By JOHN WOOLFOLK, Bay Area News Group
Yes, of course, Gov. Gavin Newsom is running for re-election. But after he trounced his nearest competitor by nearly 40 points in Tuesday’s California primary, could he have something loftier on his mind? Like running for president?
“He would be a very serious candidate if he ran,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Less than 45 minutes after polls closed Tuesday, the governor’s post-primary tweets focused on Republicans across the country “attacking our fundamental rights as Americans” — not state Sen. Brian Dahle, the Lassen County farmer he will face in the general election.
Newsom won the governor’s office four years ago by the biggest margin in California history and is likely headed for another landslide this fall over a little-known Republican, even as fellow Democrats nationally are expected to take a beating in congressional mid-terms with President Joe Biden deeply unpopular.
So it’s natural to wonder, given that the Golden State has produced presidents in former Gov. Ronald Reagan and former Vice President Richard Nixon, whether Newsom might be a viable White House contender.
Last month, Newsom told the San Francisco Chronicle he won’t challenge Joe Biden for re-election, that Vice President Kamala Harris should be the party’s next presidential nominee and that he intends to complete his terms as governor. But circumstances may yet present an opening.
Newsom has signaled interest in the national political stage, publicly sparring with his Republican counterparts in Florida and Texas over pandemic management, abortion and gun restrictions. He recently suggested Democrats were too timid in responding to the U.S. Supreme Court poising to overturn abortion rights.
At 54, Newsom has time to choose an opportune moment to run. But it’s hard to imagine a bigger political stage than the one he’s on now as governor of America’s most populous state from which to springboard into a national campaign. He’s already demonstrated the ability to raise the vast sums needed to vie for California’s highest office, with more than $23 million on hand after spending $5 million in the primary.
“He’s got a fantastic base — 10% of the national population — and massive amounts of money available to him,” Sabato said.
So what might get Newsom into the presidential race? First, he’d need an opening. The term he’s expected to win this fall runs through 2026. Biden has said he’ll seek re-election in 2024 with Harris again as his running mate.
Harris would be heir apparent to run after Biden’s second term 2028, and should she win, she’d seek re-election in 2032. She and Newsom have been political allies with many of the same backers, making a direct run against her problematic even if he wanted to try it.
“I don’t even want to entertain anyone other than Biden and Harris,” said Amelia Ashley Ward, publisher of San Francisco’s oldest Black newspaper, the Sun-Reporter, and an ardent Harris supporter, noting Harris’ “support from women, women of color, African-American women.”
“As long as President Biden and Vice President Harris are in the picture, we’re keeping our eyes on that prize,” she said. “We didn’t come this far to back down.”
Realistically, for Newsom to even consider a run in two years, Biden and Harris likely would have to decline to run — something that would be extraordinary on the level of President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election in 1968 amid mounting Vietnam War outrage.
SAN LEANDRO, CA – SEPTEMBER 8: Vice President Kamala Harris and California Governor Gavin Newsom wave to supporters after Vice President Harris spoke at an anti-recall rally in San Leandro, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
But that hasn’t stopped people from speculating about the possibility, including in a Washington Post analysis in April that listed Newsom among potential Democratic contenders who could step into the fray.
It was based off a YouGov Yahoo! News Survey in late February in which only 22% said Biden should seek re-election. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaners, Harris and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were the preferred alternative for 14% each, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for 9%, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren for 8%, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York for 6% and Newsom for just 4%.
Washington Post analyst Aaron Blake said that despite Newsom’s crushing electoral victories, “how he’d wear on voters outside the Golden State is a big question” as he “practically exudes ‘West Coast liberal.’”
Sabato didn’t see that as a deal-killer, noting that in today’s primaries, candidates who appeal to the parties’ bases tend to get the nomination.
“He’s not too far to the left for the people who nominate candidates,” Sabato said.
Newsom isn’t well known nationally, Sabato said, but that could work in his favor.
“If anything, it’s a plus,” Sabato said. “He doesn’t have too many negatives. He can shape his own image.”
But here in the Golden State, Claremont McKenna College political science professor Jack Pitney isn’t so bullish on Newsom’s presidential stock. He attributes his landslide victories more to weak Republican rivals than Newsom’s appeal to voters.
Pitney also noted that outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — arguably with a more compelling biography as a Rhodes Scholar with Hispanic and Jewish heritage and service in the U.S. Navy — explored a 2020 presidential run and concluded it wasn’t in the cards for him.
“It’s hard to see what Newsom brings that would make him stand out in the Democratic field,” Pitney said.
Dahle, who topped a list of 25 competitors for the chance to challenge Newsom in November, portrays the governor as an elite liberal out of touch with ordinary Californians suffering from high taxes and costs and water shortages while Newsom’s criminal justice reforms surrender urban streets to vagrants and thieves.
But Californians have heard that for years. Longtime political analyst Dan Schnur said Newsom is “a likely national candidate at some point in the future.”
“An easy re-election gives him an opportunity to road test some messaging that he’d be able to use in front of Democratic voters in other states,” Schnur said. “George W. Bush used his re-election as governor of Texas in 1998 to try out his ‘compassionate conservative’ message before he ran for president. Newsom is already doing the same thing.”
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Citizens Journal