For weeks, an exasperated Gavin Newsom warned Democrats they need to more aggressively confront Republicans in the national culture wars he’s convinced his party is losing.
In recent days, the California governor signaled to his team that, for now at least, what they’ve referred to internally as his “Paul Revere” phase has gone far enough. But the warnings turned a whisper campaign into something audible: Is the governor positioning himself for a White House run in 2024?
Newsom has stressed that he isn’t challenging President Joe Biden — either on his stewardship of their party or as a candidate in two years. He’s reminded people that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris separately trekked across the country to stump for him in his recall election. But taken together, the moves have been widely interpreted as a relatively young executive using the specter of a future presidential bid to shine a bright spotlight on himself. And they’ve been enough to elicit early brushbacks from allies of Biden and Harris.
“Everybody is trying to be relevant for the next race. He came through the recall election and he’s doing a pretty good job as governor. However, I think ambition makes people do different things,” said Cedric Richmond, a former senior Biden White House official who recently transitioned to a top role in the Democratic National Committee.
Richmond bristled at suggestions — advanced by Newsom and others — that Democrats aren’t taking the fight to Republicans on abortion and guns, and praised Biden for uniting the West against Ukraine, delivering baby formula and continuing to lead the response to Covid. Assessing the West Wing’s reaction to Newsom, Richmond added, “I am not sure they are reading the Gavin Newsom opinion pages about his desire to be politically relevant.”
Newsom has long centered Republican leaders as foils, using his State of the State speech in March to argue that America is plagued by agents of a “national anger machine” that’s fueling division and weaponizing grievance. Often focusing on Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, Republican governors who revel in making California an example of progressivism run amuck, Newsom argues, the GOP is counting on complacency to erode voting rights, scapegoat minorities, conjure conspiracies and undermine democracy.
But after POLITICO revealed the leaked Supreme Court draft overturning Roe v. Wade, Newsom unloaded on Democrats, asking outside a Planned Parenthood office last month, “Where the hell is my party? Where’s the Democratic Party? … Why aren’t we calling this out? This is a concerted, coordinated effort. And, yes, they’re winning.”
He made similar comments in later interviews.
The governor’s pointed critiques arrived at a particularly vulnerable time for Biden, who is facing renewed questions about his age and confronting a long list of challenges as Democrats prepare for the likelihood of a tough midterms, all while suffering from historically weak polling.
“They don’t know if Biden is going to run or not,” John Morgan, a prominent Biden bundler and attorney from Orlando, Fla., said of Newsom and other potential presidential candidates. “They are thinking, ‘I don’t know if I am going to be at the swim meet or not, but I am going to put my bathing suit on anyway.’”
“He looks like a million dollars,” Morgan added of Newsom. “And he looks at the Democratic bench and he doesn’t see anyone sitting there, so he says, ‘I am going to sit there.’”
Newsom’s remarks outside the Planned Parenthood office surprised even some on his own team. More recently, he’s tried to steer attention away from inside his own ranks and toward Republicans themselves. In a sit-down with The Atlantic, he keyed in on Republican efforts to curb reproductive and voting rights, ban books and limit how teachers instruct about race and their targeting of LGBTQ rights, including Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Fellow California Democrats say he’s not trying to create a youthful contrast with Biden so much as make the affirmative case for Democratic governance.
“Our state is coming roaring back and we’re looking at the rest of the country and saying, ‘What the heck are you people thinking?’” California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis said. “We have all the tools as a nation and we have to get it together. And California is the best model to combat climate change, protect a woman’s right to choose, sensible gun control and investing in education.”
Facing no serious threat in his fall reelection, Newsom is now planning to do what he demanded of fellow Democrats: directly engage with Republicans in those culture wars. His most attention-grabbing idea so far is one he pitched staff on his own. He joined Truth Social, Trump’s social media platform, where he’s since gone after the GOP on red state murder rates. The governor’s team also has discussed going on Fox News, with one adviser arguing that for Newsom, “it’s about the feeling we’re getting our asses kicked; that the Trumpers are owning the libs and we have to get into the fighting mode and make this a choice.”
Added another person close to Newsom: “He resents that shit [and] wants to push back on that narrative because he has the facts on his side.”
Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who helped give Newsom his start in politics in the mid-90s, said he was merely “telling it like it is.”
“He is literally echoing what lots of us think: Our party doesn’t have a message that’s registering with voters,” Brown said.
While Newsom tends to eschew the Sunday shows, believing that statewide officials are often put in the uncomfortable position of punditizing on national events, he recognizes that doing them has the benefit of boosting his reputation in the state, a person familiar said. His spokesperson Anthony York said he’s trying to help people “connect some of those dots” around GOP efforts in the states and before the Supreme Court. But, York added of the critiques of Democrats, “you can only do that so many times.”
The subtext of Newsom’s latest moves, however, is that he is the rare Democrat in an enviable position. After soundly beating back the recall, Newsom is sitting on a record state budget surplus and had more than $25 million in his campaign accounts. His U.S. Senate and state attorney general appointees will keep their seats; the state is bouncing back from the pandemic; he’s preparing to sign a raft of gun control bills — including one modeled after Texas’ new abortion law allowing people to sue healthcare providers — and he’s helping lead the fight around abortion rights to a state constitutional amendment on the fall ballot.
With no real fall campaign, his team has talked about turning him into a one-man tourism bureau, traveling to landmarks and far-flung corners and urging Americans to spend their travel dollars there. The side effect of such freedom is that it sparks a lot of chatter about larger political ambition. And though the governor’s allies downplay such talk, a longtime Newsom friend described him as appearing “unshackled from any expectations.”
“He’s on the mountaintop,” the friend said. “Now, there’s of course a question of what the next mountain will be. But he’s going to be governor for another four years. He’s in the job he always wanted. He has no reason to be timid at his age or at this stage in his life.”
Few in Newsom’s orbit at the moment think he would challenge Biden in 2024 — though some are now operating on the assumption the president won’t run. If Biden does, indeed, bow out, Newsom would be unlikely to take on Harris. But if her candidacy appeared weak, it would not be unthinkable.
The vice president bombed in the last presidential campaign, and many Democrats, nervous about her prospects as a nominee, are already pining for potential alternatives. Harris’ standing — and Biden’s — may only deteriorate after a midterm election in which Democrats are bracing for widespread losses.
Already, Harris’ orbit has taken notice. Bakari Sellers, a Democrat close to the vice president who served as a top surrogate for her in 2020, said that Newsom is “no threat to the VP for anything she decides or wants to do. But you have to tread lightly because Joe Biden is still president of the United States and Joe Biden is running again in 2024.”
“An older guy once told me you don’t want to fly too close to the sun,” Sellers added. “I like what Newsom is doing, but I don’t want him to be Icarus and sometimes he gets too close to the sun.”
And Brown, an early mentor to both Newsom and Harris, told POLITICO he would advise Newsom not to join a presidential field that included Harris. He suspected that would be Newsom’s “natural instinct” as well. “He’s a very careful, precise, candidate,” Brown said.
Members of Newsom’s team, which includes advisers who previously consulted for Harris, largely agree with Brown. Still, a Democratic operative who has spent years batting down suggestions that Newsom and Harris were on an eventual collision course said they aren’t so sure anymore that Newsom would stand down.
One lane that may be available to Newsom would be as a late entrant into a Democratic primary, either in 2024 if Biden does not run again, or in 2028 — waiting in either scenario to see first if Harris somehow opts out or stumbles. By waiting, he would avoid a direct confrontation with Harris while presenting himself as an alternative.
“If it’s a wide-open race, I think he can come in late and be competitive,” said Danielle Cendejas, a California-based Democratic strategist.
Still, like most California Democrats, she is skeptical of Newsom’s prospects. For as many Democrats as live in California, the state is a perennial punching bag for much of the rest of the country. Harris, the last viable presidential candidate from the state, imploded so quickly she dropped out before the Iowa caucuses. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, after traveling the country for months mulling a presidential campaign, elected not to run.
“I don’t see it,” Cendejas said. “It is hard to see that the timing is right for someone like Newsom.”
If he does run, Newsom would immediately join the ranks of credible, upper-tier contenders — a proven vote-getter with a large donor list and connections to Democratic Party heavyweights in organized labor, Silicon Valley and in Hollywood. At 54, he is young in presidential terms. And in November he will almost certainly cruise to a second term, pulling more votes — if last year’s failed recall election is any indication — than the whole populations of many states.
“He’s got a huge constituency because he’s the governor of the most populous state,” said James Carville, the former Bill Clinton strategist. “He’s got an enormous fundraising base and a lot of delegates there.”
However, Carville said, “One thing we do know, and pretty conclusively, is that the most important voting bloc in picking a Democratic nominee are southern Blacks. And the question for Gov. Newsom is, is that going to travel?”
Given California’s relatively small Black population — standing at less than 7 percent — Carville said, “I’ll take a wait and see attitude.”
Newsom has a history of rankling his own party dating back to his days as San Francisco mayor. In 2004, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein suggested Newsom’s issuance of gay marriage licenses gave conservatives an issue to rally around in that year’s presidential campaign.
But while Newsom may be a risk-taker, he’s not politically suicidal. Nor does he lack an antenna. In 2009, he abandoned his campaign for California governor months before the primary, after it became clear that former Gov. Jerry Brown would win. Instead, he sought the office of lieutenant governor and was elected governor in 2018 when Brown left after serving four nonconsecutive terms.
“There are worse things than being governor of the largest state in America,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who advised Newsom in the run-up to 2010. “It’s not like he’s the governor of Wyoming or Rhode Island.”
He said, “I have no idea what’s going on in Newsom’s head, but I know the guy pretty well. … Frankly, I’ve never got the feeling from him that he was just dying to run for president.”