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Why Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis are debating each other, explained

The thirst for attention is real.

Split image of Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom, both mid-speech.
DeSantis and Newsom could do a live debate on Fox News later this fall.
Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

In what appears to be a blatant attention grab by both politicians, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have agreed to debate one another on live television this week. Given the fact that the two aren’t actually competing head-to-head in an election, it’s a somewhat confusing event and one that is ultimately an opportunity for both to raise their national profiles and score some political points.

A debate like this is rare: It’s not common that politicians who aren’t running against one another would attempt to do such a public face-off. Although DeSantis is vying for the 2024 Republican nomination, Newsom has already expressed his support for President Joe Biden and said he won’t be running this cycle.

That said, both politicians clearly feel like they have something to gain from this spectacle. For Newsom, who first proposed this debate in September 2022, it’s a chance to directly confront Republicans and to buoy his political ambitions down the line. For DeSantis, it’s an attempt to try to get a breakout moment and deflect the attention from Trump as his 2024 presidential campaign has continued to stall.

The event, which has been dubbed “The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate” will take place on Thursday, November 30, at 9 pm ET, and last for 90 minutes. It will be moderated by Fox host Sean Hannity, and air live without a studio audience. Topics the two governors are expected to cover include: “the economy, the border, immigration, crime, and inflation,” according to Fox. Viewers can tune in to Fox News Channel to watch or FoxNews.com, if they have a cable subscription.

“I think for both of them, it’s simply a chance to get attention,” says David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “DeSantis has a lot more to lose, because if he fares poorly he might as well go home. But right now, he has to take chances because if nothing changes he’s going to go down in flames to Trump.”

Why are Newsom and DeSantis debating?

The short answer is that this gives both Newsom and DeSantis a way to increase their national profiles and a platform to appear as fighters for their respective parties. Additionally, it builds on a longstanding feud between the two, which has been simmering for months as Newsom has confronted DeSantis over discriminatory rhetoric toward minorities and women, and lax policies on gun control.

As Politico’s Jeremy White has explained, it’s been useful for both men to use the other as a foil as a way to show how committed they are to their own respective bases.

The two governors also have their own individual reasons for wanting to participate. Although he’s vocally expressed his support for Biden in the upcoming election, Newsom has long been rumored to be interested in higher office and positioned himself as a rising star in the Democratic Party. The debate against DeSantis keeps Newsom in the spotlight and helps bolster his image as a key champion for Democratic positions ahead of the 2028 elections.

Additionally, it enables him to take a more combative approach to Republican positions, after frequently criticizing his party for not being aggressive enough. “We’re getting crushed on narrative. We’re going to have to do better in terms of getting on the offense and stop being on the damn defense,” Newsom told CBS News ahead of the midterms last year. Since then, he’s appeared on Fox News to fact-check Republican claims on topics like immigration and launched a new political action committee that targets policies in red states.

“Gov. Newsom has been critical of the lackluster messaging and lack of aggressive hand-to-hand combat that he believes Democrats nationally need to engage in to push back against the tactics of Republicans. This is an opportunity … to punch back,” California Democratic strategist Steven Maviglio told Vox. Newsom has also described the face-off as an opportunity to tout the accomplishments of the Biden administration, which has approved of him moving forward with the debate.

Whether this actually bolsters Biden in any way is an open question: Newsom could potentially be a helpful surrogate and use this opportunity to boost support and funding for the campaign, though it’s also a chance to effectively sell himself.

For DeSantis, the debate is similarly an opportunity to show Republican voters that he can authoritatively push GOP stances on issues like abortion, LGBTQ rights, and crime. A chief critique of him up to this point has been his lackluster and often awkward campaign appearances, something he could try to combat via this debate. It’s a way to try to convince Trump voters that he can be an effective messenger and confront a Democrat that many Republicans have long villainized.

“Ron DeSantis is debating Gavin 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,” read a memo the DeSantis team sent donors, first reported by CNN.

How did this happen?

Newsom and DeSantis have been feuding for some time, with the California governor condemning many of the Floridian’s actions, including busing migrants, and the Floridian governor slamming California cities like San Francisco for being too liberal.

Following months of back-and-forth, Newsom officially challenged DeSantis to a debate in September 2022 via a tweet. “Since you have only one overriding need — attention —let’s take this up & debate,” Newsom wrote at the time. “I’ll bring my hair gel. You bring your hairspray. Name the time before Election Day.”

Newsom then officially agreed to the debate during an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox in June 2023. And DeSantis did the same in early August 2023. “Let’s get it done. Just tell me when and where. We’ll do it,” he said.

What is the point?

The most interesting thing to watch in this debate is probably DeSantis’s performance, which could either give him a much-needed boost or fully sink an already struggling campaign. If DeSantis can effectively go after Newsom on progressive proposals in California and the state’s struggles with issues like homelessness, it’s possible that could help convince some Republican voters to give him another look.

“Desantis’s campaign is floundering. He needs something, apparently anything, to illustrate his fight against the ‘enemy,’” Republican strategist Chip Felkel told Vox.

The stakes are much higher for DeSantis, who needs to show that he can hold his own against Newsom to be considered seriously by Republican voters. Newsom, meanwhile, mostly benefits from the exposure and the chance to go on the offensive against a major GOP candidate. Since he was comfortably reelected to his gubernatorial seat in 2022 and won’t be up again for a few more years, there’s far less immediate risk for him even if things don’t go so well.

“He can defend his rhetoric and record and vision, and I’ll do my best to defend mine and promote Joe Biden,” Newsom told CNN.

Update, November 30, 4:25 pm ET: This story was originally published on August 15 and has been updated to include details about how to watch the debate.

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