California Governor Gavin Newsom speaking with participants at a September Climate Commitment press conference in Vallejo, CA.Photo by Sheila Fitzgerald, Shutterstock
By ALEXEI KOSEFF
The prospect of an eventual presidential campaign has trailed Gavin Newsom like a shadow for decades — even before he ever became a politician.
With his re-election on Nov. 8 all but assured by an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate and a massive fundraising advantage, Newsom has practically ignored his Republican opponent for months, turning his attention instead to passing abortion protections, defeating a tax on the wealthiest Californians and picking fights with the GOP governors of Texas and Florida.
His increasingly national profile, which includes an appearance last month at a political festival in Texas and helping to raise money for embattled Democratic candidates across the country, has fanned speculation that Newsom is laying the groundwork to run for president — at some point, anyway — despite his repeated protestations that he has “sub-zero interest” in the job.
It has become a favorite line of attack for state Sen. Brian Dahle, the Republican gubernatorial hopeful fighting an uphill battle against Newsom, who couldn’t stop bringing it up during their sole debate on Sunday.
“You all know he’s running for president of the United States. It’s obvious,” Dahle told reporters following the event. “He’s spending money in other states. He’s not focused on California, and Californians are suffering. And I think it’s going to hurt his campaign.”
While Newsom pledged during the debate to serve the full four-year term if reelected, he brushed past Dahle’s swipes and ignored a question about them during a brief gathering with reporters afterwards.
So all that’s clear at this point is that Newsom’s intentions remain unclear. His political aides and advisors continue to insist that his forceful pronouncements of disinterest in the presidency are entirely genuine, though some privately acknowledge that the notion he could credibly run is becoming more real to him.
And his frequent diversions beyond California’s borders in recent months — airing a television ad in Florida in July warning that “freedom is under attack” by Republican leaders, publishing newspaper ads in Texas weeks later to criticize Gov. Greg Abbott’s policies on abortion and guns, renting billboards in six conservative states last month to publicize California’s new government-funded abortion access website — have begun to catch the attention of party activists and political consultants whose support Newsom would need to build out a national campaign.
Bob Shrum, director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, said that Newsom has emerged as a national leader for Democrats, positioning himself well should he ultimately want to run for president.
“You don’t build a brand overnight. You build it over time,” said Shrum, a veteran adviser of numerous presidential campaigns, including Democratic nominees Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. “You can’t time any of this perfectly, because you can’t know what the future is going to bring. So when you have an opportunity to assert a degree of national leadership, then you assert it.”
A Campaign Behind the Campaign
Of course, Newsom still has another gubernatorial election to win first.
But running now for the third time in four years, Newsom is barely breaking a sweat, displaying little concern for his chances of holding onto the governor’s office for a second term. Since the June primary, when he received 56% of the vote, Newsom has hardly even acknowledged Dahle outside of their Sunday debate, a low-wattage affair that aired on the radio opposite NFL football.
A year after he decisively defeated a recall attempt by more than 20 percentage points, the same margin by which he was first elected in 2018, polls show Newsom cruising to another easy victory in November. A survey released earlier this month by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found Newsom leading Dahle 53% to 32% among likely voters.
So the governor’s attention and campaign resources have, perhaps understandably, been elsewhere.
Newsom went on TV in September as the face of the opposition to Proposition 30, an initiative that would tax income above $2 million to fund electric vehicle incentives and infrastructure. He also recently paid for an ad promoting Proposition 1, a measure to add a guaranteed right to abortion into the state constitution.
Mostly, Newsom seems far more engaged with national issues and audiences, particularly since May, when a draft of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion leaked. His complaint about a lackluster Democratic response — “Where the hell is my party?” he asked at the time — immediately made Newsom a voice for frustrated liberals who want their leaders to stand up more forcefully against Republicans. He has leaned into that indignation ever since.
In one week in September, Newsom attended a climate conference in New York, where he bashed Texas’ GOP Gov. Abbott for “doubling down on stupid” with his commitment to fossil fuels, and then spoke at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, where he slammed Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis as a “bully” for threatening to fine the Special Olympics for its coronavirus vaccination requirement.
Newsom and his aides insist that he is merely trying to shift attention to issues that are critical to Democratic voters and to put the Republican Party on the defensive, rather than raise his own profile to bolster a future presidential bid.
No one seriously expects Newsom to challenge President Biden should he seek re-election in 2024. But their relationship has appeared to cool in recent months. After reports that Biden allies were irked by Newsom’s leap into the culture wars over the summer, the president endorsed a farmworker unionization bill that Newsom opposed, helping to jam the governor into signing it anyway. Newsom was noticeably absent when Biden visited California this month.
Speaking to reporters in Sacramento in early October, a rare session with the Capitol press corps this year, Newsom said that his experience with the recall election, when state and national GOP figures rallied around the attempt to oust him, had uniquely equipped him to push back on what he characterized as Republicans’ divisive politics.
“So I understand the toxicity of the national discourse, in a way perhaps a lot do but in a more personal way, perhaps, than many,” he said. “I think it’s incredibly important to assert ourselves and to push back and to meet this moment head-on and not be naive about how ruthless the other side is.”
‘The introduction to the dance’
There is an enduring pull toward the White House for California governors, even as none besides Ronald Reagan, who won in 1980 on his second try, has ever come close.
In the past century, Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren and Pat Brown each made multiple unsuccessful bids for president. Arnold Schwarzenegger coveted the job, but was ineligible because he was not born in the United States. The last California governor to run, Pete Wilson in 1995, dropped out before the first primary, hamstrung by poor fundraising and a throat surgery that left him unable to speak for months.
“That’s what politicians do. They’re always moving, in one form or another,” former Gov. Jerry Brown, who made three unsuccessful bids for the Democratic nomination between 1976 and 1992, said in a 2020 oral history of his career. “Anybody who’s running for governor is thinking about being president. Why not?”
Brown said that running from California was a challenge, because candidates need to be relevant to the East Coast, where so many voters are located. One of his mistakes, he said, was not taking more of a national orientation during his first governorship and not selling his story harder to the media outside California.
“If you want to be their leader, you’ve got to be around and familiarize yourself,” he said. “You can spend a lot of money, but the belief that resides in the voters, the pre-existing belief, determines a great deal.”
But Sean Walsh, a veteran Republican political consultant who worked on Wilson’s presidential campaign, said there are potential advantages for a California governor who plays it right. Politicians, their staff and their donors are constantly coming to the state to raise money, he noted, an opportunity to create connections and loyalty with people across the country who could aid a future run.
“You need to have relationships with the movers and shakers in those states,” Walsh said. “That’s the introduction to the dance. It’s the ticket.”
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