Newsom-DeSantis debate: Fox expected to benefit – but will voters?

Newsom-DeSantis debate: Fox expected to benefit – but will voters?

Newsom-DeSantis debate: Fox expected to benefit – but will voters?

Analysts predict the anticipated "fair and balanced" debate Thursday night between the governors of California (a Democrat) and Florida (a Republican) could highlight the country's extreme division.

Two sitting governors – one who has not announced a candidacy for president, and one who the polls say is a longshot – could provide the most interesting debate of the 2024 race tonight. Fox News will air the debate between California Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom and Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.

The two have been sparring on social media for quite some time.

Some believe Newsom, not an official candidate, is running a "shadow campaign" and could emerge as the Democratic nominee if Joe Biden's frailty or other issues lead him to exit the race. In contrast, DeSantis announced long ago on the Republican side and has languished far behind legally embattled former President Donald Trump in GOP polling ever since.

Fair and balanced expectations

In what could be a refreshing break from the sniping of Republican challengers trying to distinguish themselves from one another as well as Trump, who will not join their debates, the odd rapport between Fox News host Sean Hannity, the debate moderator, and the Democrat Newsom offers hope for earnest discussion.

"I think I've done over a thousand interviews on Fox – and if I can hold my own against Sean Hannity, I have zero doubt in my mind that Governor Newsom can as well. I think Sean Hannity is a perfectly fine choice. Yes, we know where his politics stand, but I don't have an issue with that,” Democratic strategist Robin Biro said on American Family Radio Thursday morning.

Biro, Robin Biro

Biro told show host Jenna Ellis that Fox needs this debate for the viewers it's expected to attract. Fox's numbers took a hit after the sudden break-up with popular host Tucker Carlson in the spring, but viewers are returning.

New York magazine reported in August that Fox News for a brief time lost its top spot in the cable news ratings to MSNBC but has bounced back considerably since Jesse Watters began to regularly host the 8 p.m. ET hour. Those numbers are still far below what Carlson was bringing in.

"It's about viewership, and frankly Fox needs the numbers. They need Hannity to host this because viewership numbers have been down with challenges from Newsmax and some of the other outlets. I think actually it's going to make for better television,” Biro said.

Josh Hammer, an editor and columnist with Newsweek, told Ellis he believes Hannity will be fair.

"Sean Hannity is a card-carrying conservative. No one doubts where he is. Just kind of my sense of the Fox News media landscape right now, I think that Laura Ingraham has probably given DeSantis overall more airtime. Hannity is probably one of the 'Trumpier' of the Fox News primetime hosts,” he said. "Gavin Newsom has had numerous long, sustained interviews with Sean Hannity.”

Some might suggest Hannity and Newsom have bordered on bromance. In a span of four months, there's been an hour-long sitdown with Newsom on Hannity's regular 10 p.m. ET show; and a lengthy interview after the second GOP candidates' debate, held in Newsom's state at the Ronald Reagan Library in late September.

"Why a leading governor of the opposition party ought to be given that platform the night of a GOP debate I thought that was a very bizarre choice, but that's really neither here nor there, I guess. The point is that Newsom and Hannity, for whatever reason, seemed to have some sort of rapport, dare I say, perhaps even a bit of mutual respect for one another,” Hammer said.

Hammer: Competing concepts of freedom will be highlighted

That mutual respect could provide clarity between "two competing conceptions of freedom,” Hammer said. He expects Newsom to talk about the freedom that comes with a woman's right to abort her child or the right for minors to link with doctors who will provide chemicals and surgeries to drastically change their bodies.

DeSantis, however, is expected to define freedom differently as he hails Florida's successful battles against woke culture and progressivism, Hammer predicts.

Hammer, Josh (Newsweek journalist) Hammer

"There's the fight with Disney, the New College of Florida model and things like that. I would really like to see this grand kind of philosophical clash of different conceptions of freedom, and I think that DeSantis would be in good standing to prevail in that fight if it does happen,” Hammer said.

Both sides expect a fair debate, but Biro suggests a level playing field could simply expose the extreme division that exists in the country.

"I think what we will see is more division, frankly, with Gavin Newsom pointing out more differences why you need to vote for leftist candidates and Ron DeSantis saying 'This is what we've done in Florida. This is what's working in Florida, and you need to be afraid of what's happening on the Left.'

"That concerns me, but it's what they will both do. It is where the country is right now," Biro said. "We just had Thanksgiving. These conversations were just had at dining room tables all across the country – and we're still divided; and I hate it as someone who fought in the military. I wish we could somehow unify. I hope that they will have meaningful, substantive debate and not just 'gotchas' – but I don't have a lot of high hopes."

What the governors are likely to say on abortion

One of the glaring examples of national division is the abortion discussion. Biro denies that Democrats favor abortion after birth and says Newsom needs to set the record straight.

"Gavin Newsom has to frame this as a women's healthcare issue … not talk about it as abortion, but talk about it as women's healthcare. He will; he's savvy enough to do that – and he's got to correct some of the false narratives going on that we want to abort babies after they're born, so essentially murder of infant children. He's got to correct some of those false narratives.”

Hammer says DeSantis needs to double down on the abortion question which has plagued Republicans in several elections since the repeal of Roe v. Wade in the summer of 2022. DeSantis, he said, can do this with a concise but impassioned defense of the six-week abortion ban the governor signed in Florida.

"That would be nice for Ron Desantis, who is clearly one of the shining stars in the Republican Party, whether he wins the presidential nomination or not. It would be really inspiring to pro-lifers who are frankly demoralized across the country in the aftermath of results like the Ohio referendum earlier this month.

"Pro-lifers have been beaten at the ballot box many times over the past year. It would be really, really nice if one of the Republican Party's pro-life leaders, like Ron DeSantis, could make that forthright case and get the voters feeling confident again,” Hammer said.