newsom engaging in a low-stakes conversation with one of the leading Republicans in the country is probably helpful to the progressive movement overall because it helps to humanize the choice that voters actually have before them in 2024,” Burton said. “The other upside is showing himself as a good team player as a surrogate for Biden.”

The prime-time spot gives Newsom a chance to sell his California vision to the rest of the country and build up his list of small donors and national volunteers if he decides to run for president in 2028, said Lake. Though Newsom is not running for president next year, a recent poll conducted by YouGov found voters would be pretty evenly split between him and DeSantis if they were running against one another now.

The political dichotomy will also make for an interesting back-and-forth.

“It’s just going to be such a juicy contrast to have the Disney governors, two governors that are on the opposite coasts with sea levels rising, the two governors with huge economies,” Lake said. “I think a lot of Democrats, who feel browbeaten all the time, are going to have watch parties with really good flavored popcorn and wine and say, you know, ‘Give him hell.’”

©2023 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.