Sparks flew behind the scenes at the Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom debate

Sparks flew behind the scenes at the Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom debate
Sparks flew behind the scenes at the Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom debate

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom were apparently having so much fun debating each other Thursday night that they decided to keep it going longer than planned.

After roughly 90 minutes, Fox News host Sean Hannity, who was the event’s moderator, said that while they had to wrap up, he had more time on his show and plenty more questions.

“Let’s just do an extended hour. I’m happy to do it,” Newsom said.

Just before going to commercial break, Hannity teased out that the debate would continue: “We will take a break. They have agreed to stay. Well, that’s I guess the debate on the fly. We’ll continue on the other side and later have live post-debate coverage.”

But the debate didn’t continue. After the break, Hannity said the candidates had to leave for “other commitments.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis debate on a screen during a watch party at Manny's on Nov. 30, 2023 in San Francisco.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis debate on a screen during a watch party at Manny’s on Nov. 30, 2023 in San Francisco.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Behind the scenes, the atmosphere was far less jovial. The matchup was between two governors on opposite sides of the spectrum who have long used each other as foils, and while DeSantis is currently running for president, he is trailing behind former President Trump in the Republican primary by large margins. So the debate also offered a preview of a 2028 debate between two potential opponents.

What the audience didn’t see — and what at least five sources shared with NBC News — is that off-screen, there were significant disagreements happening. The DeSantis and Newsom teams were both arguing that the other side was breaking the rules that were agreed upon in advance — particularly keeping distance between the candidates and their guests.

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According to four sources in the DeSantis camp — one who witnessed the moment in the room and three others who were standing backstage (where there was no press or live studio audience) — Newsom’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, came into the debate room on at least two occasions to raise some objections.

She also made her way to the stage during the break after the candidates agreed to extend the debate and put an end to it.

A fifth source on the ground, unaffiliated with either campaign, confirmed that Siebel Newsom ended the debate on her husband’s behalf, saying, “We’re done.”

“Gavin Newsom got beat so badly last night his wife literally had to throw in the towel for him. It was embarrassing,” DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo said.

One of Siebel Newsom’s complaints centered around DeSantis’ mention of her father. DeSantis claimed that he told him he moved from California to Florida because it was better governed.

A Newsom aide denied that Siebel Newsom was the reason the debate ended and said that the decision not to keep going with the debate was mutual, saying that staffers from both teams complained to producers when Hannity tried to extend it.

In his spin room after the debate, Newsom told reporters that they didn’t keep it going longer because “everyone started panicking on both sides” as each candidate “had some place to be.”

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The Newsom source also accused DeSantis of having several conversations with a staffer and his wife, Casey DeSantis, that were shut down by Fox only after a staffer for Newsom complained. (A Fox spokesperson denied having to step in on this matter.) The person said Casey DeSantis entered the debate room at least twice as well.

And they said that DeSantis had a teleprompter in his line of sight that showed the questions Hannity would be asking, while Newsom did not have the same advantage.

A Fox News spokesperson denied this saying neither candidate was able to see any of the debate questions, either before or during the debate.

Newsom’s team also took issue with DeSantis’ use of props — a couple of images he held up during the debate — saying that those had been barred in advance.

A Fox spokeperson told NBC News that the word “props” was never discussed ahead of the debate. The rules simply stated that neither side could use a multimedia production.

Newsom spokesman Nathan Click suggested that Hannity at various points throughout the night attempted to tip the scales in DeSantis’ favor.

“As DeSantis did worse and worse, Sean Hannity tried harder and harder to rehabilitate him,” Click said, adding, “Gavin Newsom crushed Ron DeSantis deep on his home turf.”

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