The highly-anticipated red-state vs. blue-state debate is about to get underway. Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron Desantis and California’s Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom will take the debate stage tonight for a 90-minute one-on-one matchup.
Moderated by Sean Hannity, the showdown is set for 9 p.m. ET in Alpharetta, Georgia.
“This is one of those moments where you have two heavyweights in the political arena that are gonna have an opportunity to go head to head and talk about substantive, real issues and governing philosophies that affect everyone’s lives,” the Fox News host told Politico earlier this week.
“Decline is a choice, and success is attainable. As president, I will lead America’s revival,” Mr. DeSantis said on X, formerly Twitter, when the debate was announced on Sept. 25. “I look forward to the opportunity to debate Gavin Newsom over our very different visions for the future of our country.”
“We’ve agreed to the debate—provided there is no cheering section, no hype videos, or any of the other crutches DeSantis requested,” Mr. Newsom’s spokesperson said at the time, according to ABC. “We want a real debate—not a circus.”
The debate is being seen by many as a key test for the two leaders, as well as a clash of opposing ideologies and policies. This is despite the fact that California’s governor has struck down persistent rumors that he would be running for president as well.
California Versus Florida
“This is going to be a debate for the future of this country,” DeSantis campaign press secretary Bryan Griffin told The Epoch Times. “What kind of leadership and what kind of results do we want from the leadership that we put up in 2024?”
Mr. Griffin outlined that choice between Mr. Newsom’s California—which he described as a “petri dish of leftism” responsible for collapsed cities, prosecutors who don’t prosecute crimes, extremely high living costs, forced electric vehicle (EV) mandates, and “a COVID experience that disregarded liberties”—and Mr. DeSantis’s “proven record of basically making Florida one of the safest and most desirable places to live with prosperity, who treated COVID in a way that kept people safe, but also kept businesses open and respected people’s liberties.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Newsom has been vocal against the Florida governor, specifically attacking his stance on abortion and gender ideology in education.
“Any woman who has an abortion after six weeks—and any doctor who gives her care—will be guilty of a felony,” Mr. Newsom said on X on Nov. 19. “Abortion after six weeks will be punishable by up to 5 years in prison. That’s not freedom. That’s Ron DeSantis’ Florida.”
Mr. Newsom has accused the Sunshine State of banning books and infringing on free speech, and on Sept. 25, he signed into law legislation that imposes fines on schools and libraries for removing books about race and sexual orientation.
He described the push by conservatives to remove inappropriate books from schools and libraries as a “banning binge” and cultural purge.”
“We want to do more than just push back rhetorically against that, and that’s what this legislation provides,” he said before signing the bill into law.
Mr. Newsom has also made his own claim of being governor of the freest state.
“Welcome to the freedom state, @GOP,” he posted on X on Sept. 27, the night of the second GOP debate, held in the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Vali, California. “We believe in these crazy things here called: – Free speech – Gun safety – Healthcare – Social Security – Climate change, oh… and… democracy.”
The Florida governor is also expected to bring up his state’s population growth, economic growth, education results, and his stance on communist China compared to the Californian. While Mr. DeSantis has passed legislation separating his state from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Mr. Newsom has worked to strengthen his state’s relationship with it. Last month, the California governor made a multi-stop visit to the country, meeting with a raft of CCP officials, including the regime’s ruler.
“Florida has led the nation for state-to-state migration for the past two years, while California has ranked dead last,” Mr. DeSantis posted to X on Nov. 1. “States like California are crumbling under failed leadership, while our pro-business, family-friendly policies have made Florida thrive.”
Ideology and Policy
Gail Choate, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University, told The Epoch Times that the two leaders will each serve as proxies for different groups in their political parties, challenging the ideologies and policies with which they identify.
Mr. Newsom, she expects, will attack Mr. DeSantis on policies challenged nationally, such as the way he ousted Disney’s governing district and replaced it with his own approved board. Mr. DeSantis, meanwhile, will attack the California governor on ideology, such as the spread of gender ideologies in schools.
The DeSantis campaign, however, sees ideology and policy converging as the same matter, especially in regard to law enforcement.
“A lot of the way that you approach something from a policy perspective comes with the top-down attitude,” Mr. Griffin told The Epoch Times. “Do you support, appreciate, and respect law enforcement, for example, like Ron DeSantis does … or are you taking a different approach in California where police are vilified where law and order is, you know, not just an afterthought, but it’s something that prosecutors are actively avoiding doing their jobs for the sake of their ideology and their agenda?”
Mr. DeSantis has previously referred to his track record in Florida as a “blueprint” forward for the country while also claiming Mr. Newsom’s California to be four years ahead of the current federal administration, in terms of its leftward trajectory.
“California tends to be the experiment or the beta test for what the left wants to try in Washington, D.C.,” DeSantis campaign surrogate Robert Salvador told The Epoch Times. “You saw it during COVID. You know, California was always one of the first to lock down or implement mask or vax mandates. And then, long after those situations, you tried to get that passed in Washington D.C., as well.”
A Smart Decision?
Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Newsom are taking part in an unprecedented event. Republicans and Democrats hardly debate each other outside of an election setting, let alone as a side event mere weeks before the first caucus in Iowa.
It is an event that Craig Shirley, an author and presidential historian who worked for the late President Ronald Reagan and wrote several biographies about him, connected to CBS’s 1967 debate between then-California governor Ronald Reagan and Robert F. Kennedy, then a new senator for New York. The debate, about the Vietnam War, was won by Mr. Reagan, according to assessments by media outlets at the time.
But is the DeSantis-Newsom matchup a smart decision?
“Newsom had been challenging DeSantis for months to debate, and the fact that he finally accepted as his campaign was circling the drain shows just how bad DeSantis needs to distract from his disaster of candidacy,” Newsom spokesperson Nathan Click told Politico.
However, Mr. Shirley told The Epoch Times: “This is a briar patch [the DeSantis campaign] should love to be thrown into.”
“The facts are on his side,” he said. “Florida’s the winning state. California’s the losing state.”
Ms. Choate predicted that if DeSantis could win the debate by demonstrating superiority in policies, it could “empower” a new wave of Republican politicians at state and congressional levels, especially in California.
But she and Mr. Shirley both had doubts that a victory would be enough to catch Mr. DeSantis up to former President Donald Trump, who is leading the GOP field by a wide margin.
Currently, Mr. Santis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley are vying to be the main Trump alternative candidate, with the Haley campaign seeing a boost over the past weeks with the securing of key backers, including JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon and the political arm of the powerful Koch network.
“It could set [DeSantis] up nicely to be the clear number two and certainly to be the front runner for four years from now,” Mr. Shirley said.
Even remarks from California’s Republican Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson suggest a higher party victory instead of one for Mr. DeSantis himself.
“No governor in this country has caused greater harm to its residents than Gavin Newsom,” she said in a statement. “Californians continue to suffer under his failed leadership, from paying the highest-in-the-nation gas prices to a never-ending homeless crisis, rampant crime, and failing public school system.
“My only hope from this debate is that Gavin Newsom learns a thing or two from Governor DeSantis on how Republicans effectively lead.”
Mr. Newsom’s office did not respond to The Epoch Times’ request for comment.