Hannity wants a red vs. blue state debate. Newsom and DeSantis have other plans.

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

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Fox News’ Sean Hannity is billing his Thursday debate between Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis as a herculean clash between red and blue states.

It’s also a test of sorts for Hannity, with Newsom questioning whether the conservative TV host can treat him and DeSantis as equals.

In an interview with POLITICO, Hannity dismissed the Democrat’s concerns and compared DeSantis and Newsom to political combatants, lauding both for their willingness to enter the ring with him.

“I’m into mixed martial arts and anybody that steps into the octagon, I have deep respect for because you’re stepping into a war,” Hannity said. “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.”

But as the Democratic and Republican governors prepare to take the stage in Alpharetta, Ga., Hannity's primary goal of keeping the focus on blue California and red Florida — to help explore the country’s deep divides at the state level — is crashing headlong into the 2024 presidential contest. While both elected officials expect to discuss their respective states, their ultimate agendas are much broader.

Newsom, a top surrogate for the Biden White House who in recent months tangled with Hannity in high-profile interviews, is signaling that he wants to go beyond touting — and defending — his record in California. DeSantis’ team, meanwhile, is pointing to the debate as a potential breakout moment as he looks to Iowa to revive his presidential prospects.

The competing priorities pose a challenge for Hannity, who despite his own conservative politics pledged fairness to both parties and said he is trying to make his program a place where Democrats like Newsom can not only appear but punch back. Newsom is preparing to talk up President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign and lay out the choice before Americans in 2024.

“Expect him to defend the president and use the opportunity to take on the misinformation machine at its headwaters,” Newsom spokesperson Nathan Click said.

Click added Newsom is under “no illusions — this is a 2-on-1 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.”

DeSantis and his team said they view the debate as a rare opportunity to rise above the GOP primary noise by taking the first crack at a Democrat who, they insist, might become the party’s nominee — not in 2028 — but next year. DeSantis’ camp contends that any of his Republican primary opponents would savor the occasion to debate Newsom on Fox News.

“We feel like it’s a great chance to showcase why the governor is the best candidate to beat the Democrats in November regardless of who they put up, Joe Biden or Gavin Newsom,” said a DeSantis adviser who was granted anonymity to discuss the Newsom debate’s dynamic.

Newsom has repeatedly said he has no interest in running next year and fully expects Biden’s campaign to continue apace. Should it not, Newsom has added that Vice President Kamala Harris is in pole position to take over for their party (though he hasn’t ruled out a future run). The immediate stakes coming out of the debate are perhaps higher for DeSantis given his diminished standing in the presidential race.

Hannity stressed to POLITICO that he can’t forecast, let alone control what either politician is going to say, but he promised that their opposing ideologies would come into sharp relief.

“Are there political calculations to everything, probably, sure,” Hannity said. “But I think they have a sincere belief system that fundamentally predicates all the policies that flow forward when they lay out their agendas. You can’t have two more dramatically different views of governance.”

Hannity insisted he won’t tip the scales in Republicans’ favor, and said he won’t try to fact-check the participants in real time. He offered himself as a fair host who will pose questions and keep time. He mentioned as likely topics Covid-19, taxes, immigration, energy policy and “law and order,” and said he’s aiming to divide the speaking time evenly.

“The questions will probably be very predictable on a lot of issues, maybe unpredictable on some others. This debate is between them. I’m not debating,” Hannity said.

The host specifically pushed back on Newsom’s warning that he and DeSantis would team up against the Democrat on a network that’s often antagonistic to the party. Hannity pointed to a spring interview he did with Newsom that lasted about 80 minutes, and was arranged over personal text messages between the two, saying he kept his word to give Newsom time to answer each question and to air the whole exchange live to tape, meaning it would not be extensively chopped up in the editing room.

“I made [Newsom] certain promises before the interview with him. And he thanked me for keeping my word,” Hannity said, turning his attention back to Newsom’s concerns about Thursday’s debate. “He needs to get over it.”

The long relationship between Newsom and Hannity has been a surprising subplot of the governor’s national media outings in 2023. For well over a year, Newsom trolled DeSantis from the Left Coast and in Florida, egging him on to debate even before the Republican governor entered the race against former President Donald Trump. Newsom and DeSantis, both in their second terms, have sparred over book bans, immigration, education and guns, among other policies. Hannity snagged Newsom for a June sitdown interview in Sacramento, and again in September after the Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley.

The friendship, of sorts, dates back to when Newsom would visit his then-wife Kimberly Guilfoyle at Fox’s studios in Manhattan. Hannity got a kick out of bantering with the mayor of liberal San Francisco, and Newsom (who even then liked to mix it up on air with former Fox host Bill O’Reilly) has said he found it entertaining to waltz around in the belly of the beast. He’s since become an avid Fox News viewer, saying it helps him digest and formulate responses to issues that are catching fire with the right and among conservative politicians.

“I can't give you a date or a specific memory,” Hannity said of the early encounters with Newsom. “All I do remember is that on a personal level, he’s extraordinarily personable. Just like Governor DeSantis is. We hit it off. We just kind of hit it off. I respect both people at a very high level. I really do.”

Newsom and Hannity kept in touch, and it was Hannity this fall who secured an agreement from DeSantis to debate. Hannity declined to engage in his customary commentary, however, including a question posed to him about who is taking the bigger risk by participating. “I think if anyone did poorly,” he said, “that it's a risk for both of them.”

Hannity sidestepped a question about whether he’d approached DeSantis before he got his on-air OK to debate in September. He wouldn’t opine on whether DeSantis has improved as a performer since taking part in three GOP primary debates and prepping for the next one on Dec. 6 in Alabama. “I’ll let this debate be standalone,” he said.

Hannity said he hasn’t heard from Trump, the prohibitive favorite for the GOP nomination, since announcing the DeSantis-Newsom debate.

“He hasn’t said anything to me,” Hannity said of Trump.

“I’ve known President Trump for decades and I think he understands that I have a show to do every night,” Hannity added, pointing specifically to his live shows in front of audiences to make the point that few, if any, of his prime-time competitors can hang with him in that format. Newsom had objected to a live audience, concerned it’d skew in favor of DeSantis, in this case, and Hannity apparently acquiesced.

Hannity revealed little about the logistics of this week’s debate. He wouldn’t say how and where the participants will be positioned on stage and didn’t spell out exactly how he’ll manage the debate clock, saying he promised both sides he wouldn’t spill those details. “I am going to keep my promise. I am a man of my word,” he said.

Hannity suggested the event was so important to him that he managed nearly every detail of the negotiations himself — a dynamic confirmed by aides to Newson and DeSantis. The host generally offered that he wants to “maintain a certain dignity and order to it, but I don't want to be a hall monitor, either,” he said of moderating.

“I really don't think it's gonna be a problem,” Hannity said. “I think you’re dealing with two pros that understand that 90 minutes is a good amount of time to go over a whole variety of issues, and they're both gonna get their fair share of airtime.”

Each governor in the lead-up has been trying to monopolize their airtime. In recent days, Newsom began airing a TV ad on Hannity’s program that accuses DeSantis of pushing policies that criminalize women and doctors who pursue abortions after six weeks. Click said Newsom was “shocked” when DeSantis accepted Hannity’s invitation. “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,” he said.

DeSantis, appearing on “Fox & Friends,” last week sought to draw Newsom more closely into the 2024 storyline: “He is running a shadow campaign. Even people in his own party are saying that a lot of Democrats want to move Biden out,” DeSantis said. “…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.”

The DeSantis adviser said they pushed in recent weeks to ensure Newsom didn’t wiggle out. “Our goal is to not let him off the hook and make sure the debate happens,” the aide said. Newsom’s team scoffed at the idea that he would drop out.

While largely keeping his distance from the DeSantis-Newsom spats, Hannity didn’t shy away from DeSantis’ charge that Newsom is secretly planning to run next year. After ticking off a list of Newsom’s recent international and out-of-state activity, and gently questioning a reporter who pointed out that only one of the debaters was running in 2024, Hannity ultimately sided with Newsom.

“I’ve known Gavin for a long time and he says he has no plans to do it. He’s been very clear with me when I interviewed him,” Hannity said. “He’s very clear that the next person up to bat would be the vice president, Kamala Harris. I tend to take people at their word.”