How Newsom Is Using the DeSantis Debate To Gear Up for 2028

California governor fundraising off debate to pad national campaign coffers

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Getty Images)
November 30, 2023

The 2024 presidential election is still a year away, but a slew of Democratic governors already appear to be gearing up for 2028. Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer has a federal fundraising committee, Pennsylvania's Josh Shapiro is addressing crowds in New Hampshire, and New Jersey's Phil Murphy took an unannounced trip to Ukraine.

None of those governors, however, have cemented their future presidential aspirations quite like Gavin Newsom. Fresh off a trip to Beijing and a multi-state ad blitz, the California Democrat on Thursday will square off against 2024 Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis in a debate moderated by Fox News's Sean Hannity. While DeSantis hopes the sparring match will help him win over Iowa voters weeks before the Jan. 15 caucuses, political operatives say Newsom is doing the debate with a longer-term goal in mind: catapulting himself to the front of the line come 2028.

Newsom is already fundraising off the debate to pad the coffers of his national fundraising committee, which he launched earlier this year. He has spent most of the $4 million raised in the campaign's first few months on Democratic strategists, nationwide ad buys, and photo-op visits to red states to build his national profile—making him well-positioned to jump into a presidential race at a moment's notice.

The debate comes as Newsom toes a fine line, serving as a President Joe Biden surrogate for the 2024 race while building his national and international profile in what many see as a shadow campaign. His ventures on the broader stage have already cost him support in his home state where his approval ratings have plummeted to an all-time low.

"This is likely as close as Gavin Newsom will get to the presidency in 2024," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow with the conservative Hoover Institution.

The debate, according to Democratic strategists, is a prime way for Newsom to garner national limelight against a Republican and stand out from other young and ambitious Democratic governors like Whitmer, who has formed a federal fundraising campaign, and Shapiro, who spoke at New Hampshire’s Democratic convention in September.

"It’s very smart of Gavin to use DeSantis as a way to catapult ahead of many other Democratic governors," said Bob Mulholland, a longtime California Democratic operator who calls Newsom the "future" of the party.

A Newsom spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. An aide to DeSantis, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the debate, said the Florida governor sees the event as a rare opportunity within the GOP primary to punch left that his Republican opponents won’t have.

The DeSantis camp also noted that Newsom could be the Democratic nominee should Biden drop out of his reelection campaign. Biden has sunk to new lows in the latest polls, igniting panic in the Democratic Party as he bleeds black and Latino voters as well as trust in his handling of the economy. The public increasingly thinks the 81-year-old is too old to run again. On the other hand, 56-year-old Newsom has positioned himself to jump into the race at a moment’s notice with a sophisticated fundraising apparatus and team of consultants.

Newsom is gearing up to lean hard on the culture war, particularly abortion. Last week he released a TV ad in Florida and Washington, D.C., attacking DeSantis’s 6-week abortion ban. The ad, which he narrates, shows a "Wanted" poster featuring the faces of two women and claims DeSantis will send women and their doctors to jail if they get an abortion. Newsom is fundraising off these ads, seeking donations to "help keep them on the air."

Meanwhile, California Republicans are hoping DeSantis will hit Newsom over his longest-in-the-nation school closures and the resulting years-long setback for kids—as well as for shuttering small businesses during the pandemic, in many cases permanently, and presiding over a spike in the cost of living, homelessness, and mounting economic pessimism.

"I think what Gov. DeSantis needs to do is continue to talk about the facts," said Jessica Millan Patterson, chairwoman of the California Republican Party. "Gavin Newsom will use words like ‘fifth largest economy.’ When you’re the fifth-largest economy and only 15 percent of Californians can afford a home here, that is a problem."