In last night’s Fox News debate with Gavin Newsom, Ron DeSantis tried to burnish his supposedly unique brand: a culture warrior who can actually deliver. Though billed as a clash between “red state” and “blue state”, this debate was equally an opportunity for the Florida governor to try to recapture some of the promise that once made him a favourite for the GOP nomination.
In the Republican debates so far, DeSantis has often seemed aloof, and avoided mixing it up with his primary rivals on stage. He threw that away in his bout with Newsom. Instead he jabbed and lunged, at one point recalling how Newsom’s own father-in-law had told him that “Florida is much better governed, safer, better budget, lower taxes,” and so forth. He responded to Newsom’s criticisms with his own counterattacks. The crosstalk could at times come quite heavy, but it sent a clear message: this DeSantis is a fighter.
Topics that played a significant role in DeSantis’s ascent returned, especially coronavirus and education. DeSantis trumpeted his own efforts to reopen schools during the pandemic and hammered the populist point that school closures hit “working-class kids” particularly hard. He and Newsom brawled over parental rights and educational policy. In a clearly premeditated stunt, DeSantis unfolded a sexually explicit page from the graphic memoir Gender Queer (with some parts strategically blacked out) that he said can be found in some California public schools. “This is pornography,” he said, “It’s cartoons. It’s aimed at children. And it’s wrong.”
DeSantis came prepared with another handout, too. Amidst a discussion of crime policy, he pulled out a map covered in a collage of earth tones and said, “This is an app where they plot the human faeces that are found on the streets of San Francisco.”
This showmanship has worked before. DeSantis’s face-offs with Charlie Crist in 2022 often featured cultural controversies and coronavirus disputes — and he went on to win re-election by a landslide. And the original DeSantis strategy had framed him against the extremes of social progressivism, simultaneously mobilising the conservative grassroots and appealing to a number of middle-of-the-road voters (who are also wary of the cultural-Left vanguard). DeSantis’s re-election victory was about much more than those battles, but it did demonstrate how a Republican could win big by not shying away from cultural issues.
Clips from the debate are already circulating on social media. DeSantis’s team will hope that they could reach viral status and help break through the noise. In a primary campaign that has been defined by Donald Trump, the only hope DeSantis (or any other challenger) has for displacing the former president is to create the sense of being a distinctive alternative.
Slashing Newsom on Covid, crime, and culture is a good way of reminding the conservative base why DeSantis became their grassroots hero in the first place. And, based on last night’s showing, DeSantis has good reason to hope he is still enough of a spectacle to convince some Republican voters to turn over from the Trump Show to another channel.