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After Ron DeSantis debate, what’s next for Gavin Newsom ‘shadow campaign’?

Newsom isn’t running in 2024, and DeSantis campaign is on its last legs, so why are two battling at all?

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Friday 01 December 2023 21:03 GMT
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Newsom, DeSantis exchange insults in debate

The Fox News debate on Thursday between Florida governor Ron DeSantis and California governor Gavin Newsom was billed as the “Great Red vs Blue State debate,” a showdown between conservatism and liberalism itself.

But the spectre of the 2024 presidential election – and, well, maybe the 2028 one – hung over the conversation all night.

What exactly were these two men fighting for? And what comes next?

The immediate stakes were more urgent for Governor DeSantis, whose support in the 2024 presidential primary has dive-bombed since the beggining of the year to a measly 12 per cent. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, who’s been skipping the Republican debates and battling an onslaught of seemingly career-ended legal fights, has nearly six times the support.

It’s a fact that his California rival gleefully pointed out throughout the night.

"One thing ... that we have in common is: neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024," Mr Newsom said.

“When are you going to drop out and give Nikki Haley a shot to win?” he later asked.

Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom debate on Fox News on 30 November (Getty Images)

While the Florida governor was defending his own flailing 2024 campaign hopes, he also accused Mr Newsom of secretly harbouring presidential ambitions of his own, even though the California Democrat has explicitly said multiple times that he’s not running in the upcoming presidential election.

The Florida governor accused Mr Newsom of seeking the spotlight as Joe Biden is “in decline.”

"It’s a danger to the country,” he said. “He has no business running for president, and, you know, Gavin Newsom agrees with that. He won’t say that. That’s why he’s running his shadow campaign."

Despite the denials, Mr DeSantis has hit on a notable aspect of Mr Newsom’s recent political history: if he’s not running for president, why spend so much time getting out in front of a national audience?

And here again we return to 2024.

Though both leaders agreed to debate each other in late September, the televised clash came at a fortuitous time for the Biden-Harris campaign.

Mr Biden’s approval ratings have been majority negative since this summer and only getting worse, and general election polls show him either tied or losing to Donald Trump next November.

Ron DeSantis’s 2024 campaign is flagging, while Gavin Newsom is accused of secretly seeking the White House himself (AP)

With the White House largely focusing its public political energies on the Israel-Hamas war, a vigorous restatement of the Democratic agenda couldn’t have come at a more needed time.

Mr Newsom has close relations with the White House. It would be hard to imagine him going onto Fox News for a two-hour slugfest over the Democratic record without at least consulting with them.

And indeed, Mr Newsom offered as full-throated a defence of the Biden agenda as has been heard anywhere in recent months, including by the president himself.

“The Biden administration in the last three years has been masterclass in job creation,” Governor Newsom said, hammering his opponent with statistics: “Fourteen million jobs, 10 times more than the last three Republican presidents combined.”

Mr DeSantis also tied the appearance to the Biden agenda, warning, during an exchange about immigration, of “the vision of Biden-Harris-Newsom.”

One way or another, Mr Newsom, Mr DeSantis, and seemingly Fox News all seem to agree the California governor is a national Democratic leader in addition to a state one.

What message viewers walked away with is another story.

In the political press at least, opinions were split, with aGuardian columnist arguing Mr DeSantis’s performance “reminded the US why he will never be president,” while a USA Today writer held that the Florida governor and “freedom” were the winners of the day. In Mr Newsom’s hometown San Francisco Chronicle, meanwhile, “unhinged male rage” was declared the victor of the evening.

But this is Fox News after all, long the champion of Trump and the mainstream home of Covid and election denial, so one night of the Newsom Special is unlikely to change opinions all that much.

Still, the Fox debate was a reminder of Mr Newsom’s recent few years of building a national profile, often seeming like he’s running a nationwide campaign against Mr DeSantis even as he insists his ambitions remain in California.

Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis have sparred over issues like immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, academic freedom, and Covid, often hammering each other during visits to the other’s state

In April, he met with students of Florida’s New College, a public liberal arts college that Mr DeSantis has singled out as part of the “woke indoctrination” he’s trying to root out at universities.

“I can’t believe what you’re dealing with. It’s just an unbelievable assault,” Mr Newsom said at an appearance at a library near campus. “It’s common with everything he’s doing, bullying and intimidating vulnerable communities. Weakness, Ron DeSantis, weakness masquerading as strength across the board.”

The previous summer, Mr Newsom went so far as releasing a 30-second ad in Florida urging residents of the Sunshine State to move to California.

"Freedom, it’s under attack in your state,” the spot claimed.

“Republican leaders, they’re banning books, making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms, even criminalizing women and doctors," the governor said in a voiceover narration accompanying images of Mr DeSantis and former president Donald Trump.

The two have continued to spar over Mr DeSantis’s highly controversial and unorthodox 2022 scheme to lure newly arrived migrants in Texas then dump them in liberal jurisdictions like Sacramento and Martha’s Vineyard as a way to criticise Democrats about the state of the border.

“You are trolling folks and trying to find migrants to play political games so you can get some news and attention so you can out-Trump Trump,” Mr Newson said during the debate.

In spite of his liberal views, Mr Newsom appears fond of sitting with Fox’s conservative stalwart Sean Hannity for interviews, making appearances in June and September.

“He came into that interview very prepared,” Mr Hannity told a New York Times reporter of Mr Newsom. “I’ve interviewed people that come in totally unprepared.”

“This is complimentary in every way: He’s out of central casting,” he added. “He has a lovely family. He’s young. Compare his energy level to Joe Biden’s.”

Outside of the more direct partisan plays, Mr Newsom has also shown his standing on the global stage in recent months.

California, as Mr Newsom was quick to remind Fox News viewers, is a world economic powerhouse – home to Hollywood, Sillicon Valley, and some of the country’s most important agricultural regions, making his role more head of state than mere state governor.

Last month, as if to cement his global leadership, the governor had a surprise meeting in Beijing with Chinese leader Xi Jinping as part of a weeklong tour of China to push for climate action.

Still, Mr Newsom isn’t walking onto the national stage unscathed.

He’s had embarassing personal scandals like attending a dinner, unmasked, at the luxury French Laundry restaurant during the high of the pandemic, and the inequality and homelessness of places like San Francisco and Los Angeles remain a symbol for many of Democratic failure.

This, perhaps, brings us to 2028.

Regardless of who wins in 2024, Joe Biden is all but certain to be out of the running going forward. Either he will have just hit his constitutional limit of two consecutive terms, or he’ll be approaching age 90 and likely to pass the political torch to someone new.

By then, who knows what could happen? Trump could be in prison or the White House. San Francisco could be a symbol of progressive housing, or a further sign of social rot.

Maybe then, finally, Mr Newsom’s shadow campaign will be over.

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