Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis have reached an impasse in their Fox News debate planned for November, a person with knowledge of the stalemate said Sunday.
DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, is pushing for the faceoff to occur in front of a live audience, which the Democratic California governor prohibited in his proposal to Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
“This is about having a debate, not a TV spectacle,” the person familiar with the negotiations told POLITICO, narrowing the scope of the disagreement between the two camps.
Even in an age of constant televised town halls, the prime-time event between the ambitious governor who may one day make a White House bid and the Republican candidate for president would be unprecedented in modern politics.
The question of whether to involve an audience is a significant one that can tint how TV viewers digest the Fox broadcast. CNN took considerable heat for its recent town hall with former President Donald Trump, which included a live studio audience, in part because it could be hard to hear the back-and-forth over the crowd heckling moderator Kaitlan Collins and applauding Trump. Reports after the CNN town hall focused on how a small number of boisterous pro-Trump audience members had an outsized impact on the broadcast.
“I think Newsom is right and smart to hold out on that. It’s clearly not what Fox News would want because they do love these things in front of crowds,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns and was a top adviser to former California GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “If I’m on Newsom’s team, I’m absolutely insisting on that. At the end of the day, my guess is Hannity and Fox would rather have the event than not.”
But there are broader differences in the calculations of each governor’s camp, not the least of which is where exactly DeSantis might stand in the Republican primary come the second week of November, when the Newsom debate is planned. National and early state polls show DeSantis trailing far behind Trump. And since agreeing to the Newsom debate, DeSantis’ campaign has undergone another big reset that included bringing in a new campaign manager and continuing to tweak his media approach.
“Newsom’s interest in doing it is obvious: It would give him a national stage to lead for Democrat voters. And I bet it would draw a decent audience,” Stutzman added. “But November is an eternity right now to Ron DeSantis. This is a guy that very well may be out of the race by then. So, whatever gets agreed to will long have that caveat that it’s all dependent on DeSantis’ status in the race.”
Newsom said Friday in Sacramento that he had no update on the planned event when asked by reporters. A DeSantis campaign spokesman had no comment Sunday.
The debate over the debate has mostly played out behind the scenes between each side and Fox. Newsom, who recently sat for an 88-minute taped interview with Hannity in Sacramento that the two men agreed to over text messages, first proposed the debate with DeSantis last September. It was Newsom who suggested the conservative commentator serve as moderator — both to make it a more attractive offer to DeSantis and remove excuses he might offer about media bias.
For months, the two men have gone round after round shadow boxing before the public but never confronting each other in person. Newsom fact-checked DeSantis’s campaign launch and challenged him over revisions to school textbooks. After a plane of migrants with Florida documentation touched down in Sacramento, Newsom called DeSantis a “small, pathetic man” and floated the possibility of charging him with “kidnapping.” He later qualified his tweet to include charging anyone responsible for the transport, including state contractors, to potentially put a chill on companies considering getting involved in the moves.
DeSantis has mocked Newsom’s handling of homelessness and quality-of-life crimes and ridiculed California for overdoing its stricter approach to the pandemic. “We had families move from the Pacific Coast just for the fact that we had schools open in Florida,” DeSantis said in a March speech in California. During another West Coast swing in June, he dared Newsom to “stop pussyfooting around” and challenge Joe Biden for the presidency in a primary. Newsom has said he’s not running against Biden, or for president in 2024.
Newsom taunted DeSantis over his ability to beat Trump in the Republican primary. DeSantis accused Newsom of being “preoccupied” with him and his work in Florida.
As the feud turned even nastier over the summer, Newsom’s team hashed out details with Fox News. On July 28, they sent Hannity a three-page debate proposal that, among other terms, suggested locations in Georgia, Nevada or North Carolina and a date of Nov. 8 or Nov. 10. Those proposed dates came after Newsom’s team gave a heads up to Biden’s advisers, who expressed a preference for scheduling the DeSantis event after the start of the GOP’s presidential primary debates, according to another person familiar with the Biden campaign’s thinking.
“He kept us in the loop and we see it as part of our broader surrogate operation, which will be one of the largest in history,” the person said Saturday.
POLITICO reported in June that after months of skepticism and some mistrust between the younger governor and the president’s political orbit, they’ve found a loyal soldier in Newsom, who subsequently has raised millions of dollars for their 2024 effort. Other Democratic governors who are active as Biden surrogates include JB Pritzker of Illinois and Wes Moore of Maryland.
The November dates proposed by Newsom will come well after DeSantis debates other Republican presidential contenders on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee and Sept. 27 at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. It also would allow Newsom to conclude his legislative session in California and give him the month of October to decide the fate of hundreds of state bills.
Talks with Fox ticked up in earnest after DeSantis appeared on Hannity’s show in early August and formally agreed to debate Newsom. A couple days later, POLITICO published DeSantis’ own debate counterproposal, written by his recently replaced campaign manager. It included the mutually agreed upon date of Nov. 8, but removed Newsom’s prohibition on pre-written notes. DeSantis also called for the event to start with Fox-approved two-minute introductory videos from both politicians and for the network to have a studio audience, with tickets distributed “50-50” to each side’s supporters.
Newsom’s team issued a public response that afternoon, shooting it down as his rival wanting “cheat notes,” a “hype video” and a “cheering section.” It’s that last one that remains the stickiest of sticking points.