Fox News' Sean Hannity on his unlikely relationship with Gavin Newsom: 'We just hit it off'

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Sean Hannity and Gavin Newsom are an unlikely cable news bromance.

The conservative Fox News host and the Democratic California governor are ideologically polar opposites. But their recent joint appearances — an hourlong sitdown in June and a lengthy interview after the second Republican presidential candidates' debate on Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Library — offered a robust but cordial discussion of issues, a rarity these days in a media landscape where politicians and advocates are more comfortable preaching to their own tribes.

Hannity, who typically cites California’s problems with crime and housing as a symbol of all that’s wrong with the Democrats, was even singing praises for In-N-Out Burger at his second interview with the governor.

“From the first time we met we just hit it off and there was a certain relationship that developed that was like, 'Oh, come on, you don't believe all that,'” Hannity said of Newsom in a recent interview at Fox News headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. “It was always friendly and never contentious. You can say anything to him. You can have fun with him.”

The success of their recent meetings prompted Hannity to turn it up a notch. He invited Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, to debate on his program.

Hannity negotiated the terms and details directly with the political rivals, who will meet Thursday in a 90-minute showdown at 6 p.m. Pacific on Fox News.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets supporters.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets donors before speaking at the Ronald Reagan Library in March. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The matchup is unusual from a TV news perspective because it is rare for two politicians not running against each other to be given such a high-profile forum. (Fox News is calling it "The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate.")

The last memorable example was on May 15, 1967, when a previous California governor, Ronald Reagan, appeared with Robert F. Kennedy, then representing New York in the U.S. Senate, to take questions from students studying overseas for a full hour on CBS.

"Neither of them were running at that time," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "They both were ambitious and everybody suspected they would."

Both men did pursue the presidential nominations of their respective parties the following year, with Kennedy’s surging campaign ending when he was assassinated just after winning the California Democratic primary.

But it was Reagan who burnished his national reputation on the 1967 program, as the polished former actor displayed a firm grasp of global affairs. The moment helped set him on his path to the White House in 1980.

On Thursday, Hannity will question the dueling governors himself — without an audience — in Alpharetta, Ga.

Hannity, 61, is the longest tenured host in cable news history with 27 years on Fox News. He has survived the major scandals that have hit the organization over time, such as Fox's $787.5-million payout to Dominion Voting Systems to settle a defamation case over the network’s reporting on former President Trump’s inaccurate claims of 2020 voting fraud. Hannity was not among the hosts named as defendants in the case, but his show was cited by Judge Eric Davis for airing false statements.

Loyal Fox News viewers, who tend to shrug off negative stories about the network, have stuck with Hannity. In October, his program was the most watched cable news show among viewers ages 25 to 54, the demographic most desired by advertisers.

This week's debate offers the opportunity for Fox News to host an attention-generating TV event that doesn’t involve past controversies and could draw increased sampling from viewers who don’t share the worldview of its provocative hosts.

To be sure, while Hannity likes Newsom personally and respects his political skills (“I warn conservatives and Republicans, you'd better pay attention to this guy"), he would not be comfortable having him in the Oval Office due to their policy differences.

On most nights, Hannity’s program is a one-sided affair, with the host often pounding away at what he calls the radical left and President Biden’s cognitive capacity. At a recent broadcast, the host warmed up his audience with an impersonation of the president, lowering his head and shuffling across the studio floor.

Read more: How the JFK assassination changed TV news and the journalists who covered it 60 years ago

It raises the question why Newsom would want to engage in a potential two-on-one situation where he’ll be the lone liberal.

Nathan Click, an advisor to Newsom, said the governor is fully aware of the challenge.

"We are under no illusions," Click said. "This is a two-on-one match with the refs in the tank for the home team. But Gov. Newsom has long believed that Democrats have to go on offense in enemy territory, and that's exactly what he intends to do."

Hannity has given assurances he won’t be the wrestling referee who looks the other way while one of the brawlers brings a steel chair into the ring. He noted that Newsom was pleased with their first interview.

“I kept my pledge to give him a fair shot and let him answer,” Hannity said. "If I have one goal going in, it’s that people walk away and say, ‘Wow that was a good, spirited, healthy informative debate.’”

Mike Murphy, a screenwriter and longtime Republican political consultant, said there is value in Newsom's willingness to appear in a potentially hostile environment as he builds a national reputation.

“There's a feeling sometimes among Democrats that nobody goes into the Fox lion’s den with a big stick and fights back, so I think he thinks he might help the wider cause while helping himself,” Murphy said. "I'm always in favor of grab a microphone and go on offense as long as it's live TV and nobody can edit it."

Newsom has said in the past that he watches conservative media. He may be better acquainted than most Democrats, as his ex-wife is Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former co-host of the Fox News panel show “The Five” who is now engaged to Donald Trump Jr.

Hannity recalls Newsom visiting Guilfoyle at the network’s offices and studios.

While Murphy thinks Newsom’s upcoming appearance can help pave the road to a future White House run, he believes there is short-term risk for Democrats. The governor’s smoothness and on-camera vigor could invite more discussion about Biden’s age — the president turned 81 on Nov. 20 — which has become a significant issue among pollsters and pundits.

DeSantis is using the event to promote the idea that Republicans should be prepared for a scenario where Biden is not the nominee in 2024.

"He [Newsom] is running a shadow campaign," DeSantis told "Fox & Friends" last week. "Even people in his own party are saying that a lot of Democrats want to move Biden out .... You could have Newsom. You could have a lot of different people. But I think it's important that Republican voters get the sense that we may not be running against Biden."

While Newsom has been steadfast in his support of a second Biden term, his political action committee has been running its own ads criticizing the Florida law DeSantis signed that bans abortion for pregnancies longer than six weeks. Newsom's active role as a Biden White House surrogate has led to criticism that he is being distracted from dealing with state business.

But DeSantis is no longer the Republican juggernaut of six months ago, when he entered the race as the best chance for the party to move on from former President Trump. DeSantis has fallen behind former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in some polls and failed to get any bounce from the three GOP primary debates held so far.

Click said Newsom's office was "shocked" when DeSantis accepted the debate challenge, which Newsom issued months ago.

"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 a candidacy," Click said.

James Uthmeier, campaign manager for DeSantis, said the candidate is approaching the debate with the possibility that Newsom could be at the top of a Democratic ticket.

"A Newsom presidency would accelerate America's decline and Nov. 30 will be the first chance to expose a national audience to just how dangerous his radical ideology would be for the country," Uthmeier said. "Ron DeSantis will take this responsibility seriously and looks forward to sharing the stark contrast between his vision to revive our nation and Newsom's blueprint for failure."

Hannity believes DeSantis has the same qualities of Newsom — smart and likable — although that assessment does not appear to be backed up in polls. Based on chats with his audience, Hannity has his own theory.

“They like both Trump and DeSantis, but they wish they weren't butting heads a little bit in this primary,” Hannity said. “Maybe the poll numbers are more reflective of ‘no, this really should be Donald Trump's chance,’ after having a contentious 2020 election with COVID in play.”

Read more: Q&A: What would Sean Hannity’s Fox News show look like under a Biden presidency?

Hannity appears energized by the exchanges with Newsom and the upcoming debate. He said he would do more programs with Democratic politicians if he could get them to say yes.

"You would be surprised how many don't want to come on," he said.

But Hannity also acknowledges that audiences have moved toward outlets that align with their own opinions.

"If you want [a Democrat's] view, they have their places to go," he said.

Sign up for our Wide Shot newsletter to get the latest entertainment business news, analysis and insights.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.